Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Requiem for a Rose

Some things are expected, yet strike with the force of the unexpected.

For me, today's news of the trade of Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks is one such example of that paradox: the surprising inevitability.

With each injury, each game missed for injuries, each column penned about the player who came to be called "General Soreness" more frequently than he was called "former MVP," the Rose era wilted, petal by petal, revealing only thorns.

That era began with something unexpected: the Bulls only had the chance to keep the Englewood native home by winning the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. The Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance of getting that top pick, but by a fortuitous bounce of fate, the rose bloomed in familiar grounds.

I think it was time to make a move -- if not now, then during the season -- but that doesn't change the fact that this is a bitter moment in the history of the franchise.

Scott Skiles coached the Bulls to their first playoff appearances since Michael Jordan's final season with the Bulls in 1997-98. But those Skiles teams weren't true threats in any sense of the word -- Ben Gordon was a fun player to watch when he got hot, but otherwise those squads lacked any sort of starpower.

That changed when Rose joined the roster in 2008-09. The Bulls went 41-41 after missing the playoffs the previous year and took the Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series. Behind only Gordon, Rose averaged 19.7 points per game.

The next year, 2009-10, marked the Rose Bulls' first meeting with a nemesis they would never defeat: LeBron James.

The year after that, with James in Miami, the Bulls and James met again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls went 62-20 and were the No. 1 seed in the East, led by Rose's 25.0 ppg and 7.7 assists per game.

That was the season when Rose transformed from the young, exciting player of his first two seasons to the dynamic force of nature he became -- for a short time.

Earlier that season, Rose did this, one of the most memorable -- if not the most memorable -- examples of Rose's upper-echelon explosion, his ability to move from one spot on the floor to the other with impossible speed and quick-twitch precision. With the aid of Stacey's King's exuberance, the play will remain etched in fans' minds for years to come:

What are you doing, Dragic? Did you not get the memo? 

Sadly for Goran Dragic, he did not. And if anyone else hadn't gotten yet, they did then. They certainly did by the end of the season, after Rose was crowned the league MVP at age 22, the youngest player to ever win the award.

In the ECF, the Bulls took Game 1 of the series, before James et al went on to take the next four. Next year, Bulls fans thought, next year will be the year that Rose -- MVP, MVP, MVP, the United Center crowd chants -- and the rest of the Bulls would get past James, like Jordan eventually vanquished the Bad Boy Pistons.

Now, all of that seems so far away. Rose flashed across the Chicago basketball landscape like a comet, only to slowly recede into the distant reaches of the basketball cosmos.


The following season, on April 28, 2012, it happened.

In Game 1 of a first-round series against Philadelphia, a game the Bulls had locked up, Rose jump-stopped powerfully in the lane, like he'd done so many times before.

This time, he didn't bounce back up. With that play, that one moment that started like so many other, he'd never be the same again.

The Bulls went 50-16 during that shortened 2011-12 season, but after Rose's injury, they couldn't even defeat the eighth-seeded 76ers.

Before the injuries, before the coming of age of Jimmy Butler, before the rhetorical missteps with the media, Rose unequivocally was the engine that made the Bulls go (even if one might argue that Joakim Noah was the team's heart and soul).

Enter 2012-13, filled with commercials about The Return.

That season and the offseason preceding 2013-14 offered a steady stream of news bits detailing his efforts to get back.

Finally back on the floor, the Bulls visited Portland Nov. 22, 2013 for their 10th game of the season -- and this time, it was the right knee. It was if the basketball gods, perched somewhere in the rafters up high, slung their arrows of outrageous fortune, aiming for his knees.

He missed 30 games in 2014-15 with various injuries, but come playoff time, the third-seeded Bulls once again were met with none other than LeBron James and Co.

After splitting Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, the Bulls looked to take a series lead in Game 3. Rose had started to look a little better in the first-round series against Milwaukee, rounding into a strong iteration of a post-injury Rose. He couldn't explode like he used to, but he could still get past people, albeit en route to layups instead of dunks.

And for one final time -- at least the last time I can remember -- Rose made the United Center roar.

In classic Rose form, his face remained static as he was boosted off the floor by his teammates, like he was waiting in line at the DMV or flipping through magazines in the doctor's office waiting room.

I remember watching the game at home, raising out of my seat to yell ohhh when the shot kissed off of the glass and in, igniting a frenzy at the building on Madison Street.

Sadly, it would be the last time something Rose did would produce that kind of reaction (The Bulls would go on to lose the next three games, and the series, against Cleveland).

Oddly enough, Rose's 2015-16 was his healthiest, relatively, since before the first injury. Rose played in 66 games. But regular comments about needing to be cautious with his body and preseason comments about playing for his next contract -- with two years then left on his current one -- Bulls fans began to sour on the hometown hero. Admittedly, I became one of them.

