DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The next checkpoint is scheduled for Saturday night in Indianapolis, where Derrick Rose will be in a Chicago Bulls uniform for the first time since his left ACL snapped on the opening day of the 2012 playoffs. There will be more preseason games, then the regular-season opener Oct. 29 at Miami, and then by sometime in early December the angst will have evaporated.
This is no longer the story of what happened last year, or two or three years ago. For Rose, who turned 25 on Friday, everything that has happened to him has been turned into an investment in his future. And he cannot wait to find out what will be.
"It gives me really a fresh start to get out there and prove myself again,'' he said after practice Thursday. "Getting past this is going to help my confidence and help me become better as a pro and as a veteran for my team.''
As Rose sat on the bench last spring watching his teammates survive a Game 7 at Brooklyn before losing in five games to the champion Heat in the second round, his strategy could not have been more obvious. What he was doing was as wise as the fable of the Three Little Pigs. For his sake and the sake of his team, he was rebuilding his career neither of straw nor of sticks but of bricks, and he was willing to absorb the abuse along the way.
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If his investment pays off as he expects it will, then the day may come when Rose looks back on his knee injury as the most fortunate calamity of his young life. At 22, he had already been the league MVP and led his young Bulls to the conference finals. Then this terrible thing happened to give him this chance to improve in every way that he could imagine.
He strengthened his entire body while rehabilitating his knee. He sharpened his jump shot. He studied the game from a new perspective.
"It helped me out a lot, learning the tendencies of players, how my teammates play without me, knowing their strengths, knowing how Thibs [coach Tom Thibodeau] calls plays,'' he said. "I think my IQ of the game definitely grew as a player. And me having the ball the majority of the game as the point guard, I should be able to control the game comfortably and pick my spots during the entire game.''
Even the criticism that Rose absorbed for not rushing back into the playoffs last spring is going to help him. He was denounced in his hometown by those who accused him of abandoning his team. There isn't a championship star in the NBA's modern era who hasn't been strengthened by criticism. From Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to LeBron James, they've all learned how to transform their pain into a source of inspiration.
"He's only . He has experienced everything,'' Thibodeau said. "He's got a lot of toughness to him, and people sometimes underestimate that, but it's probably the most important thing in life. He had the high of winning an MVP at a very young age and then experienced a tough injury right after that -- and he's been the same guy throughout. Even though he couldn't play last year, he was here doing all he could every day, and now he's ready to move forward.''
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Rose is the Bulls' biggest star since Jordan, and there is a comparison to be made between the two of them. When Jordan missed most of his second season with a broken bone in his foot, he forced the team to let him return in time to lead the Bulls into the playoffs, and his 63-point game at the old Boston Garden was the enduring result. When Rose suffered his injury, the meaningful point wasn't that he was too cautious; what will always matter instead was that he made a stand. Like Jordan in 1986, Rose was listening to his body, and he wasn't going to be talked out of what he knew to be right. That experience has surely added strength to his backbone.
"I don't think he's afraid to make the tough decision,'' Thibodeau said.
If there had been any doubt among his teammates about Rose's investment of patience, we would have heard about it by now. What appears to have happened instead is that their bond has grown stronger than ever.
"All their comments in practice, always making sure they're watching me,'' Rose said of the feedback he's been receiving from them. "If I'm falling, they're right there -- two or three guys is making sure to pick me up. That little stuff right there makes me feel good.''
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His good feelings are reciprocated. The Bulls won 45 games last year without Rose, and the games against Miami were often played on Chicago's terms. Now that Rose is back and promising with good reason to be better than ever, the Bulls are looking forward to making the most of the investment that Rose made in himself.
"It's a totally different team from last year,'' Rose said. "You see guys that are really preparing themselves for a big year.''
Consider the last time Rose was involved in a deep playoff run: James was still in denial over The Decision, Phil Jackson was coaching the Lakers, the Celtics were contenders, the Nets were in New Jersey, Jason Kidd was on the verge of a championship as a player and Paul George was an eight-points-per-game rookie for Indiana.
Now, LeBron is a two-time champion, Jackson has been replaced not once but twice, the Celtics have been dispersed all over the map, including Brooklyn, where the Nets now play with Kidd as their coach, and George is an All-Star on the rise who no doubt will be assigned to guard Rose as their teams compete to win the Central Division. The entire landscape has changed since Rose has been away, but he is approaching this season as if he has a secret he can't wait to share. It may yet turn out that the biggest change of all is in him.