The Supernova

rose bench

As he suffers another scary setback, Derrick Rose’s career is facing a rare and unfortunate destiny that may be impossible to overcome.

On Friday night, as Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose uncomfortably walked off the court and was eventually carried into the locker room in the third quarter of a game against the Portland Trail Blazers after a right knee injury, there had to be a dreadful sense of déjà vu in the building. By April of 2012, the Bulls entered the postseason with the best record in the NBA for the second season in a row. In the 2010-11 season, Rose was one of the very few players in NBA history to win the regular season Most Valuable Player Award in only his third season. This came after becoming an All-Star in his second season, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season, and being the #1 pick in the draft after coming within a miraculous shot of winning the NCAA national championship at Memphis.

As the trajectory shows, Rose’s star was not just on the ascent, but it was reaching the top at a record pace. Within three years, Rose had gone from a prospect to a luminous and explosive superstar, in the same city where Michael Jordan became the greatest basketball player of all time. In his MVP season in 2011, Rose had assembled a stat line (25 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.7 APG, 86% free throw percentage, 1 game missed) so awe-inspiring across the board that even in an era where we have been spoiled by a bevy of great point guards, it was pretty easy to label Rose as the best of them all. It is fitting that he wears the jersey number 1, because in the two-year stretch after the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics slowly went downhill, Rose was considered the best new rival to the throne that LeBron James was grooming himself for when he went to the Miami Heat. After all the talk about the Heat and Celtics fighting for Eastern Conference supremacy, it was Rose who carried the defensive-minded Bulls with a new coach and a reloaded roster to 62 wins in 2011 and 50 wins in the lockout-shortened 2012 season. The only other team to match that level of regular season greatness was the San Antonio Spurs.

The newly assembled Heat did, however, get the upper hand on Rose and the not-ready-for-prime-time Bulls in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals with a 4-1 series win. Rose was spectacular on both sides of the ball, but it was the Heat’s decision to put LeBron, the best defensive player in the league right now, on Rose late in games that got the best of the newly crowned MVP. Although he sat more games in the 2012 season, Rose was still at a career-high pace in assists and in the running for MVP consideration when they took another league-best record into the playoffs in April of 2012 against the Philadelphia 76ers. But late in what had unfolded as a convincing 103-91 Game 1 win for the Bulls, something went terribly and suddenly wrong. Late in the game, Rose did his trademark hop step in the lane, but the left knee buckled when he planted it before leaping again. The visual of the injury itself was not grotesque at all, but as Rose writhed uncontrollably in pain without moving and head coach Tom Thibideau sprinted across the court like a worried dad to check on his star player, the worry sounded off like a rifle shot throughout the United Center.

Those fears became a devastating reality for Bulls fans and NBA fans alike later on: A torn ACL and a likely recovery time that would overlap the following regular season. The Bulls lost in six games to the eighth seeded Sixers, and all hope seemed lost for the Bulls as LeBron James would win another Eastern Conference Championship and his first ever NBA Championship. The Bulls made moves in the offseason with the clear mindset that Rose would likely not return until late in the 2012-13 regular season. The underdog Bulls still managed to scratch up a postseason appearance and reached the second round, but the loaded Miami Heat eliminated them once again. But as the 2013 postseason rolled around, the absence of Derrick Rose on the court went from excusable to conspicuous. There were reports and footage of Rose practicing in contact drills as early as January, but the rumors began to quickly swirl that Rose and his representation were dictating the superstar’s timetable to return and taking the responsibility out of the team’s hands. I have always suspected that Rose and his people knew that the 2013 season was a loss for Chicago, so sitting out the entire season was better off for his recovery.

Rose attacks the basket against the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
Rose attacks the basket against the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.

It may be ethically unfair to challenge Rose’s true motivations as he went incognito from the media all year and sat in a suit one game after the next that season, but it did not stop the masses from throwing rocks at the glass house. As the underhanded Bulls tried their hardest to stave off elimination against the Heat, many fans locally and nationally began to stand on the soapbox and put Rose’s feet to the fire for taking unneeded time off regardless of what the team needed. However, it would be safe to say that Bulls ownership and management were ultimately satisfied that they allowed Rose to recuperate from the reconstructive surgery with the endgame of getting back the same dominant point guard that they had gotten used to seeing in a Bulls uniform. As we reached this past offseason, coaches, team execs, and Rose himself were promising that the former league MVP would be back in action for the start of the 2013-14 regular season.

