Everybody hurts.

Photographer: Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Derrick Rose Is Missing His Shot at Greatness

James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street" and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker." He has written about the game for the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Esquire and Grantland. He teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Last week, Derrick Rose was talking to ESPN's Nick Friedell about missing some games with a pair of sprained ankles. The playoffs were five months away, and Rose was returning from surgeries on both his knees.

"When I sit out it's not because of this year, I'm thinking about long term," he said. To be fresh for the postseason, right? To extend his career with the Bulls? Afraid not. "I'm thinking about after I'm done with basketball," he explained. "Having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to. I don't want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son's graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past."

He was, he added, "just learning and being smart."

Everyone from Bulls fans to Twitter pundits to Stephen A. Smith suggested that the statement made Rose sound the opposite of smart. Many pointed out that playing basketball exposed him to none of the brain injuries boxers or football players risk. Some Rose fans hoped he had simply misspoken. Yet two days later, when asked if he understood why so many people got upset, he said, "No, no, but I could care less." He went on: "It is what it is, but I was being myself, and that's all I can be."

Chicagoans have heard some bewildering things from our native-son point guard, but this seemed to hit a new low. Charles Barkley sure thought so. "There are pros and cons to what we do for a living," he said. "Derrick Rose is making $20 million a year. He got a couple bad knees. That's disrespectful to maids, people who are in the army who go out and kill people and get killed. They got no arms and no legs. As much as I like Derrick Rose, that is just flat-out stupid."

Shaquille O'Neal used an even more withering S-word: "You see how Kevin McHale walks now, how Phil Jackson walks now, how Charles and I walk. But it was worth it. When you make comments like that, it makes you look soft."

How did it come to this? One factor is that Rose has been mentored by his older brother Reggie, who stood in for their absent father and has often spoken for his baby brother. Reggie's own basketball career was cut short by injury, and it has made him defensive about his brother's slow comebacks. When Derrick was cleared to compete in the 2013 playoffs after missing the regular season, Reggie said the Bulls hadn't put enough good players around Derrick to win a championship and this was a "big factor" in his decision not to play. In other words, it wasn't just the soundness of his knee but also the quality of his teammates that determined whether he'd compete.

Sitting out to avoid soreness two decades from now raises ethical questions as well. How should a player behave after signing guaranteed long-term contracts with a team and a sneaker company that will pay him more than a quarter of a billion dollars? What does Rose owe the Bulls and their fans, especially season-ticket holders?

If he really wants to "learn and be smart," he might recall that Michael Jordan didn't sit out the 1986 playoffs when his broken left foot was incompletely healed, even though his financial future was far from secure and his teammates were less than championship-caliber. Earning $630,000 that season, Jordan played through the pain against a Celtics team he knew the Bulls couldn't beat. His team got swept, but Jordan's reputation was made.

Most athletes accept that a career-ending injury is possible on every play, but it doesn't keep them from competing when they're less than 100 percent. Famous examples include Willis Reed, Gale Sayers, Gordie Howe, Kirk Gibson, Isiah Thomas in the 1988 championships, Tiger Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open. After badly spraining an ankle, Kerri Strug landed a vault that clinched Olympic gold for the U.S. gymnastics team in 1996. Ronnie Lott starred in a 49ers playoff game with a crushed finger that later had to be amputated.

Duncan Keith, whose locker is across the hall from Rose's in the United Center, lost seven teeth to a slapshot in the 2010 conference finals but returned to the ice three shifts later, blocking five more shots and logging a team-high 29 minutes of playing time. With the Blackhawks down 0-2 when he left the ice, he assisted on the tying goal and led them to a 4-2 win and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

These gamers were no doubt "all sore" at meetings and graduations later on. Yet there's a reason they remain embedded in the public consciousness. And there's a reason their damn-the-torpedoes approach has come to exemplify something larger than sports.

Derrick Rose was voted Rookie of the Year in 2009 and became the league's youngest MVP in 2011. He may reach that level again if he can physically overcome the effects of his knee injuries. But what goes on above his knees will also determine his legacy -- and whether anyone remembers him as a great player or just a very talented one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James McManus at arramc@msn.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net