Originally published in Bloomberg View.
The longer the Chicago Bulls stay alive in the NBA playoffs, the louder the clamoring will grow for the return of their injured budding superstar, Derrick Rose. Before the din becomes overwhelming, critics should remember the story of an injured budding superstar of another era: Grant Hill.
The pressure on Rose, who hasn’t played since undergoing knee surgery last year, is already absurd. His detractors point out that injuries haven’t stopped teammates such as Joakim Noah, who has been playing with plantar fasciitis, or Nate Robinson, who has been battling the flu (complete with his very own vomit pail on the bench). One fan has sued Rose for emotional distress, and a Chicago radio station asked listeners to send letters pressuring Rose to suit up. Even Steve Kerr, a TV commentator and former Bulls guard, basically called Rose soft, saying he “owes it to his teammates to return.”
Kerr, who played against Hill for about a decade in the National Basketball Association, can’t be that clueless. As Hill told me: “It’s noble and admirable what Noah and Robinson and these guys are doing. But to compare that to what Rose is going through is irresponsible.”
We mythologize warrior-athletes; the more visible the agony, the better. But not all sports injuries are the same. It’s easy to remember those who inspired their team to glory by playing through pain—and just as easy to forget those, like Hill, who never recovered from the damage they inflicted on themselves by doing so.
Before Hill became an NBA journeyman, he was the next Michael Jordan. The Detroit Pistons took him with the third pick in the 1994 draft; he was an instant and perennial all-star. In the 1999-2000 season, Hill’s last with the Pistons, he averaged 25.8 points per game.
Toward the end of that season, Hill’s ankle started bothering him. The Pistons’ trainers treated it and Hill continued playing, but the ankle kept getting worse. After he pulled himself from a game, the team’s doctors assured him that it was merely a bone bruise. Hill sat out the last few games of the regular season, amid criticism that he was worried about jeopardizing his free-agent payday. He returned for the playoffs, but in his second game he felt a “pop” in his ankle. Hill couldn’t go on. The ankle was diagnosed as broken. He underwent surgery four days later.
The story might still have ended happily. In August 2000, three months after his ankle surgery, the Orlando Magic signed Hill to a seven-year, $93 million deal. In September, Orlando cleared him to scrimmage against his new teammates. “I’m going against guys on the Magic that six months earlier I averaged 40 points against,” Hill said. “And I’m not feeling right.”
Hill wasn’t right. In the end, the ankle would require four more surgeries. He spent the prime of his career—years when he should have been dominating the league—in hospitals and training rooms. The Magic had made a mistake, pushing Hill back onto the court before his ankle had fully healed. But Hill had made a mistake, too, deferring to the judgment of the team’s doctors and ignoring his own instincts. He stayed in the NBA—he may retire this summer, at 40, after spending the season with the Los Angeles Clippers—but he never played with the same confidence again. “If I had sat out for a whole season, who knows what would have happened?” Hill said.
The Bulls haven’t pushed Rose back onto the court prematurely. But they did throw him under the bus, announcing in February that he had been medically cleared to play. “I don’t want to be critical of the Bulls, but I wish they just said, ‘Look, he’s out,’” Hill said.
Instead, Rose now sits on the bench in his slick suits, looking every bit the part of the rich athlete who cares only about himself. He won’t rule out the possibility of playing during the postseason, which is yet another thing that he has been criticized for. Rose can’t win. If he definitively confirms he’s not going to play, it will only reinforce what his critics are saying about him.
Basketball is a physical game, but it’s also a psychological one, especially for elite players such as Hill and Rose, who are accustomed to feeling invincible on the court. Rose’s knee may have “healed,” but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to test it in games—let alone in the playoffs against the Miami Heat.
This is not Isiah Thomas and his badly sprained ankle. This is a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the one that enables Rose to stand firm against an onrushing LeBron James or leap over Dwyane Wade. It wasn’t that long ago that a torn ACL was a career killer.
Thomas was obviously hurting when he famously scored 25 points for the Pistons against the Lakers in the third quarter of Game 6 of 1988 NBA Finals. But Rose hasn’t played professional basketball in more than a year. Sure, he has practiced some with the team, and was even “busted” throwing down a dunk in a viral video—as if that has anything to do with going up against average NBA players, never mind LeBron.
People are treating Rose’s body like it belongs to them. It doesn’t. Only he will know when he’s ready to go. “Here’s the thing,” Hill says. “You want Derrick Rose to come back as Derrick Rose the great MVP, all-star player that he is—to have that feeling when he steps on the court that no one can stop him. I remember that feeling from when I was young.”
Are you listening, Chicago?
Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, The Challenge, and Death Comes to Happy Valley. He's @jonathanmahleron Twitter.
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