After LeBron and the Heat won their second NBA Championship in a row atop the Eastern Conference, the newly scripted storyline going into the regular season was “Rose’s Redemption.” In his absence, not only had the Heat become the media darlings of the NBA, but the Central Division that the Bulls play in had been overtaken by the latest ascendant superstar after Rose, Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. The plan was in sight for Rose and the Bulls to take back Eastern Conference supremacy by taking out the Pacers and finally standing up to the boys in South Beach. Bill Simmons ranked the Bulls with the rejoined Rose as the #1 team in the league going into the season, not the Heat. I predicted almost exactly this in my team preview last month, but there were plenty of reasons for doubt. Not only was Rose certain to be rusty and out of playing shape to start the regular season, but you had to wonder if these physical ramifications were going to curb Rose’s explosive, hyper-speed style of play.

What quickly turned Rose into one of the best guards in the NBA was not just his improved jump shot and built-in selflessness, but the fact that at 6’3” and nearly 200 pounds, he was probably the most athletically gifted point guard in the world. Rose’s five-tool talent not only made him a favorite among fans for some incredible highlight reels, but also becoming one of the best defensive players at the guard position, routinely bullying smaller point men with his size and swatting shots the other way with his leaping ability. But with a knee that needed such a drastic fix at such an early age, questions lingered about even after the long layoff if we were ever going to witness the same Derrick Rose once again. The loud crowing about is all just noise, however, unless the same doubt creeps into the mind of the athlete himself, and in the case of Rose, then it becomes the all-too-powerful self-doubt.

Rose getting emotional during the launch of his adidas shoe in September of 2012.
Rose getting emotional during the launch of his adidas shoe in September of 2012.

No one outside of maybe Derrick’s brother and business partner Reggie probably knows how much self-doubt Rose truly has, but reflection on this was necessary after Rose appeared for the launch of his latest adidas shoe in September of 2012 and broke down after a montage of his highlights was shown. He firmly leaned his head down, unable to look at the photographers, stared at his new shoe, which he knew he would not wear in an NBA game the following season. Not only was the surgery still freshly stitched like the shoe he was holding, but as a born and bred kid from Chicago, he contemplated the persistent violence that surrounded him when he was still a young boy in a struggling family. The event was meant to merely be a corporate sponsorship, but because of Rose’s emotions, it had the feeling of a eulogy for Rose’s still-short career. As the tears continue to flow, Rose was thankful for having “true fans,” then said, “We ain’t supposed to be here at all, but God made the way.”

In Rose’s eyes, the way that God made for him was a way out of a very troubled and crime-riddled neighborhood of Englewood on the south side of Chicago. He then enrolled in 2003 at the famed Simeon Career Academy, where Rose showed his city roots by wearing the number 25 in honor of “Benji” Wilson, a top prospect who had played there before being shot to death on the street during his senior year. Certainly, Rose was dreading that his career would be cut short by injury when he wept during that shoe launch, but Benji’s life was cut short by tragic means from which Rose fortunately escaped in time. You can tell just from clips of the 30 for 30 documentary how difficult it was for kids to find the righteous path and overcome such odds to reach greatness, but Rose was able to do it. By the time he was a junior at Simeon, he was one of most coveted high school recruits in the country before John Calipari wooed him to play for the Memphis Tigers. But that one year in college (which has since been struck from the record by the NCAA due to findings of academic misdeeds) was the only season in which Rose did not make his troubled hometown also his basketball home. In a league where almost every great player in a team city is either transplanted, plucked from obscurity, or acquired for pricy amounts, the homecoming of Derrick Rose (and his return to the court this season) felt even more sentimental than any other.

Rose is thankful that God made the way for him to overcome the violence of the south side of Chicago, but now he hopes that the basketball gods have a more comfortable destiny mapped out for him upon his return. Unfortunately, after what has happened in his first month back, that destiny may not be as rosy as Rose was hoping that it would be. After making a highly anticipated return to action for the Bulls, Rose was slightly heavier than he normally was to go along with letting his hair grow out. In his first game back against Miami, he put up 12 points and had more turnovers than he did assists. The passing vision is still just as good, but he is averaging a career low in assists so far this season. He still had that ability to blast off at times in the paint with nifty layups and head-spinning moves, but the tenacity with which he had constantly done it in seasons past was not back yet. He did have one notable performance against the then-undefeated Pacers where he went for 20 points, including 6 made three-pointers.

