To the electrician who last played in high school, to the gym teacher who once played small-college ball, Derrick Rose appears “gutless,” a “coward” for failing to lace up his sneakers the past few weeks. Even as Rose’s Chicago Bulls teammates and coaches continue to support his decision to allow his surgically repaired knee to heal fully, the chorus continues:
If D. Rose has medically been cleared to play by a team doctor, why won’t he?
Maybe because he’s smarter at protecting a franchise’s No. 1 investment than the people actually paid to do that job. Maybe because he understands that for decades, further back than Willis Reed hobbling onto the floor before Game 7 at Madison Square Garden 43 years ago Thursday, we have been brainwashed to believe that playing hurt is courageous. And that the inverse — not competing while your body is falling apart — is a sign of weakness, most often embodied by losers, quitters and Jay Cutler.
In the real world, playing hurt is playing stupid.
No one in the NFL or the NBA is trying to take a hill with a battalion. So-called “warriors” such as Joakim Noah playing through dreaded plantar fasciitis and the rest of the bruised and bloodied Bulls roster are just basketball players with tremendous resolve. There is always a next season, another title for which to contend.
To insist that Rose should play — not through a strained tendon, stomach virus or a muscle pull, but on a reconstructed knee ligament that was torn so badly his career was in jeopardy — is to say his future matters less than the team’s present.
And that’s more than stupid; that’s selfish and short-sighted.
See, the great thing about hindsight is the realization that what was done hastily in the moment didn’t turn out to be the best long-term decision. For example, everyone other than Mike Shanahan (and it took me longer than others) now realizes that keeping gimpy-kneed Robert Griffin III in against the Seattle Seahawks was just plain stubborn and dumb. Unfortunately in Chicago and beyond today, many are trapped inside that same instant-gratification bubble: that this could be the year if only the star can remain upright.
Now that the Bulls have a puncher’s chance after shocking Miami in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, now that the Heat repeating as NBA champion is not an absolute lock, what better time for the Bulls to go all-in on raising their first banner since Michael Jordan left the building on West Madison 15 years ago?
If the Bulls were to stun the Heat, the path to a title would be wide open. Why wouldn’t Rose want to be a part of that?
Easy. He’s not ready.
And if the player whose knee was cut open says he’s not ready, that he really wants to give it one more offseason before he feels 100 percent healthy, that’s all that should matter. Just ask another former young point guard for the Bulls.
“From a player that was in his position about nine years ago, I’m not trying to come back off a damn ACL and go against LeBron every night,” said Jay Williams, now an ESPN analyst. “Not my first game back. It’s a lose-lose scenario for me. You need to work out the kinks before then.
“Look, from a player who’s been injured, I get it. I don’t care how many people say, ‘Play,’ you cannot come back from an injury like that until mentally you feel confident in yourself.”
While Williams wished Rose would publicly shut it down for the season so the focus is on his team’s resilient playoff run instead of his own health, he also understands why a player of Rose’s caliber would wait to be safe and sure.
“As quick as everybody loves you, people can forget about you — I watched Kirk Hinrich get drafted from my hospital bed,” said Williams, whose career was derailed by a motorcycle accident. “I made my own mistake, but that’s the way things happened. And once a team moves on, they move on.”
The Bulls have been criticized for not ruling out Rose for the season much earlier. But an organization’s internal rumbling is one thing; outright embarrassing a guy to get back on the court is another.
When the Knicks last contended in the 1990s, some players believed Charles Smith was taking his time returning from injury. Pat Riley got wind of it and waited for Smith to walk into the locker room in his fine Italian wool as the players were getting dressed before a game.
Writing game-night details on the chalkboard, the coach turned and asked Smith, matter-of-factly, “Charles, if you could give me one minute tonight — just one — to win a championship, could you do it?’’
Smith shrugged his shoulders as his teammates looked at him. “Yeah, Coach, I could do that,’’ he said, nodding.
About two seconds later, Riley wheeled around once more and said, this time angrily. “Then what in the [expletive] are you doing in that suit?’’
Smith came off the injury list the next day. Now, if he was dogging it, fine. But if he wasn’t ready physically to come back, all Riley did was tell everyone on the roster it’s not okay to be hurt — in a profession that has a finite number of earning-power years?
It’s flat-out wrong to attack Rose’s fortitude, his desire as a competitor. Before the knee injury a year ago, he played through a pulled groin, back spasms, turf toe and probably plantar fasciitis.
Rose already has proven his toughness. Now, thanks to his small-minded detractors, he’s having to prove his common sense, too.
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