CHICAGO -- In the span of a few short months, Derrick Rose has gone from one of the most beloved figures in this city to one of its most questioned.
The decision as to whether he should play this season has become one of the most polarizing topics in recent memory. Some believe that Rose, after 10 months of rehab for a torn left ACL, should be back on the floor already. He's been physically cleared for game activity and the next and final step is suiting up. Others believe that Rose, who became the NBA's youngest MVP at the age of 22 in 2010, should take all the time he needs in a season in which his Chicago Bulls weren't going to win a title anyway.
Tom Thibodeau is a perfect dichotomy of both groups. The veteran coach wants Rose back on the floor more than anybody. But while he knows his team is missing Rose's presence, he also understands the future is at stake. He knows if Rose comes back too soon and hurts himself again, any aspirations the Bulls have as a title contender would be gone. That's a major reason why Thibodeau's public comments have been the most consistent part of the 'Rose Watch.'
Each day the media descends upon the veteran coach and each day he spits out, almost verbatim, the same information. Rose has been 'on schedule' for months now but what exactly that schedule is even Thibodeau doesn't know. Thibodeau has repeatedly said that Rose would play when he's ready, and aside from a little change of pace over the last couple weeks when he has said the words 'day to day' in reference to the entire Rose situation, he's stayed consistent to that message. Thibodeau continues to praise the way his superstar has handled the situation and is proud of the way Rose has deflected the endless circus of speculation around him.
"He handles his part great," Thibodeau said of Rose. "He's not going to be influenced by anything outside. He knows exactly what he has to do and he's done that. This is all part of it. I think any time someone goes through an injury, we knew this was going to be a lengthy process to get through this type of injury. He's put all the work in, he's done his part, all the things that he can control he's controlled. So he's done a great job with his part."
For his part, Rose seems to be taking all of this in stride. He has remained outwardly happy and confident in himself and his decision as the process has unfolded. He appears resolute in his convictions -- the biggest one being that he won't step on the floor unless he is confident that he can be at or close to the same level he played at before. Whether fans agree with him or not, that is the position that he's chosen and his teammates and coaches have done a good job defending him on it. As much as it may pain Thibodeau to answer the same questions day after day after day, he has withstood the barrage with a steadfast presence and continues to spew out the cliches.
His players have done a good job of following their coach's organizational message. They offer their own updates regarding Rose but nobody has ever questioned his desire to be on the floor and everyone has repeatedly said they only want him back when he feels he is ready -- exactly the message Thibodeau has been giving for months.
"It's his body," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said Thursday. "It's like the same thing with my body. They waited for me to feel right, so it's up to him to feel right. So it's up to him to trust his body. We can't dwell on when he's going to come back. We just have to keep playing until he comes back. Until he comes back, we just have to keep grinding."
So if Rose has handled his end of the bargain well and Thibodeau and his players have stuck to the script all season -- how has the Rose situation become such a spectacle? And why has Rose lost some of the public trust he built up over the past four years?
The blame has to be shared by the Bulls' organization and Rose's inner circle. Since media day on Oct. 1, the Bulls did their best to shield their star from the media. The reasoning being that Rose didn't have much to discuss in his rehab process and he didn't want to take attention away from his team. Most recently, the word was that Rose didn't want to talk -- which is laughable given he's been one of the most accessible and friendly players in the entire league the last few years.
In hindsight, the decision to have Rose wait so long to speak was the wrong move. While it was always known that Rose could miss the whole season, most within the organization thought that Rose would be back at some point after the All-Star break. They figured with the way he pushed himself and the dedication he had shown in the rehab process, he would find a way to be back out on the floor a little after midway through the season and work his way back.
Instead of hearing updates from Rose directly though, Thibodeau and the players were continually put on the spot to give progress reports about the 24-year-old. Those reports, while mostly subdued, always made it sound as if Rose was going to be back at some point in the near future. After nearly four months of silence, Rose's agency set up an interview for their star with USA Today in which he said he was "far away" from returning.
That's when everything started to change. That's when the possibility that Rose may in fact sit out the season became more realistic and was re-affirmed a couple nights later in Boston when Rose said he "wouldn't mind" sitting out the whole season if he wasn't feeling right.
That's when a portion of public opinion slowly began to shift out of Rose's favor and that's also when the signs of a rift between Rose's inner circle and the Bulls' organization began to surface. For the first time in his career, Rose was facing criticism that he was somehow mentally weak or not loyal for not being ready to come back on the floor.
