The Cruel, Cursed Career of Derrick Rose

Back when he was an invincible teenager addicted to Skittles, Derrick Rose told me about his dream. He wanted to be drafted by his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, and lead them to NBA championships as Michael Jordan had. He was a freshman at Memphis then, playing for John Calipari, and though he wasn’t serious about academics — someone took a college entrance exam for him — he parlayed the one-and-done experience into a miracle bordering on a conspiracy: The Bulls somehow landed the No. 1 choice in the 2008 league draft, even while owning only 17 of the 1,000 ping-ping-ball combinations in the lottery.

His life was charmed. No one seemed to care about the falsified exam, or that his dalliance with Calipari looked suspicious, or when he missed a free throw that led to an overtime defeat in the NCAA championship game, or when he drove 106 mph in a 65-mph zone a year later. He was put on this earth to escape Englewood, a murder-and-drug-ravaged neighborhood, and become King of Chicago. And he was well on his way two years ago, when he became the youngest MVP in NBA history at 22. Having viewed a culturally transcendent Jordan as if he belonged to the greater universe, a parochial Midwestern town saw Rose as its very own. It braced for more summer celebrations in Grant Park.

What happened next is sadness, madness, destiny shredded by cruelty. The following season, on a non-contact play, Rose blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He sat out all of last season, ignoring criticism that he was babying the injury, determined to return better than ever. The early returns this month saw him with the same explosive first step, the same vertical hop in the paint and the same blurry end-to-end speed. There was rust, of course, with too many turnovers and some bad shooting nights, but this was D-Rose. He’d be back, good fortune willing. Right?

Good fortune wasn’t willing.

Instead, on Friday night in a Portland arena once known as the Rose Garden, he pivoted to run back on defense after the Trail Blazers’ Nicolas Batum stole Joakim Noah’s pass. Rose felt a pop in the right knee.

The other knee.

“He was in pain and felt like he couldn’t push off his right knee,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, voicing concern outside a locker room as somber as a funeral.

Bulls_Derrick_Rose_2013Saturday, as feared, the injury was diagnosed as a medial meniscus tear. Rose will need surgery again to repair torn cartilage, and the Bulls have no idea when he’ll be back, if at all this season. To describe this news as devastating and the accompanying gloom as deep is to understate the situation.

This is heartbreaking, horrible, depressing news — even if you’re not in Chicago, even if you aren’t a Bulls fan. Derrick Rose is among the most gifted basketball talents of his generation, and his future has been sabotaged by a double whammy. If there can be good news about the latest crisis, it’s that a meniscus tear isn’t nearly as severe as a torn ACL. But just 25, he now is looking at two surgically repaired knees.

Only one month into the season, the NBA’s war of attrition resembles that of pro football. On the same night of Rose’s misfortune, injuries sidelined Memphis center Marc Gasol (sprained left knee) and Golden State guard Andre Iguodala (strained left hamstring). Other teams are dealing with the injured likes of Deron Williams, Tyson Chandler, Steph Curry and Steve Nash, this while Kobe Bryant prepares to return from a torn Achilles’ tendon and Dwyane Wade tries to stay healthy enough to keep Miami in line for a third straight championship. A gentle game, the NBA is not.

As the product of a humble, survivalist upbringing, Derrick Rose is happiest when he has a basketball in his hands. The Adidas commercial filmed outside his suburban Chicago home is an accurate portrayal. “If you took away the fame, if you took away the lifestyle … what would you have left? Everything,” he says.

But when you take away his knees, he has nothing.