Somewhere, in an alternate universe, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway had long careers as elite NBA players, fulfilling all the bountiful promise they showed when they entered the league. In that world, there were no devastating injuries that left those two would-be stars as shells of their former selves, and no fan ever had to wonder, what if?
Every generation has its “what if?” players. Some, like Bernard King and Bill Walton, were able to put together stellar if too-brief careers. Others, like Greg Oden, never played enough to even be classified as busts. Advances in modern medicine have made depressing scenarios like those more rare, but now we worry that it’s happening again.
Derrick Rose is injured again. This time, it’s his right knee, with a torn meniscus that will require surgery and that will sideline the Bulls guard indefinitely. Rose missed all of last season with a torn ACL in the other knee, which means one of the game’s most electrifying players must now embark on the rest of his career — once he returns — with both of his knees in less-than-ideal condition. No amount of miracle science can make a surgically repaired knee better than a non-damaged one.
A lot of the reaction and analysis coming out of this news will be what it means for the Bulls and the balance of power in the NBA. But those things, while relevant, are trivial to the big picture. Aside from its impact on Rose himself — which, let’s be honest, is the undisputed No. 1 concern — the injury’s biggest crime is against basketball fans themselves. Even fans who despise the Bulls uniform have to admit that the game is better with a healthy Rose in it, crossing up defenders and instigating camera flashes. The idea that Rose could return as something less than what he was at his MVP peak in 2011, after all the work he did to come back from his last knee injury, is enough to make a feeling person sick to his stomach. Rose doesn’t deserve this.
Saddest of all, though, may not be the “how” but the “who.” Hill’s entry in the league in 1994 was hyped up not just because he could play, but because he read books and played the piano and pulled off the unusual trick of seeming like a nice guy despite his fame. Hardaway quietly smiled and nodded in the background while Shaquille O’Neal, his Orlando teammate, blustered in the foreground. Maybe the popular representations of Hill and Hardaway weren’t true, and maybe those were a little unfair to their fellow players anyway, but the fact was that there was very little about them to dislike.
The same is true of Rose. There are players who could be struck down by two serious knee injuries in a span of 18 months and a lot of fans would shrug it off. Rose isn’t one of those players. It’s hard to think of any professional athlete more invested in his community, more dedicated to playing the right way on a nightly basis, than Rose.
And now, for the foreseeable future, he won’t be able to be out there on the court, giving Bulls fans reason to cheer and giving everybody else reason to remember why they love this game. Get well soon, Derrick. Please.
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