It was around this time that Derrick's older brother, Reggie, went public with his displeasure in the way the Bulls have set up the roster around Derrick. There was a lot of truth to what Reggie said but the fact that he said it on the record only made the rift between the organization and Rose's inner circle grow wider. A couple weeks later, a team source told ESPNChicago.com that Rose had been medically cleared, but was now trying to overcome the mental hurdle of coming back and dunking with the same ferocity off his left leg.
In the midst of all the public back and forth, the Bulls started to go into a nose dive. It's not a conincidence that Thibodeau's bunch is 6-11 since Feb. 11. The schedule turned tough, the injuries piled up and the realization that Rose may not return this season permeated throughout the locker room. The players stood behind Rose, and still do, but for the first time all year they started to come to grips with the fact that Rose may not be playing with them this season.
As much as they trust Rose, and as much people within the organization love him, they also had to wonder to what extent Derrick was listening to Reggie and his agent/mentor B.J. Armstrong. Was Reggie speaking just for himself, and he said, or did Derrick feel the same way? Was Armstrong pushing him to sit out the entire season because he knew the Bulls couldn't win whether Rose came back or not?
No matter how many questions swirl, the reality is that Rose is just going through the same ups and downs that elite level athletes go through in rehabilitation. He admitted as much on Thursday, saying that he was still dealing with some general soreness in his knee after some practices. If he feels he needs a little more time to come back, who is anyone to question his decision? After all, it's his career, his future.
Obviously, the Bulls would like to have him back and his doctor, team physician Dr. Brian Cole, is already on record after the surgery as saying that the final part of the rehab process is playing in games. But if Rose doesn't feel like he is ready to go, then he's not ready to go -- a point he has tried to make clear in recent interviews. For the first time since his surgery, Rose talked openly about the fact that there was a bigger picture. He admitted that he wanted to play badly this season, but also noted that there were other things to consider.
"But knowing my health is the biggest key," Rose said. "Where I'm only 24 years old. I've got the whole future in front of me. I'm just trying to take my time."
To that point, I thought one of his most telling statements of this entire saga came last week in Los Angeles regarding the advice he received from Armstrong.
"Just take my time," Rose said. "If I rush back and something was to happen everybody would say, 'Why did you rush back?' Just taking my time and being prepared and knowing when I come back I want to be 100 percent. That's fine."
The problem for the Bulls is that as Rose waits for his body to tell him when to come back his teammates have to continue to play games as well as answer questions about Rose on a daily basis.
"I get that question probably 40 times a day," Gibson said. "Between people on the street, family -- but my family they're not (constantly asking) because everyone in this locker room is like family so they always ask how he's doing and that's about it, but (I get the question) about 50 times a day. If you're out in the street people always want to know. But it's all about how healthy he feels."
The ongoing saga regarding Rose isn't the real reason why the Bulls have started to struggle recently, injuries and a lack of depth are the bigger issues, but it hasn't helped. At some point soon, the organization would be wise to issue a statement saying Rose isn't coming back this year if that is the decision that they've arrived upon. Thibodeau can continue keeping open the possibility that Rose will come back, but the writing appears to be on the wall that this season isn't in the cards. It would be better for all involved, especially Rose's teammates, if a decision is made and everyone can focus on the matters at hand. Rose can continue focusing on his rehab and the Bulls can try and salvage a few more wins out of a forgotten season.
Only time will tell how much damage Rose's public image has taken if he doesn't return, but that shouldn't change the fact that Rose has done what he was supposed to do in this process. He has continued to work hard and keep his mind clear of all the things going on around him. It's the people surrounding him that haven't done him any favors.
Had Rose been allowed to give periodic updates regarding his health and what he was able to do -- while being repeatedly up front about the fact he may miss the entire season because of various physical/mental issues -- he would have been given more of the benefit of the doubt. The huge promotional campaign set up by adidas, meant to keep Rose's profile high as he continued to rehab, has become another reason critics point to the superstar and wonder what's going on his head. Why would Rose's inner circle sign off on that kind of huge campaign when they knew there was a legitimate chance he may not even play this year? Why wouldn't the Bulls allow, and/or push Rose to speak when they knew full well that his recovery was really the only story their fans cared most about? All these question are left to the imagination as people on both sides wait for a resolution to the only question nobody, even Derrick Rose, seems to know the answer to at this point:
Is he going to play this season or not?