Along with the slow start for Rose came a slow one for the Bulls, as well, bringing in a 6-4 record when they played the Blazers this past Friday. In the third quarter, the ball was stolen in front of Rose, who was trying a backdoor play, and when Rose tried to change direction back on defense, his right knee buckled. Rose was able to walk to the bench to get it checked out, but needed support to get to the back. Even in an arena where Rose was the visitor, the crowd was almost cautiously somber as they stared at what could have been another catastrophic injury for Rose and the Bulls. When a quick picture caught Rose hobbling on crutches out of the Rose Garden, breaths were being held by fans worldwide hoping for the best. Thankfully, the M.R.I. on Saturday did not find a torn ACL (the same injury he had on that fabled left knee), but did discover a torn meniscus in the knee, which would require surgery. A torn meniscus is far easier to recover from for basketball players than a torn knee ligament (Russell Westbrook suffered the same injury back in May and he seems to be doing just fine). The devastation could have been worse, but the warning signs are more prevalent than ever.

Only ten games into what was expected to be an amazing comeback, Derrick Rose and his physical status are once again shrouded in mystery as he is listed as “out indefinitely.” The mystery last year for Rose was when he would actually return, but after the shaky level of play and injury to his other knee, the mystery going forward will be if Rose will ever be the same again. It seems that Rose and the eventful career that he has already had has placed him in a category that goes beyond All-Star or Hall of Fame status. He has become not just an embattled superstar but a supernova, an explosion of energy that shines brightest at its peak before it eventually combusts in spectacular fashion and the remnants spread throughout the galaxy. That would avidly describe an NBA career (or any athletic career, for that matter) where a player exhibits elite, unmatchable ability at his very best at an accelerated rate, then quickly dies out, forcing the player to pick up the pieces in his later years. Just like a supernova is estimated to occur in the Milky Way three times every century, the appearance of such a unique NBA career is extremely rare and stunningly sudden.

Bill Walton during the 1977 NBA Finals against the Sixers. His legendary career was renowned for being cut short by injury far too soon.
Bill Walton during the 1977 NBA Finals against the Sixers. His legendary career was renowned for being cut short by injury far too soon.

The most classical examples of a “supernova” NBA career would be that of Hall of Famer Bill Walton. After four remarkable and injury-free seasons playing for John Wooden at UCLA, Walton was drafted #1 by Portland, the same city where Rose suffered his most recent injury. His numbers were terrific from the outset, but several injuries to his feet, nose, and leg forced Walton to miss 58 games in his first two seasons. It was not until his third season in 1977 that he was able to blossom entirely and not only had his best numbers but also led the Blazers to what remains their only NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP in the process. He won the regular season MVP at age 25 (the same age that Derrick Rose is right now) the following season, but a broken foot sidelined him and the Blazers lost in the playoffs to the Seattle Supersonics. Walton eventually left Portland to play for the Clippers, but was a shell of his old self due to countless foot and ankle problems. From his last season in Portland until 1983, Walton played in only 47 games. Legendary writer Bob Ryan, who saw Walton both at his best in Portland and as a super sub for the Boston Celtics, recently stated that Walton is still the most talented basketball player he had ever seen.

The career of a “supernova” type of player is more momentous and even more brutal not just because they do not come around so often, but because of how sadly inevitable these careers turn to out become. For many NBA superstars, the story based upon what was meant to be, what could have been, or what should have been. For a supernova, the career is a story of what simply had to be. As tormenting as it is to imagine that this special group of players were bound by fate to be at their greatest early on and abruptly lose their best abilities, it makes the careers for players like Walton, Ralph Sampson, Grant Hill, and Anfernee Hardaway that much more intriguing as history unfolds. These occurrences are hard to come by but never go unnoticed because a player has to be talented enough and emerge quickly enough to establish themselves, then take a steep fall from the top of the mountain. I feel like being a supernova is worse than being a superstar who never won a title or a former college great who never made it in the NBA. In most cases, those careers deal with broken dreams or dreams unfulfilled. In the case of a supernova, it is a dream being fully realized, then suddenly turning into a nightmare.

