One of my side gigs the last few years -- and I tend to have a lot of side gigs -- has been writing sports features for GQ magazine. I've written about sports for several magazines, but I've found no magazine quite gets athletes to bend over backwards to open up and give a reporter tons of sit-down time the way GQ does. Directly after the dog-fighting scandal, Michael Vick was hardly talking to anyone, and he gave me three hours on two separate occasions. Jeremy Lin was trying to keep a low profile in the wake of the Knicks snub business, but let me talk to him for so long that he fell asleep at the end of the interview. Bryce Harper even let me toss him a little BP. Athletes love talking to GQ because talking to GQ means getting your picture taken for GQ, and GQ makes good-looking people look even better. They can even make ugly people look halfway decent.
It's not easy to make the cover of the magazine as an athlete, though there have been more in recent years than in previous ones. This decade, there have been seven: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Mark Sanchez, Chris Paul, Jeremy Lin and, almost exactly one year ago today, Derrick Rose. I bet GQ would like to have that Sanchez one back and the jury is still out on Lin, but everybody else is the top-tier superstar you'd expect for a GQ cover boy. Still, no cover makes me sadder to look at, going through the covers slideshow, than the one with Rose. (And not just because I wrote it.)
One year ago, Rose was ascendant. He was the quintessential Chicago athlete, a kid who grew up in the city, someone who remembered seeing State Senator Barack Obama march in local parades when he was a child. In an unlikely bit of kismet, he was drafted by his beloved hometown Bulls. He turned out to be even better than anyone could possibly have imagined, turning the LeBron-as-next-dominant-NBA-figure narrative on its head with his otherworldly athleticism and relentless drive to win, earning the MVP award after the 2010-2011 season. We haven't seen Rose play for a while, so it has been easy to forget just how thrilling a player he is to watch. Here's how I described him in the GQ piece:
Simply put, Rose does things in midair leaps to the basket that break physical laws of accepted human behavior. To watch those moves in real time is to not do them justice. Rose's brilliance is such that slow motion is required to understand what, exactly, is going on up there-the same way you need to change frame rate to comprehend fully how a gun fires a bullet or a hummingbird flaps its wings. Rose seems able to control every muscle of his body while in midair: He's able to move past, over, and sometimes under defenders, almost always drawing contact. And he still finishes the play; Rose spins the ball on layups as if he's bowling on ice. My favorite ever was a dunk over then Knick Danilo Gallinari last season in which Rose appeared to speed up three-quarters of the way to the rim; it looked like someone dropped him from the rafters. His ability to finish is such a leap in basketball evolution that it feels like a mutation.
Rose had struggled with a back injury much of last year, but by the end of the regular season, heading into the playoffs (when the magazine hit stands), he was healthy and ready to continue what was beginning to look like a decade-long battle with LeBron and the Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy. Everything was all set up. Then, with a minute-and-a-half left in Game One of the Bulls' series with the 76ers on April 28, 2012, this happened:
It still just kills me to watch that. (Deadspin has had a lot of fun with the Sad Derrick Rose meme.) All that athleticism, all that power and agility and basketball evolution … one minute Rose jumped, and the next minute, it was all over. Something new and amazing, taken away from us, in half of a second. You wondered if Rose could ever be the same.
A year later, we're all still wondering -- but this time, it's blowing back on Rose. The Bulls begin their playoff march Saturday night in Brooklyn against the Nets, but Rose won't be a part of it. At this point, Bulls fans have accepted that Rose won't be returning this season, even though doctors cleared him to play about a month ago. Of course, that's really easy for the doctors to say: They're not the ones who have to jump, who have to not know, yet, where they will land.
Not that this is helping Rose any. It isn't fair to say the city of Chicago has turned on Rose, but there's certainly some head-scratching as to why the supposed hardcore competitor isn't out there doing everything in his power to lead the Bulls in the playoffs. Even the Bulls general manager hinted a while back that it would have been nice to have Rose on the court if, you know, he wanted to maybe give it a try. You're hearing the whispers. He's more worried about his contract than winning. Adidas wants him to rest and the Bulls are too deferential to him to push him. Doesn't he look great in practice? Isn't Iman Shumpert back from the same injury, on the same day? Is he scared? Doesn't he want to win?
Rose anticipated a turn back in the day. Talking to me for the GQ piece, he spoke worryingly of what had happened to LeBron James, a player once beloved who had turned reviled. He said he would always make good judgments, not put himself in that position. But he couldn't have anticipated this. And the only way to get everyone back on his side, as LeBron showed, is by winning.
Of course, for Derrick Rose to be Derrick Rose, he must believe he is Derrick Rose. It makes little sense to work your way back in the brutal environs of a playoff series; the last thing anybody wants is a leaping Rose to be undercut by Reggie Evans or something. The Bulls aren't going to win any title this year with or without Rose, but if he's 100 percent next year, they can. The Knicks don't rely on Iman Shumpert the way the Bulls rely on Rose: If he's not all the way back, he's not back at all. I know many Bulls fans that are patient about this, who understand it. But I know many others who have a hard time when Rose says "it's in God's hands," wondering why it isn't in his own.
The whole thing is really just sad. The NBA playoffs are starting, and Derrick Rose, who is supposed to be at the center of all of it, won't be a part. This has been a terrific NBA season, with emerging stars, signature franchises having breakthrough years and a historic, almost comically dominant season from LeBron, who is about to win his fourth MVP in five seasons. The only person to stop that streak was Rose, who was the youngest man ever to win it. It feels wrong not having him here. Even if, for now, it's the right thing. We just need to get Rose back, even if it's next season. It doesn't feel quite like the NBA without him.