Even today, when the news crossed my Twitter feed and friends texted me about it, I'll admit that I not only thought it was the right move, but the necessary one. Better trade him now and get something instead of letting him walk for nothing in free agency, right? He's not the player he once was, one who could lead a team with serious championship aspirations? He's not the former MVP anymore, right, but one who happened to be an MVP once, long ago, in an alternate universe?

All cogent points, I think. The Bulls, whether management will say it or not, have to rebuild. And Rose, who will ask for big money once his contract is up, wouldn't be part of those plans, for the aforementioned reasons.

So, like that, it's over. I wouldn't even say the window has closed on the Bulls' title hopes -- that closed a while ago. Maybe it closed on that April day in 2012.

But as soon as I started thinking more about this as the day went on, I thought about Rose and what he meant to Chicago basketball ... and my initial comfort with the move began to wane.

Honestly, I felt a little guilty for welcoming his departure, even if I thought (and still think) it had to happen.

Sports have a funny way of both obscuring and revealing perspective.

As I sit here, thinking about the rebuilding project ahead, one that will see Rose wearing Knicks orange and blue, it's hard not to be hit with a wave of nostalgia.

The post-Jordan Dark Ages offered up several seasons of truly unwatchable basketball. Players like Eddy Curry, Eddie Robinson, Marcus Fizer, Jay Williams, Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) and so many others marked an era of lost searching; without MJ, the Bulls had lost their sight, ineffectively reaching in the dark.

That all changed with a 1.7 percent chance and the Bulls hitting jackpot. After a one-year career at Memphis, Rose returned to the city that raised him.

And with him, Rose eventually brought a player who could excite fans more than any other player in a Bulls uniform since Jordan. Of course, the Bulls never accomplished with Rose what Jordan accomplished -- not even close. And it would have been ludicrous to have expected such, or even one-hundredth of that.

Nonetheless, Rose brought hope. When he went down, fans were crushed. And when that happened, he worked hard to get back -- not once, but twice, then through the various nagging injuries of varying severity thereafter, including an orbital bone fracture that had him seeing double when shooting the ball to start the 2015-16 season.

What can you say? Like all of us, he wasn't perfect. Sometimes, he said the wrong thing (a problem that could have been easily corrected with a little PR work). Maybe he could have played through certain things. Maybe he could have tried to find a way to make things work with Butler.

But now, in retrospect -- with the barrier of finality in place -- who could blame him for his skittishness? For wanting to preserve himself for a 2015-16 playoff run (one that never came)? For wanting to look out for himself, heading into the final year of his contract, with an opportunity to score one last big contract?

Say he's selfish, say he didn't care about the fans, say he didn't work well with teammates (namely, Jimmy Butler). You could even say that some aspects of his game never really improved, namely his three-point shooting (excluding 2013-14, in which he only played 10 games, his career-best was a 33.2 percent mark in his 2010-11 MVP season). Maybe he never really blossomed into a true point guard, one who was capable of facilitating just as easily as he could run a one-man break and posterize some poor guy.

You can say a lot of things about him. Many of those things even have some truth to them.

But there's also this: Rose had the unenviable task of being the hometown kid, asked to help bring the franchise back to its previous glory.

And for a tantalizingly short period of time, the Bulls were on the precipice of such a return, or even an opportunity to return to some semblance of it -- until events intervened.

The strangest thing of all? I had to double check to make sure, but Rose is only 27 years old. Given all that has happened, I feel like I've followed his career for a lifetime.


Now, fans can only wonder what could have been. What would have happened if he hadn't gotten hurt? Would they have broken through? Would he still be playing in Chicago next season?

We'll never know. But what we do know is this: Rose made the Bulls relevant again.

He put the team on his back, carried it in the crook of his arm, like he carried the ball on lightning-quick takes to the basket -- a galloping running back, a speedy slot receiver, protecting the rock from vulturous defenders.

"Too big, too strong, too fast, too good."

That was Stacey King's usual refrain when Rose made a game-changing play. When Rose was on, that's exactly what he was.

But all things must come to an end. So, when Rose slips past a defender at Madison Square Garden next season and executes a reverse layup to avoid a shot-blocker, instead of lamenting what was lost, I'll remember what was gained.

The crossover, the acceleration, the high-flying dunks. The plays in which Rose seemed to be operating on a higher plane than everyone else on the floor. The low moments don't erase any of that.

I saw him with my own eyes. In his prime, he did things on the floor that very few players donning the Bulls uniform have ever done.

The last rose petal fell to the Chicago earth today. And 40 years from now, in true Chicago fashion, fans will still be talking about Derrick Rose: the MVP, the high-flyer, the Chicago kid.