NEW YORK -- The waiting media gathered on the lower level of one of the ritziest hotels in New York City on Sunday afternoon to speak with Tom Thibodeau and his Chicago Bulls after they were manhandled in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals by the Brooklyn Nets.
As the players began to file out of a conference room that had been taped on the floor to resemble one half of a basketball court, two lines began to form to give the players a walkway to get to their next destination. Player after player filed out without much interruption, and then Derrick Rose appeared.
"What's up?" he asked congenially several times as he made his way out the doors.
Some fans probably would have loved to ask Rose the same question.
The story of Rose's status has been well documented. In seven days it will be the one-year anniversary of tearing his left ACL, which was surgically repaired on May 12, 2012. He has yet to play in a game this season, but he and Thibodeau have repeatedly left open the door to a possible return in the playoffs, assuming the Bulls make a run. Rose has acknowledged he is struggling with the mental part of his recovery and doesn't want to come back until he feels like his old self again. Thibodeau admitted Saturday that Rose was "most likely out" for the rest of the postseason, but the organization does not want to come right out and say Rose is done for the season.
The Bulls are doing their 24-year-old star a disservice.
As the season has gone along, Rose's image and popularity have taken a hit with some fans. The once universally beloved figure is now being questioned by many of the same fans who used to adore him. Obviously, there are many other factors involved, notably his brother Reggie's comments to ESPNChicago.com regarding the fact that, in his eyes, the Bulls haven't done enough to put more talent around Derrick. Then, a team source told ESPNChicago.com in early March that Rose has been medically cleared to play but was still having hesitation about jumping off his left leg.
The story has been hovering over the Bulls like a cloud all season, but it burst back to the forefront Saturday night when Rose sat on the bench for only the second time this season. Rose's presence at the end of the bench in a suit only reminded some fans of what might have been, but what made matters worse to many fans was the fact that Rose watched as teammate Joakim Noah hobbled around on a right foot riddled with plantar fasciitis. Many fans -- especially on Twitter -- didn't want to acknowledge the fact that the injuries were different. Perception is reality -- and the sight of Noah dragging his leg around while Rose sat and watched on the bench further frustrated a weary fan base.
Despite all the furor surrounding Rose's availability, the one group of people that has yet to turn on the young superstar is his teammates and coaches. They have been steadfast in their support of Rose throughout the past year.
"It's not bothersome because I know all that he's putting into it, and I know who he is," Thibodeau said. "I know his character. And he's done amazing things for our organization, and he's doing all he can. And that's all you could ever ask a guy to do. There's always going to be some negativity, but I think the vast majority of it is very positive."
Rose is facing criticism that he has never felt before, and the spotlight that comes with the rest of his teammates being in the playoffs isn't doing him any favors.
"I feel bad for him," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "He's got a lot he's going through. He's obviously trying to make sure he does the right thing for himself and his family. And he's got all you guys asking questions about him every day and the pressure and all that. He's just got to take it a day at a time. When he's ready, he'll be back, and if he's not then we've got to take care of it without him."
Thibodeau can say all he wants about how he isn't surprised that Rose isn't on the floor a year later, but the truth is that many in the organization are surprised. Many thought Rose would be back at some time after the All-Star break or in March. Few thought there was a realistic chance for Rose to sit out the entire season, especially after they've seen him attack rehab the way he has and dominate in practice at various times throughout the past couple of months.
But Rose’s teammates and the organization support Rose because they respect him. He's still their teammate, and they still understand that the only chance they have in the future to win a championship is if Rose leads them to one.
"Dr. Cole said from day one it was going to be eight months to a year," Thibodeau said. "So you hope for the best, you plan for the worst. The thing is, we don't [want] him out there until he's completely comfortable, and he's not comfortable yet. So that's part of what we expected. As long as he continues to work the way he has, I'm good with it. I know how important he is, and not just him; this would apply to any other guy. If a guy gets injured like that, you have to be patient. Everyone's recovery is different, and you don't want someone out there that's not comfortable. And if they're still injured, you don't want them out there. So when he's healthy and he's ready to go, he'll play."
Even the most optimistic of observers don't seem to think that's going to happen this season. The organization has already waited so long for Rose to come back, why would it risk putting him out there in a playoff setting when he has admitted he's not mentally ready?
In the meantime, his teammates will continue to answer questions about him, and some might wonder what might have been if he were playing. But one thing they aren't about to do is criticize him. They know that if the shoe were on the other foot, and they were in the same situation after a career-altering injury, they would want to be treated the same way. The core players in that locker room still love Rose as if he were one of their brothers, and they know they don't have the talent to reach their ultimate goal without him -- even if that goal has to be put on hold for a year.
"We know him," Boozer said. "We know him. We know his character. We see his work ethic every day. He's as dedicated as anybody I've ever seen to the game of basketball and to our team. He's there every day; he doesn't take no days off. I don't think he's taken a day off the whole season, to be honest. He's been there every day, twice a day, so that's the reason why."