CHICAGO - People attend NBA games for wonder, intrigue, diversion and frivolity; I went lately and felt melancholy.
It's ludicrous. Put it this way: Anybody who has sat in a smoggy taxi on a steamy day in Mumbai, and has had a girl of maybe 4 years materialize at the open window making an eating motion with her empty hand, and has handed the girl 100 rupees (about $1.82 as of yesterday), and has looked around to see at least two other taxi drivers at the intersection laughing at the unsuspecting blond Westerner handing the girl the 100 rupees, then has seen the reason as three other children materialize before the light turns …
That person should never be caught sad at an NBA game.
So let's calibrate our tiers of sadness here, but I would stipulate that in all the history of lamentable injuries, the one to Derrick Rose holds some sort of high ranking in overall wrongness. It's nobody's fault but fate's, but his particular fate of last April 28 just feels flat wrong, dead wrong, all kinds of wrong, wrong-wrong-wrong. Injuries do visit every sport, but with a fresh season underway, the Rose injury just leaves the whole United Center seeming woozy, in a manner to which it might not even realize now that it has grown accustomed.
The games, two of which I saw, feel blah, even given a team with a solid roster featuring commendable sorts who try like mad.
People tend to dislike waiting, and this just feels like comprehensive waiting. A 24-year-old guard from the South Side with a commanding physical presence and a considerable heart and an adidas ad campaign -- the one in which the city goes still upon his injury qualifies as brilliant -- ends up as a sort of friendly ghost, always lurking in mind, in absentia. They say he's in that room over there, just off the locker room. He turns up on video on the scoreboard to tell us something important: "Hi, I'm Derrick Rose, and I don't text when I drive." On a recent night, head coach Tom Thibodeau provided the nugget that Rose had restarted cutting. "He's in every day," Thibodeau said. "We see how hard he's working at his rehab. He's around his teammates. But we can't use that as a crutch."
Make sure they don't use the crutch: an unnatural coaching task, tacked onto the list. "The focus has to be on our improvement," Thibodeau says. "That's where it has to be."
The Bulls have kept Rose purposefully silent. He spoke at media day in October. He turned up in that press conference for the launch of his new shoe, his voice quivering and quavering through a passage worth repeating in entirety, if we're going to practice due sadness about this. As he began wordlessly with his head down, crying, somebody handed him a handkerchief and he said: "It's truly a blessing, man, with all the stuff that's going on in this city, a kid from Englewood got something positive going on. That makes me feel so good, man. Well, this shoe is great, all this is great, but this, I can't explain this. I can't. Went through so much to have true fans, that means a lot to me, and I know it means a lot to my family 'cause we aren't supposed to be here at all, but God made a way. This is truly unreal. I'm just happy that I have true fans out there."
It's big love, so maybe you can excuse sadness when big love meets absence.
"I still think we're a pretty good team. Of course, with him we're going to be a lot better."
That would be the voice of Marquis Teague, who just got here from Kentucky, embodying the gathering new NBA rule that every franchise must have somebody who played recently for John Calipari in Lexington. Teague will not see age 20 until next April. The 6-foot-2 guard from Indianapolis appeared in six of the first 15 games, including an energetic 18-minute stint against Boston, in which he got five points and three rebounds and two assists.
You find Teague's locker in the right corner just after you enter the room, and just beyond Rose's, which is even closer to the door. When Rose does return, Teague might find himself in the post-game people thickets, but that will be a small price. While Teague spoke, Rose's locker had that forlorn-locker look, with its big container of Lubriderm, two red shoes, a black bag, some adidas shower shoes, a few T-shirts on a hook. "Once he gets back around," Teague said, "I'll pick his brain. Just anything about plays, things going on on the floor, just asking what he would do in that situation, things like that." While a guy rehabilitates an ACL injury, you simply can't ask him those things the way you can when he's not rehabilitating an ACL injury.
Across the small room, the eighth-year pro Nate Robinson answers the question he seemingly has answered just about enough, the question that makes this young season seem subdued. "He's a great player," he said of Rose, but, "He can't play one-on-five. He needs us." So, while they're "just waiting for him as a team,"they also have to "focus on holding down everything, so when he comes back it's like he never missed a beat."
That's a running theme, the idea of improving so things will be better when Rose returns, but it's still a theme more about what isn't than what is, even if any squad with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah should be impossible to dislike objectively. For now, there's this hodgepodge, some hard-fought wins against Milwaukee and Dallas and Philadelphia, a galling home loss to Milwaukee on Nov. 26 after leading by 27 just 14 minutes and 50 seconds from closing time while the Bucks played the entire fourth quarter with subs. You don't know what you might see other than (usually) good defense; when Rose went down one minute from the end of that first playoff game against Philadelphia, so did all the definition.
"We just need everybody to be on-point to win ballgames," Noah said. "Nothing's easy for us right now."
As most of us who were alive in the 1990s know, as do most who were small but are subjected to the recollections of those who were alive in the 1990s, the Bulls of then had quite some narrative. It then subsided, as narratives do. Then it regained steam in a fresh form, so that a famously impassioned city could feel that collective energy again. Not only was the leader, Rose, dynamic and thrilling. No, he also hailed from -- and understood -- Chicago. No, wait, he also turned out to be such a decent, goodhearted man that you could hop on all the more.
To have this gaping interruption in that process does not meet the standards of tragedy, but you know, jeez. Why does such a good star have to endure the uncertainty (not to mention the rehab), and why must any part of this narrative feature the good but tiring morsels of speculation on whether return might come in January or February or next year?
It's just all wrong, such that the spitting snow of post-game seemed a tad madder than normal. It's an absence so unusually shouting that it seemed reasonable to ask Boston head coach Doc Rivers whether it felt strange anymore to coach a game in Chicago without Derrick Rose.
"No, it's enjoyable!" Rivers bellowed. "What the hell's wrong with you, 'Is it strange?'"
He kidded, of course, so he continued, "Honestly, you want him on the floor. He'll be on the floor soon, you know." And then, echoing the melancholy sentiment pervading the United Center, the basketball man from Boston said, "He deserves it."