CHICAGO -- It was just prior to tipoff and John Calipari, Derrick Rose's coach for his one season of college basketball at Memphis, had a question for his former pupil. "I said to him, 'Derrick, how's the ankle?' He said, 'It's fine.' I said, 'Really, how's the ankle?' And he said, 'It's fine. Just watch me.'"
You'd think if a player was ever going to confess an injury it would be to his coach, the guy who convinced him to leave home and move hundreds of miles away, a man he could still be playing for now if he'd decided to stay in college. But Rose wasn't going to admit to his coach his bum left ankle was bothering him, even though it sure as hell was bothering him.
Why would he admit it to his coach when he wouldn't admit it to himself.
You can look at Rose's 10-for-27 shooting and his eight turnovers and say it was a subpar night for a player who accepted, to complete adoration, the league's MVP award from commissioner David Stern before Wednesday's 86-73 win over the Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Those obsessed with metrics and statistical analysis will do just that.
People who know the history of great players in the NBA, however, will take Wednesday's game for what it was: the most important performance in the most important game in Derrick Rose's professional career. Had his team lost Game 2 to Atlanta, its season would have been perilously close to over and done.
If you're looking for style points wait for figure skating or gymnastics. In 43 minutes on a bad wheel, Rose did what MVPs do. He carried his team, even on one leg, to a victory the Bulls simply had to have.
Even with the team he played for at a Hall of Fame level losing to the Bulls, Dominique Wilkins, now a broadcaster, said immediately following the game, "Derrick Rose deserves so much credit. He's injured. I know what he says, but the fact is he's injured. But when you're the best player on the team, you play, period. Something about the playoffs enables you to overcome the injuries. More important than that, it's your job. If you're 'The Guy' you cannot let your teammates see you sweat. You can't afford to let them see a cloud hanging over you. You can't let the fans down. The pressure is a beast. And if Derrick doesn't score big, they can't win. I know people will look at the stats and say, 'Well, that's a sub-par night.' Look, I played playoff games with an ankle so badly sprained I had to wear a boot over my sock. I played playoff games with three fractured fingers. The Game 7 in Boston against Bird? Had a dislocated thumb. Look at it; still can't straighten it out. It doesn't matter that he was 10-for-27 or had turnovers or that Jeff Teague played him really, really well, which he did. What mattered is Rose's presence."
In other words, Rose of course has had better games, dozens of them. But he's never been more valuable.
The absolute unwillingness to even acknowledge the ankle, preventing him from doing his acrobatic thing, is part of the reason why Rose is the MVP and why the Bulls finished with the NBA's best record in the regular season. The Bulls aren't going to lead the league in anything glamorous. You want artistic? Miami's your team. The Bulls, at their best, have to settle for tough, for defense and rebounding and grinding. If the leader of a team like that gives in, it's done. Rose hasn't yet been introduced to give-in, even though he's learning how to negotiate this on the fly.
Rod Strickland, a mentor at Memphis and a wonderful point guard in his own time, was in attendance for Games 1 and 2. He, too, knows Rose is hurting though he would never admit it to Strickland either.
"I've been there," Strickland said, "You simply have to figure it out. You learn how to do it, especially a point guard. You feel your way when you're hurt. You pick your spot. You can't go in the open court like you'd like to, not with a bad ankle, so you use screens more. You change tempo, you make the kind of adjustments you make when you get older."
Rose picked his spots to drive to the basket, but he didn't have his usual daredevil flair for finishing around the basket. Yes, he was 1-for-8 shooting 3-pointers but was a much more respectable 9-for-19 on 2-point attempts. He had 10 assists and worked particularly well finding Joakim Noah and Keith Bogans. It was both hideous and entirely admirable the way Rose played. It's the first game Rose has played that will grow in stature if the Bulls' season continues a round or two more. Anybody can show off in November when they're 100 percent healthy; it's what you do in the playoffs when you probably ought to be in a tub of ice that matters.
Asking Rose postgame how his ankle feels led to a predictable answer; yet it had to be asked, if for no other reason than to see whether Rose was going to fudge his answer a little bit or go into complete Jordan-denial mode.
Q: Derrick, how does your ankle feel?
A: "My ankle's fine. It wasn't a factor in the game. My ankle's good."
Standing close by, Coach Cal shook his head and said, "He'll never say anything is bothering him."
The kid probably believes if he says it often enough, without wavering, that his ankle is fine. … Maybe it really is. It's called leading. And a great many players with supreme talent can't do it.
The folks who like their professional athletes tough and humble have wrapped their arms around Rose; you can probably count the commissioner of the NBA in that number. Rose and Kevin Durant are the players people are increasingly latched on to.
Rose has probably never been more drained after a game. All the duties of being an MVP, the news conferences, the ceremonies, the dawning of suits and ties and a being civic god in the place you were born and raised had worn him down more than Atlanta's clever and varying defenses.
Rose is connected with the place that he plays in one significant way that Ditka, Banks, Hull, Sayers, Payton, even Jordan never were. Rose is from right here. The amount of emotion invested in him locally is staggering, and otherwise known as pressure. And Rose's job, to use Wilkins' word, wasn't to shoot a high percentage, it wasn't to be on the good side of plus-minus, it wasn't to play up to his regular-season form or justify winning the MVP vote. Rose's job Wednesday night was to even the series with Atlanta, by any means necessary, even if it meant putting up some errant shots to give his superior rebounders put-back attempts. Rose's job, simply put, was to win Game 2 with all that's been swirling around him. "I've loved it," Rose said of the last few days, "but I'm glad it's over, too."
This is what Rod Strickland was referring to when he said you have to figure it out. Most 22-year-olds sit around and wait for the veterans to help them through the rough spots. Rose got his first real taste of playing with the full weight and pressure of the playoffs smothering him for two full days. And for the first time, he and his team won for the first time in the second round. His history says if he can walk, the other guy is eventually going to be in trouble.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.