CHICAGO -- The Return has become The Question.
Tom Thibodeau is asked seemingly every day. Ditto for his team. Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman hears it when he's scouting in Richmond, Va. Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf from his kids.
The questions are simple but elusive: "How is Derrick Rose?" and more importantly, "When is he coming back?"
Some think he'll back in late February. Others sometime in March. The Illinois Lottery could sell tickets guessing the exact date. (My guess, Feb. 19 at New Orleans. I'm an optimist.)
It's the first week of January, more than eight months since Rose tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the first game of the playoffs, and Al Capone's vault has more answers than the Bulls right now.
"Everybody I run into asks me when Derrick is coming back," Reinsdorf said before Monday's game against Cleveland. "Obviously, nobody knows and I couldn't tell them even if I knew. I get it all the time. I get it from my kids. Not every day, though."
Next to the identity of the Chicago Bears' next coach, it's the biggest question in Chicago. When will The Return be more than an adidas slogan?
Reinsdorf gets the injury reports, he talks to Rose's doctor and to Forman, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and Thibodeau about Rose's rehab progess. As the boss, Reinsdorf is, as he says, "pretty in tune with what's going on." But he's also clueless to the date of Rose's return. Or so he says.
"Honestly, I haven't even given it a lot of thought, because I haven't been through this before," he said before Monday's game against Cleveland. "I don't know, do we necessarily know a week ahead of time, two days before? I don't know how it's going to happen."
Rose hasn't talked much to reporters since the team's preseason media day, a friendly nod here, a few words there. He hasn't tweeted since Nov. 27. The Bulls say the silence is Rose's choice. But you can bet the team brass is fine with it. Thibodeau is not a man who tolerates distractions and everyone knows Rose is the main attraction, injured or not. The Bulls could very well win the Central Division without much help from Rose, but they miss him tremendously. The fans do too. Basketball misses Rose. Few athletes are more popular.
"We want [Rose] to stay focused on what he needs to do and stay on the process, step by step, which he's done," Forman said. "He's done a great job on his rehab and been really focused on what he needs to do."
The near-silent treatment has added an air of mystery, unnecessary or not. One wonders if Thibodeau, who doles out information like a KGB information officer, will simply activate Rose one day with the pomp and circumstance of playing Vladimir Radmanovic in a blowout.
Maybe Rose will mimic Michael Jordan. Instead of a fax, he'll tweet out, "I'm back."
Adidas, his shoe company, wouldn't comment on its marketing plans for Rose. Adidas marketed his injury into a popular video and commercial campaign and sold a lot of DRose 3 shoes, even if Rose never wore them in a game. The Rose 3.5s come out later in January.
The occasional anonymously sourced story pops up now and again. This past weekend, the New York Daily News reported Rose is "almost ready to start playing." At the end of December, Thibodeau said Rose was "not anywhere close to playing." So you can see why the questions remain. After all, you can only write so much about Nate Robinson.
At the team's shootaround Monday, Forman said the same things to three reporters in three separate interviews about Rose. He's progressing and doing rehab, you can't skip steps, etc.
"We've tried not to look ahead and stay in the moment," Forman said. "That's what's best for him, and Tom does a great job with our team not looking ahead. We take it day by day, practice by practice, game by game."
The one thing we have heard is how hard Rose is attacking his rehab, which, given his history, is wholly believable. Reporters have caught glimpses of him for weeks now, and Rose traveled with the team to Orlando and Miami.
After Monday's shootaround, Rose appeared in the corner of the Berto Center floor for a rehab workout with trainers and strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland. I stayed in the gym to watch.
"So, how did he look?" Michael Reinsdorf asked me.
See, even Reinsdorf has questions.
Tough to say, given the workout consisted of Rose starting from a crouching position and running back and forth, about eight feet apart, off and on for about 30 minutes. But he looked pretty good. Rose was quiet and working hard, as usual, and by the half-hour workout's end, he was sweating. After extending his run down the track that borders the court, Rose yelled a common expletive.
"What's wrong with that?" Helland asked. But he knew. Earlier in the workout, Helland told Rose not to worry about his speed, just the efficiency of his movements. You could see Rose competing with himself, even in the smallest exercise.
Before the workout really got cooking, Rose was goofing around and sank a long 3-pointer as I was talking to guard Jimmy Butler.
"Who does that?" Butler said. "Who makes that?"
Butler said Rose has looked good in limited practice, running the "dummy offense" and doing close-out drills. His spirits are sky high, which makes Butler optimistic.
"It's the spirited Derrick you see more, because he's so excited to be back out there with us," Butler said. "To be able to put on that practice jersey and just grind it out with us. You're seeing him smiling and you're seeing the stuff Derrick does -- the floaters, the jumpers. You're just like, 'Damn, he's back.' Right where he left off, if not even better."
A photographer caught Rose grinning as he peeked around a corner following the Bulls' win at Miami, and the picture went viral. We don't know the half of it, Butler said.
"Everybody knows what Derrick can do on the court but y'all don't see what he does for us when he's not suited up," Butler said. "As excited as he gets when we're walking to the locker room, 'Yeah, that's how you get the win.' That's part of being a leader too, the spiritual part, the emotions. When we lose, he's like 'We lost.' In reality, he's not out there, but he's always out there with us. This is his team. This is what he loves to do. It's crazy having a leader like that."
Butler said Rose doles out advice at halftime when he's watching from the locker room.
"He's a hell of a basketball player, but right now he's a hell of a coach," he said.
Rose can leave the coaching to Thibodeau soon enough. And when he comes back, we won't need much warning. Until then, we wait. It's all we can do.