Derrick Rose couldn't have helped the Bulls on Wednesday. Jordan and Pippen might not have helped. Miami was mad after losing Game 1 at home, LeBron and Dwyane Wade were doing their trapeze act, and when the Heat are motivated, they're not losing to anybody.
But the Heat aren't always motivated. Bulls fans have a sense that their team of fighters and hustlers might be good enough to take down the champs … if only they had Rose.
It has been more than a year since Rose tore his ACL in the first game of last year's playoffs. Team doctors have cleared him to play. Supposedly, he's dominating in practice. But he says he's not ready yet.
And this brings us to the place where the heroic frame we put around athletes doesn't always fit the real human beings who play the games.
Our book of legends is full of athletes who played through pain. Jordan had his Flu Game. Pete Sampras puked on the court at the U.S. Open. Byron Leftwich broke his tibia and played on, his linemen carrying him down the field. Tiger Woods won at Torrey Pines on one good leg. Kerri Strug, with a wrecked ankle, nailed the landing.
We try not to think about pain's victories. Yao Ming's feet betrayed him. Kerry Wood went on the disabled list 15 times in 14 seasons. Grant Hill's ankle erased what could have been his prime. In football there are too many shortened careers to count. I always think about David Pollack, the great defensive end from Georgia. He broke a bone in his neck in his second season with the Bengals, and it was over.
In this NBA season alone, Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo missed the playoffs with injuries. Russell Westbrook got knocked out early and might not come back. David Lee tore his hip flexor, was ruled out for the playoffs, then came back for one minute of action. He hasn't played since.
It's not much better for the guys who are playing. Stephen Curry has taken two painkilling shots in his left ankle during the playoffs -- and that's his good ankle. He's had surgery on the other one twice. Every time he goes to the basket for that lovely little scoop shot he's developed, I don't watch the ball. I wince when he lands.
Rose's team is a hospital wing. Luol Deng has lost 15 pounds after the flu and a spinal tap to check for meningitis. Nate Robinson took stitches inside and outside his lip after LeBron rolled over his head. Kirk Hinrich has missed five games with a bruised calf. Joakim Noah has been playing for weeks with plantar fasciitis. I've had plantar fasciitis. I took physical therapy, wore special boots to bed, and every morning my feet still felt like fiery death. Lord knows how you play basketball like that.
This is the context for Rose as he decides whether to play. He also has to deal with the old sports narrative that now is what matters. Chicago's win in Game 1 put more pressure on Rose. If you have the champs staggered, you have to try to knock them out. At least that's what a lot of fans in Chicago think. They are slowly turning on Rose. It doesn't help that every day is a constant tease over whether he'll play or not. If he could play, and he doesn't, some fans are bound to conclude that he doesn't want to.
But let's lay some odds. Is it more likely that:
1) He has calculated that he's better off not playing this season, no matter what his teammates do;
2) He's scared to get hurt again; or
3) He really doesn't feel he's ready to play.
I just can't buy that he'd be selfish enough to sit while his team battles Miami without him. Athletes work so hard to make it to the playoffs and get in position to win a title … I don't believe Rose would skip out on that if he thought he could play.
He's the only one who knows exactly how his body is supposed to feel. Maybe the knee still isn't quite right. Maybe the rest of his body isn't in tune with it yet. Maybe he just doesn't trust the team doctors.
I worry, though, that the real answer is in the middle. I wonder if Rose is scared to hurt himself again. It's an absolutely natural impulse. It's the normal human reaction. But it's death for an athlete.
A heart surgeon told me a few years ago that the biggest obstacle in recovering from heart surgery is fear. That's why doctors send most patients to a rehab center afterward -- the patients want someone around in case they need help again. It's hard to live with pain every day no matter what you do. It's especially hard if your career depends on your body.
Derrick Rose got hurt, badly, and he won't know if he's healed until he goes out on the court in front of a sellout crowd and millions of TV viewers. I know it's weird to say this about a professional athlete who has played in front of people his whole life. But I wouldn't be surprised if he has stage fright.
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