In the case of Derrick Rose, his career and recent struggles seem to represent an amalgam of several cases of superstar players whose best days were unfairly cut short. Like Rose in Chicago, the newly inducted Hall of Famer Bernard King was a New York kid who found his calling as a Knick and quickly became the most dangerous scorer in all of basketball, only be taken out by a knee injury. Like Rose as a point guard, Grant Hill was a new breed of small forward in the late 90’s, then signed a max contract with the Orlando Magic to team up with Tracy McGrady. But after breaking his ankle and suffering through several surgeries over the next four years, Hill’s career quickly became a tall tale. Sampson and Walton were very much alike, becoming elite centers in the NBA shortly after decorated collegiate careers. Two years after leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals, the oft-injured Sampson was unceremoniously traded to the Golden State Warriors. Just like Sampson, Rose’s injury troubles began in his fourth season.

Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O'Neal, and Grant Hill while on the 1996 USA Basketball team.
Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal, and Grant Hill while on the 1996 USA Basketball team.

When Rose played at Memphis, he wanted to continue to where the number 25 in honor of “Benji” Wilson, but that number had already been retired by the school for a fellow supernova, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. While Grant Hill did not find an equally great teammate until it was too late, Hardaway had the luxury of playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal just as he was blossoming into a dominant center. By the time Shaq had left Orlando for the Lakers, Hardaway was an athletic marvel who had guard skills in a small forward’s body. Once it was Penny’s turn to leave Orlando and signed with the Phoenix Suns, he had already endured a major injury to his left knee and slowly deteriorated after that. These players all reached greatness under different circumstances and had various results but the path remained the same: A sudden falter due to injury followed by a steady and sad decline. To imagine that this will occur to Derrick Rose as he mends from his most recent knee operation is a miserable task, but it is one that seems impossible to overlook at this point.

As the Chicago Bulls and their fans have to revisit life without a player that had all the makings to take the NBA by storm, there is now an overpowering trepidation of whether the storm that Rose’s career had emulated has already passed. It is optimistic right now to think that Rose will be back before the All-Star break and be back to full health when the playoffs come around, but there is still a lot of catching up to do for Rose, who already seemed to be a step slower in his first few games back before this most recent setback. Perhaps Rose’s career has the inevitability of a supernova frantically gathering energy into an awe-inspiring moment and exploding in devastation right afterwards. Just like having two supernovas from the same star would seem to defy physics, it seems more and more unlikely that Rose will have to defy the basketball gods by recapturing his prime after a series of physical setbacks, something that even the great Bill Walton could not do.

Rose leaving Portland after his torn meniscus against the Blazers on Friday.
Rose leaving Portland after his torn meniscus against the Blazers on Friday.

That goal for Derrick Rose has more hope attached to it than it does reality, but as impossible as it might seem, there might be a silver lining to this very dark cloud. Historically, there are two types of supernovas: The collapse of the core of a giant star, or a degenerate star being suddenly reignited. Perhaps Rose will become the latter, that debilitating star that finds the energy to blast off in the lane and soar to the top of the NBA once more. In some cases, the only way to overcome devastation in your mind is by returning to the scene of the event and risking it all once again. That is what Derrick Rose has tried to do this season and has almost gotten snake bit a second time in a row. To rise back to the top would be to escape from this sobering and inevitable destiny of being the one who got away, and it would be very unwise to bet against what the basketball gods have mapped out for their servants. The possibility of such a miraculous comeback is almost as unlikely as a supernova coming around a second time in a row, but that is Rose’s only hope right now: To gather all that boundless energy into that degenerating core and explode one more time.

I continue to remember this adidas commercial featuring a triumphant and bouncy Derrick Rose coming back to the United Center after his knee injury and nodding back at the viewer in the closing shot. Time stops when Rose goes down at the beginning of the ad, but as he rises again to the adulation of all, order is restored once more. What is ironic is that the commercial debuted in October of 2012, promoting a much-anticipated return that did not actually occur that season. Like most television ads, that story of redemption is unfortunately becoming more and more transparent as the days and months go by, like the remnants of a supernova flowing aimlessly through the universe. That is how we all seem to feel about Derrick Rose right now: A fleeting and fictitious hope in our minds for a return to glory that will simply never come.