CHICAGO -- Last season, it was part of my pregame ritual to watch Derrick Rose's pregame ritual.
The Bulls' locker room was always empty and Tom Thibodeau's spiel was purposefully free of information, so I had time to spare to watch Rose work out.
The former MVP-turned-rehab patient would dribble, shoot and drive, mostly against a smallish team videographer, mostly against himself. He worked on cutting to the rim, starting and stopping, hook shots, step-back 3-pointers. Nothing was done to an extreme, just a man working at his craft.
Rose's teammates and coaches filtered in and out as fans flooded the lower bowl to take pictures and beg for autographs. But it was really as if Rose were the only one on the floor. All eyes were on him as he famously, laboriously worked his way back from reconstructive knee surgery.
Cast off from the pregame harmony of the Bulls, Rose was a team unto himself, alone in good company.
At first it was fun to watch him go at it, seeing him test his knee while guessing at his progress. I wasn't alone in my obsession. I tweeted a six-second video of him driving to the rim, a simple dribble-drive layup, that made "SportsCenter," "Pardon the Interruption" and Deadspin.
BullsWorld still revolved around Rose, whether he would admit it or not. Rose didn't formally speak to reporters for months, until an out-of-town exclusive ended his silence. The team website stopped running updates on his condition. Thibodeau rarely gave reporters news of any substance.
But you could watch him work out before games. That was transparency.
For a while, we thought we were watching a process that would end in Rose playing an NBA game again.
Once it was obvious that Rose wasn't going to return -- even as he and the team bizarrely refused to rule it out -- it stayed a routine for me to watch.
Why do it? Because he's the star. Even as the team gutted out an impressive season, the focus was on Rose, who somehow got blamed for suffering a scary knee injury.
While Rose didn't play, last season was an unqualified success for the Bulls given the context of their predicament. A team built around a uniquely talented power point guard won a playoff series without him and endeared itself to a city.
With Rose back, there is no question that the Bulls should be considered, and should consider themselves, a championship contender.
Since facing the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the conference finals in 2011, the Bulls have lost bench depth, especially center Omer Asik (who barely played in that series), but have gained a valuable wing defender and scoring option in third-year guard Jimmy Butler. Since that series, center Joakim Noah has made great strides as an offensive player, and along with steady Luol Deng, one-way scorer Carlos Boozer and a host of complementary players, the Bulls have the personnel to make a run at Miami. Their regular-season win over the Heat, which broke Miami's 27-game winning streak, was a true highlight.
But it all starts with Rose. It has to. When he plays and Thibodeau coaches, the Bulls are 94-26. In those two seasons, the Bulls finished with the best record, a combined 112-36.
No one will be impressed this season with the journey. Playoff talk, and how the Bulls match up with Miami, will dominate every Bulls storyline starting at media day. Good thing they have Thibodeau, who treats every midweek game against Charlotte like he's storming the beach at Normandy. I don't think this group will have many problems dealing with expectations. But health is the key.
That's the other storyline. Thibodeau expects his starters to play the lion's share of minutes. Nothing wrong with that, it is their job, but Noah has dealt with nagging foot injuries and Deng has played through various ailments. Backup point guard Kirk Hinrich had trouble staying on the floor last season. And then there's Rose's knee, which blew out in the playoff opener in 2012, after Rose missed nearly half the season with assorted injuries.
No wonder he wanted to be careful last season. I give Rose credit for being cautious, even if it was to an extreme.
Last season, Rose had to sit and watch as the Bulls gutted out a first-round playoff victory over Brooklyn without Deng and Hinrich. That's when the public vitriol came out, when people dared to question the once-invincible local son. It was inevitable.
While I understand the impatience, in the end, it's his career, his knee. Rose made the right move for his body, even if it backfired to some degree publicly.
The past is the past. While the Bulls will stress "team, team, team," it's going to be all about Rose for the next couple of months. He will speak at media day Friday and start practice Saturday. His first preseason game will likely set every preseason TV ratings record, if such a thing exists.
Rose's first game will eclipse Miami's ring ceremony in Miami, and his first regular-season home game will sound like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Eventually, we will get used to seeing him play again.
In that vein, I am not cautious in my optimism. I fully expect Rose, who has no limitations now, to be, as they say, a beast. That's the payoff for fans. There is no grace period for Rose to ease into things.
I expect him to drive to the rim and two-hand hammer dunk. I expect the stone-cold "stank face" after an and-one finish. I expect dagger 3s and 10-dime games.
I hope that his linebacker-like musculature will allow him to last through an entire season like he did in his first three years.
The wait ends soon enough. Rose can go back to being a basketball player again, rather than a Rorschach test for how you see athletes and a private rehabber in full view.
I used to theorize that Rose could be bigger than Michael Jordan in this town. A Chicago native, Rose made it across the gap from Englewood to Trump Tower without sacrificing his humanity.
I wanted to see him really tackle the ills of poverty in this city, to address the awful violence. He's done that, to a degree, but he can do more.
While it's important for Rose to be that overarching role model, that comes later. Much later. For now, I just want to watch him dribble, shoot and drive.
As Rose likes to remind us, he's just a basketball player.