In Chicago, another high-octane guard is angling to come back from an ACL blow. Derrick Rose may be nine months ahead on the recovery front, but his ETA—well, that remains anyone's guess
Roughly 10 days after surgery on a torn left ACL and MCL, Derrick Rose sat on a training table at the Bulls' practice facility, his knee encased in ice, and opened an 8½-by-11-inch envelope from a third-grade class in Pennsylvania. The contents were predictable—colorful renderings of Rose and heartfelt get-well notes—but the return address was not. Rose grew up in Chicago, played college ball at Memphis and spends much of his summers in L.A. His only obvious connection to the Keystone State was that he happened to have been playing against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the first round of last year's Eastern Conference playoffs when he drove around center Spencer Hawes, made one of his exaggerated jump stops in the lane and felt his knee buckle. As Rose collapsed on the baseline of the United Center, hiding his eyes under a forearm tattooed with the word hope, pain coursed far beyond the South Side.
The NBA seems to unveil a new ballhandling phenom every few months—Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard being the latest—but there was no replacement for Rose, a 6'3" point guard as fearless as a tailback and as flexible as a contortionist, who could freeze a defender with one step, finish over three more and act as if he couldn't be less impressed with himself. Rose won the NBA's MVP in 2011, and the game has missed him pretty much ever since. He sat out 26 games in '11--12 due to assorted ailments, limped off from the playoffs and watched the Olympics on television.
The intrigue and anticipation surrounding Rose's comeback has been at least on par with that of Peyton Manning, who returned from neck rehab last August. Three days after Rose hobbled out of the United Center last April, Adidas started to build a six-episode documentary-style Internet ad series around his rehab, dubbed The Return. Cameras showed the normally introverted guard riding in a wheelchair, walking with a crutch and talking about how he'd cried as he underwent an MRI. "It was almost part of the healing process," says Chris Rivers, an Adidas athlete manager who never went two weeks without seeing Rose in the nine months after the injury.
All six episodes are already online, but still no one seems to know when Rose will actually, you know, return. He started practicing with the Bulls before Christmas. He has been traveling with the team for more than a month. And he is due to take part in five-on-five workouts following All-Star weekend. But Rose told the Chicago Tribune last week that his knee is not yet at full strength, and he suggested that he may miss the entire season. Remember, though, Rose is famous for underestimating himself—at the 2008 Final Four he said he didn't think he was ready for the NBA; two and a half months later the Bulls chose him with the No. 1 pick—and those close to him believe he has regained his explosiveness, in part because he's added nearly 10 pounds of upper-body muscle. "He's never been a huge weightlifter, but that was all he could do [during rehab], and it was a way to compete," says Rob McClanaghan, Rose's longtime trainer. "He's stronger than ever."
Chicago has set no timetable for Rose, but his presence would immediately elevate the team to Finals contention. Despite having the NBA's 27th-ranked offense, the Bulls were 30--22 at the All-Star break because they don't allow others to score, either. Even with a revamped bench, they continue to master head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive system, holding opponents to the third-lowest field goal percentage in the league. Rose could provide exactly what they are missing: points.
The first time he steps back onto the court at the United Center, whenever that may be, the noise will be deafening and the pressure suffocating. But Rose grew up in Chicago, was drafted first by his hometown team and revitalized the Bulls in a way that no one has since Michael Jordan. "He's such a strong kid," says general manager Gar Forman. "Any situation we've seen him in, he's handled it."