Behold the Chicago Bulls. Joakim Noah's foot is killing him. Nate Robinson threw up during Game 6 but kept playing. Kirk Hinrich was trying, and failing, to play with a bad calf. Luol Deng was in the emergency room getting a spinal tap because they feared he had meningitis, and he angrily defended his reputation against charges that he didn't play because of something as mundane as the flu.
Meanwhile, Derrick Rose sat on the bench, two months after being cleared to play, dressed impeccably in an expensive suit.
Rose's story is the antithesis of American sports mythology. The star player is supposed to return early from injury. He's supposed to fight the doctors and his trainers and coaches to get out on the court or field to come to the aid of his teammates. He's supposed to jog out onto the court to the thunderous ovation from appreciative fans who will forever be indebted to the man who played through the pain.
Rose, who tore an ACL in last season's playoffs, isn't playing through the pain, and that's beyond our realm of understanding. He's practicing with his teammates, but he won't play in the games. And these aren't meaningless games at the end of a lost season; the Bulls are in the conference semifinals.
It's dangerous to jump inside someone's head and pretend to know what's going on with his body. There's really no upside to that type of speculation. A lot of people -- in the media and out -- have suited up to play that game, and most of the time they end up simply taking their own issues out for a walk.
Rose should be playing because of all the money he's making.
Rose should be playing because his team needs him.
Rose should be playing because the doctor says so.
Rose should be playing because I would play for free.
None of those -- even the one about the doctor -- means anything. The doctor's "clearance" -- and there's some dispute about that, too -- came from a Bulls team doctor. That clearance, coming as it does from an employee of the team, is not the same as clearance from an impartial orthopedist. There's a long history of team doctors doing what's best for the team, and even an ironclad clearance from a team of unaffiliated orthopedists would be less important than what the knee's owner thinks.
It doesn't matter, though, because there's no chance Rose can catch up to this story. It's out there, running free, well beyond his reach. Chicago's ex-favorite son is now the recipient of regular condemnations from every short-order cook or stockbroker who ever had a bruise. Everybody seems to know Rose better than Rose, and it's no exaggeration to say he would have been better off had the Bulls lost to the Nets in the first round. It would have been easier on his psyche, anyway.
Rose is being held accountable for the decisions that were made by those who came before him. He's a prisoner of the lore of the Willis Reed/Kirk Gibson moment. The Warriors' David Lee tore a hip flexor in the first game against Denver on April 20, and he came back for a cameo -- a cameo that felt a bit forced, like a stunt -- in Game 6. Quarterback Byron Leftwich played with a broken leg, with his offensive linemen carrying him down the field after every down, in a college game. He wasn't even getting paid.
The injuries get exaggerated along with the exploits. The juxtaposition of Rose's inaction and Noah's admirable determination to play through pain provides an easy comparison. One's tough; the other isn't. It doesn't matter that playing with plantar fasciitis and playing on a reconstructed knee don't carry precisely the same risks. At this point, details are immaterial.
Fans want to see the best players play, and many fans hold on to the childish and fairy-tale belief that they would play for nothing if they were handed Rose's talent and opportunity. Naturally, they get offended when someone who's making a fortune to play decides he can't. But if Rose doesn't believe his knee is in game condition, he's probably right. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he can't wrap his mind around it, his body won't respond.
The court of public opinion has ruled against him. He hasn't done a good job of explaining himself, and the team hasn't exactly busted down the door to defend him. As recently as Saturday, Rose expressed ignorance of any of the outcry that suggests he should be playing.
It seems unlikely, but if he truly was ignorant before Saturday, he's certainly not now. And by the end of the Bulls' series against the Heat -- give it four games, five tops -- he figures to be a whole lot less ignorant.