You can see it on the grainy videos online. Tyrus Thomas grabs a rebound, lopes down the court, and feeds a streaking Derrick Rose who two-hand jams it on a hapless Goran Dragic. The Bulls' bench players theatrically pretend to hold themselves back from storming the court while Stacey King admonishes Dragic for trying to block the shot, for futilely exposing himself to posterization, for daring to exist in the same basketball universe as Derrick Rose.
It's the 2015 playoffs. The Bulls, going toe-to-toe with a Cavs team expected to roll through the Eastern Conference like a monster truck over a pile of broken sedans, give the ball to Rose. Somehow, he gets off an awful, off-balance three and banks it in as the clock expires. And, as the United Center explodes into rapturous anarchy and his teammates mob him and hold him aloft, Derrick Rose stares out into nothingness, no expression on his face, not even a cool, studied walking away from an explosion in slow-motion like this is a thing that is normal to me, the guy who blows up Apache helicopters full of drugs and counterfeit money and illegal reptiles expression, but almost like he has been disconnected from reality around him. It is a blank mug. It was less a catharsis than an exorcism from the unending series of catastrophic knee injuries and comebacks and hot takes and Bulls' front office skulduggery brought about by the deafening scream of 20,000 people who wanted nothing more than to believe in him again.
Derrick Rose's time with the Bulls reads less like a basketball career and more like a litany. His knees, once a pair of pistons that pinballed him through defenders and powered his circus layups and soaring dunks, exploded into loosely-packed bags of ligaments. The constant rehabs and battles with the media and a front office filled with Magoo Machiavellis brought an element of melancholy to his game. Rose never again played only against other basketball teams, but against the ghost of his own self; watching Rose for the past three years was like watching a cash-in reunion tour Derrick Rose on the county fair and riverboat casino circuit.
Chicago's relationship with Derrick Rose came closer to a religious experience than basketball fandom. Bulls fans became swept up in a cult preaching an endless cycle of Back and Not Back. Rose's transition layups turned into prophesies. One day, he would be Back, floating into the United Center in gilded robes, levitating over the hoop, teaching his teammates the Way of the Back, mastering the three point shot, and because this is a religious scenario he would also suddenly be good at defense too and he would vanquish all of the apostates who did not believe he was Back out of the Eastern Conference like so many febrile Karl Malones and then, he would lead the Bulls Back, he would lead the Bulls fans, his disciples of the Way of the Back into Grant Park and the fountain would turn from water into an ethereal light that would flow through him and turn him into Michael Jordan, which is what we all wanted him to be in the first place.
There is no other professional basketball player who could inspire an
ironic shrine art installation unless there's a guy in the Adriatic League
who starts an Ancient Order of the Trapezoidal Key
Derrick Rose's constant barrage of injuries (for fuck's sake, he broke his goddamn face last season and then spent months wearing a clear plastic mask that had "I am wearing an overwrought symbol of my transformation into a simulacrum of Derrick Rose" written on it) destroyed the Bulls' hopes of breaking through the Eastern Conference's LeBron hegemony. Instead, his absences liberated fans from expectations, and the Bulls turned into an enjoyably scrappy outfit of hard-nosed defenders, tiny shoot-first point guards, and Carlos Boozer, who spent four consecutive years refusing to close his mouth for a single second and once got so excited screaming AND ONE that he punched Danny Crawford in the testicles.
I will remember the horrified expression on the woman's face after witnessing Boozer's
brutal testicular assault on my deathbed
Now, Rose joins Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Tom Thibodeau, most likely Joakim Noah and possibly Taj Gibson in exile as the front office molds the Bulls into Fred Hoiberg's brand of draft lottery basketball.
Rose leaves the Bulls for the equally languid and dysfunctional New York Knicks. The Knicks, bereft of draft picks, reliant on the maligned Carmelo Anthony, and owned by a monomaniac obsessed with his corporate retreat blues music, will subject Rose to an even more unforgiving and unhinged basketball media. He has gone from the Lusitania to the Titanic. The Bulls will be terrible next year with or without Derrick Rose. But he takes with him a brief hope for resurrection, for an unstoppable drive and one of those looping layups, when Stacey King half-heartedly warns some hapless bench player about the futility of standing in the way of Derrick Rose and invokes the holy cry of Back, when you can see the MVP Derrick Rose straining to break free from his body sarcophagus. But Derrick Rose is not back; he will never be back; that is, until the first Knicks game when he comes back, knees and the Good Lord permitting.