A matter of heart

CHICAGO -- An NBA season is defined by its interminable length.

It's not quite professional tennis or the run up to the presidential election, but it's close.

And a long NBA season, one with the possibility of being quite memorable on the West Side, is made up of games that happen when no one expects them.

MVP-type seasons are made up of little moments that turn into regularly occurring behavior.

The third quarter Friday night was such a moment.

With just less than four minutes to play and the Chicago Bulls then comfortably leading the Orlando Magic, Derrick Rose, the newly minted All-Star, was crouched behind Luol Deng, while the latter shot free throws. Rose's face was pained, his hand was clutching his stomach.

He looked awful.

The next possession, Rose drove the lane with his trademark power, hung in the air and absorbed a foul from Ryan Anderson for an old-fashioned three-point play.

Those ubiquitous MVP chants heard 'round the United Center, those early comparisons to Michael Jordan? Rose is earning his accolades the hard way, the right way.

"It's tough, but if you want to be a great player in this league you've got to play through it," Rose said after the Bulls' 99-90 win over the Magic. "I always look at myself as an old-school-type player."

Unfairly or not, the idea of what defines toughness in sports has been in the news lately around these parts.

Well, at the end of a long week of chatter, Rose just changed the conversation, or maybe made it worse for a certain quarterback.

One thing is for sure, we can stop debating one guy's heart and just revel in another.

While Jay Cutler had to miss the second half of the NFC Championship Game with a "say it with me folks" legitimate, serious knee injury, Rose overcame a less-serious, but still painful illness to lead his team to a victory.

It was a big win, possibly a meaningful win for a team trying to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference.

"It's very important," Rose said. "They smacked us both times we played them this year. For us to come out and play the way we played, it should build our confidence."

The Bulls are 32-14, winners of four in a row and seven of eight. After a slow start against the upper echelon of the East, the Bulls have beaten Boston, Miami and Orlando this month. This team doesn't need much more confidence right now, and when Joakim Noah returns, all things remaining constant, things could get very serious.

A day after the formal announcement of his first All-Star start, Rose played 37 minutes, 41 seconds, second-most on the team behind All-Star dark-horse candidate Luol Deng (who had a team-high 26 points). Rose finished with a healthy line of 22 points, 12 assists and six rebounds.

It wasn't an efficient 22, but it was the best 6-for-21 shooting night you'll see.

"Taking everything into consideration, you can't say enough about him," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It is amazing the way he plays. He plays so hard and is taking hits all the time. The thing I respect about him is he always gets up.

"He gets knocked down, no call. He gets up and attacks the basket the next time down. You cannot say enough about that attitude."

If this were a playoff game, it would be Jordan's Flu Game, Part II.

Instead it was just Rose, who looked miserable before, during and after the game, passing along his ulcer to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. It was Rose sending another message to the rest of the league. It was Rose telling the fans: You can believe in me.

No, Rose and Cutler are not one in the same. Rose had two ulcers, not a sprained MCL. Rose was weak from not eating, off-kilter from not shooting for three days.

Basketball, despite the pounding Rose takes on a nightly basis, isn't football.

No, I recognize it's unfair to compare Cutler and Rose, and I can think of at least one of Rose's teammates who would miss a week just hearing a story about Rose's trip to the hospital.

So maybe Rose's game will serve as a reminder for anyone wanting time off for nicks and bruises. Isn't that the definition of a leader?

"It's tough, but nobody cares about that," Rose said. "Especially when you're out there, they don't care if you're sick. They're going to try and kill you.

"Tonight I just tried to play my regular game and be aggressive so I can get into my groove."

Rose said before the game he'd check himself out if the pain got too bad. So a reporter joked about the Twitter impact from his peers if he took himself out of the game.

"Naw, I think I've paid my dues in this league a little bit," he said, laughing.

"Just a little bit. I've been through tough injuries, calls, and still went out there and played."

There's a reason Rose amazes his teammates and his organization on a nightly basis. There's a reason we're adding to his running hagiography on a nightly basis. And there's a reason he's starting the All-Star Game, and shooting up everyone's list of MVP candidates.

The Indiana Pacers come to town Saturday. The Pacers are not the Magic, and they sit 13 ½ games back of the Bulls in the Central Division. Will Rose play?

"As long as we got a game," he said. "As long as I don't wake up, or I can't sleep tonight because of pains. That would be the only reason I don't play tomorrow."

So pencil Rose in Saturday. I hope the Pacers guards get their sleep.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.