Wednesday, October 31, 2012

There and Back Again

(HT: Keith Allison
This is not about Michigan. The person above does not play for Michigan. This is only tangentially related to Michigan. This post is not about Michigan football or basketball. Okay. 

The Chicago Bulls will take the United Center floor tonight to take on the Sacramento Kings. The lights will go down, the bulls will run, and Tommy Edwards will announce the starting lineup. From a lonely corner in the United Center or from a couch at home, Derrick Rose will look on, hearing Kirk Hinrich's (or Nate Robinson's) name called instead of his own. Perhaps he will watch as he works, sweat dotting the floor of a fluorescently lit workout room, little archipelagos revealing a constantly changing map of resurrection. 

On April 28, Rose went down clutching his knee near the end of Game 1 during the Bulls' first round series against Philadelpha. It was a movement and a response that sports fans have seen many times before. An unseen ligament tears, an unheard pop sounds, revealing itself only to the ear-space of the player in question, and a hush reigns. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the athlete's knee is that soul's infrastructural binding. Lacking structural integrity, the rest falls apart in a pile of rubble and a cloud of dust. Fellows in hard hats and stethoscopes poke and prod and survey: what went wrong here? We thought this was sound, and our faith is shaken, for how could anything be sound after this?

When Denard Robinson went down Saturday, it was a familiar feeling; he had gone down and gotten up before. When it became clear that he would not return to the field, even while Michigan flailed away on offense for the rest of the game, I felt comfortable knowing that he would likely be back next week or the week after. All was lost Saturday, but it seemed--seems--a self-contained event on a microscopic event. Denard has taken the intermittent slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and stood back up each time, eventually. 

When Rose went down, there was no such feeling of assurance, no hopeful reasoning, no sense of immediate return. 

With the Bulls up 12 with a little over a minute to go, Rose held the ball at the top of the key, the point on the floor where all things are possible. He jabbed left and executed his exaggerated jump stop into the lane, seemingly covering the distance between Chicago and Springfield in one thrilling maneuver. 

"Holding on to his knee, holding on to his knee and down."

Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah ran to the place of the fallen. Rose had gone up after the jump stop, perhaps ready to knock in yet another one of his patented tear drop shots. Upon reaching the highest point of his ascent, the realization hit: no. He dished the ball to out to Boozer. He didn't take the shot. 

At that point, it was clear what had happened. The season was over. A low frequency white noise lorded over this spot of the floor, contained within the United Center in a sort of greenhouse effect. The fumes of that hush are trapped by the United Center ceiling, bouncing off of rafters and banners in hopes of escape, only to slowly return to the locus of its origin. This reactant noise has nowhere to go, and so it suffocates everything in sight. 

The players, coaches and fans looked on, breathing in the fumes of the end. 

With the end comes a beginning. The Bulls begin the 2012 campaign back at home Wednesday, with the starting lineup returning mostly unchanged. Boozer, Noah, and Luol Deng return at their respective spots. Richard Hamilton returns as well, looking to acquit himself much better than he did last year during his debut season in Chicago. 

Even one of the Bulls' "new" faces, Kirk Hinrich, is a familiar player, having played for the Bulls for seven seasons after being drafted out of Kansas in 2003. The Bulls also signed 5-foot-9-inch Nate Robinson, who, despite enjoying a surprisingly successful preseason, has had a career that doesn't necessarily scream reliability. 

On the other hand, the Bulls' so called "Bench Mob" was gutted. With players like the sharp-shooting Kyle Korver, the towering Turkish defensive stalwart Omer Asik, reliable utility guy Ronnie Brewer, and backup point guards C.J. Watson and John Lucas III all moving on for various reasons* --contractual or otherwise--the Bulls are left with an increasingly precarious imbalance, one that existed even when Rose was healthy.

Most importantly, all signs point toward Rose's absence continuing well into the new season, if not throughout its entirety. Many assume that Rose will return at some point this season, giving the Bulls the push they need to either acquire a respectable seed in a weak Eastern Conference or, more pessimistically, to propel the Bulls into the playoffs, period. 

These iterations of the Chicago Bulls and the Wolverine football team are not so dissimilar. Both subsist on grinding defense, a Gradgrindian execution that stems from a monomaniacal obsession at the top with that side of the ball. Tom Thibodeau paces the sidelines, always on the precipice of losing his voice as he barks his orders like a commander at Helm's Deep attempting to fend off the malevolent hordes of Evil. Greg Mattison paces, chewing gum like someone who has done this thing many times before and gesticulating when necessary, all the while thinking that this is not good enough, no matter how good this is. 

Offensively, both are a paradoxical solution of modesty and pyrotechnics. These teams are the guy that goes to work at his modest, ordinary office every week in a suit and tie and then goes to rock concerts on the weekends in war paint. Whether out of necessity or a subdued internal raison d'etre that occasionally escapes its cage, these teams rely on one man to make it all happen; they are the marshmallows in your Lucky Charms. 

These are modest offenses that do rational things like running plays or sets while also knowing, deep down, that these attempts at an imposition of order are as ephemeral as a sand castle built dangerously close to shore. 

You call a play and the pocket falls apart, and so he goes. You run a set, and the clock is at 7. You swing it back around and say go. Don't worry about the particulars, you'll say, for you know them better than I ever could. 

These teams, in a sense, are a case study in the different shades of loss, both heartbreaking, simultaneously continuous and continual. You forget about the loss, but it's always there. With Denard, it is a latent sort of dread. It happens, and then it's okay. But it could happen again. 

With Rose, the Fates decided to snip the string in one motion rather than opting for a gradual defraying of the line. Even more discouragingly, the end of the journey, if there is one, does not even promise a return to the same place at which Rose started. After all, even when Odysseus returned home, things were no longer the same. Things were very different. 

*I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the departure of one Brian Scalabrine, the greatest player in the history of basketball
How the season unfolds for this Bulls team is anybody's guess. Preseason predictions have exhibited a range of opinion bridged by a roiling chasm of Unknown, where potential outcomes pop up and disappear like little volcanic pockets of inflamed earth. 

The Bulls have enough to hang on; after all, they were 18-9 last season without Rose, albeit with a much different roster and a superior bench. However, one thing stands undisputed: the Bulls are not going anywhere near a title without a healthy Rose. Likewise, the Wolverines will not reach the conference championship game or the Rose Bowl without the compliance of the network of nerves within Denard Robinson's arm. 

Gain and loss, loss and gain. These are the components of life, and, to a less meaningful extent, sport. As the Bulls season begins and Team 133 forges on, these elements, always linked no matter how disparate they may seem, will form the chassis of the future. 

Of course, something sits in between these two elements, a derivative sub-element that connects and binds. There is a third element: reaction. Everything in life is a response to gain and loss in some way, and nowhere in the world of sports is that more true than in Chicago and Ann Arbor, right now. 

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