It is more than two hours before tip-off, and I have come to Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, along with lots of other armchair physicians, for a medical consult, to offer an unsolicited second opinion. The patient is Derrick Rose, the Bulls' brilliant but sidelined point guard, whose torn ACL in his left knee, suffered 11 months ago, appears to have healed to everyone's satisfaction but his own.
My examination on this evening in mid-March consists of studying Rose as he goes through rigorous drills before Chicago's game against the Kings. Most of his teammates are still in the locker room as he takes passes from assistant coach Ron Adams and glides to the basket for double-pumping reverse layups. He drives into the paint and repeatedly jumps off the surgically repaired leg to loft teardrop runners into the net. He lifts easily and impressively to shoot threes from a foot or two behind the arc, so many of them that droplets of sweat flick off his wrists on his release. He mutters "Are you serious?" to himself when he misses a few in a row.
In my expert medical opinion, Rose seems in no way limited by his knee. And I am, after all, an M.D. of sorts—or more accurately an M.D. of sports. Don't we all think of ourselves that way? Here's a tip for all of you students taking out six-figure loans to pay for med school: There's a free medical education waiting in every arena and stadium. As fans, we are not just immersed in games and statistics but also news of microfracture surgeries and platelet-rich-plasma therapies. Because of sports, I know my metacarpals (Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love has a couple of broken ones in his hand) from my metatarsals (grizzled Knicks big man Rasheed Wallace fractured one in his foot), my plantar fasciitis (Spurs guard Gary Neal, Padres infielder Logan Forsythe) from my patellar tendinitis (Tigers outfielder Quintin Berry).
I track the damage and repair to athletes' bodies so fully that I feel like a walking WebMD. The lingo creeps into my everyday life. My kid comes home sick at lunchtime, and I'm inclined to call the school and report that he's questionable for the second half. I notice my neighbor limping slightly and think, Probable meniscus tear. Arthroscopic knee surgery. Two to three weeks on the disabled list.
And so when Rose offered more generalities about his recovery last week—"I'm waiting till that day when I feel normal," he said—it seemed so unsatisfying to me as a, you know, medical man. Let others worry about whether there is tension between Rose and the Bulls' brain trust—the team's doctors cleared him to play two weeks ago—or whether his brother Reggie gave voice to Derrick's true feelings when Reggie called out the Bulls for failing to upgrade their talent at the trade deadline. Talk to me about Adrian Peterson, who tore his ACL and MCL and was back on the field and better than ever for the Vikings just nine months later. Talk to me about Iman Shumpert of the Knicks, who suffered the same injury as Rose on the very same day, and he returned in January. I mean, it's all right there in the literature.
Maybe that's why Rose's reluctance to return seems so baffling to so many. We're so well-versed in the medical that we've forgotten the importance of the mental. There is no arthroscopic procedure that can remove the perfectionist in Rose. It's not how normal he looks that matters to him, it's how normal he feels. Sometimes a performance that satisfies the scientist in us isn't good enough for the artist.
Back on the court, I continue to observe as a member of the Bulls' training staff offers Rose token defense for some one-on-one. Rose buckles the young man's knees with a stunning crossover, head-fake, pullback move. "That's not fair, D-Rose!" assistant coach Adrian Griffin yells from a few feet away. Then, to no one in particular, Griffin says, "Looks like he's getting his timing back." With the playoffs approaching and Chicago fewer than four games removed from the second seed, the Bulls are quick to offer any encouragement that might speed Rose's return. "We just have to keep being patient," coach Tom Thibodeau said last Friday. "Each day he feels a little better, and that's all we're worried about. When he's ready, he'll let us know."
The crowd around the court has grown to a few hundred as game time nears, and the fans are watching closely as Rose winds down his workout. He finishes by starting just beyond the top of the key, taking a few dribbles and rising, again off the left leg, toward the rim where he slams down his first dunk of the evening. He goes back and tries another, but misses this time as the ball catches too much of the front rim. On his third try Rose jams it easily. He heads for the locker room moments later, expressionless and drenched in sweat. The rumors that he will make his return, perhaps as soon as this week, seem all the more plausible.
He disappears to the sounds of cheering, having passed a few thousand more eye tests. My second opinion is that Rose is fit and ready. But every now and then doctors need to be reminded that it is the patient who makes the final decision.