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Derrick Rose Is The Man Of The Year ... And Counting

Chicago Sun-Times, April 27, 2013

By Jow Cowley

A huge hand reached over and grabbed Chuck Swirsky’s left elbow. Bill Wennington realized something was wrong. Really wrong.

‘‘Bill knew right away,’’ Swirsky, the Bulls’ radio play-by-play announcer, recalled. ‘‘We take a break, and I remember Bill saying, ‘This isn’t going to be good, Swirsk.’

‘‘You read faces. You read the expression. It was silent. I’ve never seen an arena go into a complete hush.’’

Swirsky and Wennington have been broadcasting Bulls games together for five seasons. Last April 28 was one that neither has forgotten — Game 1 of a first-round playoff series between the Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, the day MVP point guard Derrick Rose’s career path changed with a jump stop and pass, the day a city went dark.

‘‘It was a dark day for us,’’ center Joakim Noah agreed.

Rose instantly grabbed his left knee and almost crawled to the baseline in pain. The first teammates to notice were Carlos Boozer and Noah. They sprinted back down the court to Rose.

‘‘Out of the corner of my eye, I see Rose is in excruciating pain,’’ Swirsky said. ‘‘So the first thing I said is, ‘Rose is down!’

‘‘There’s a pause, and Bill still has his hand on my left elbow. As a former player, I think he knew right away what was going on.’’

What was going on was the worst nightmare of a franchise and a fan base. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in Rose’s left knee wasn’t confirmed until an MRI exam the next day, Sunday, but everyone knew by Saturday night.

“I went to 5 p.m. Mass, and in the middle of church at St.  Michael’s in Wheaton, I could hear a murmur,’’ Swirsky said. ‘‘People had their phones out. There was word that it was Derrick’s ACL. Sure enough — and I’m probably a bad Catholic for saying this — but I went on my phone and saw it was the ACL.’’

The franchise

‘‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’’ That was the mentality that coach Tom Thibodeau, general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson took after the Bulls were eliminated in the first round and Rose underwent surgery May 12.

Dr. Brian Cole, the surgeon, gave a recovery time of eight to 12 months. That meant no London Olympics for the hometown kid last summer and a best-case scenario of returning after the All-Star break in February.

Forman, Paxson and Thibodeau had work to do with the roster, specifically in insulating themselves in case Rose missed the entire season while still leaving themselves salary flexibility beyond the season. Forman had to move most of the ‘‘Bench Mob’’ to clear salary, then rebuilt the bench with Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli — to his credit, a job well done. Then Thibodeau had to get the defensively challenged Robinson and Belinelli to understand his defense-oriented style.

What Forman couldn’t salvage was the 86 percent — the Bulls’ winning percentage the last three seasons when Rose, Noah, Boozer and Luol Deng played together.

The teammates

Not one Bulls player — on or off the record — has bad-mouthed the decision for Rose to stay out of games, despite the fact he has been practicing with them in five-on-five, full-contact scrimmages since late January and was cleared to play in games in late February.

‘‘I’m a little surprised, yeah, but mad? No, man,’’ one teammate said. ‘‘That’s his body, and Derrick wants to do great things for a long time. We know his heart.’’

As Deng put it, ‘‘Don’t judge character by an injury.’’

Swirsky figured that by now he might hear some grumbling from teammates, especially because the Bulls have struggled at times this season. Not a peep.

‘‘A player knows his own body, and, more importantly, a player knows his own soul,’’ Swirsky said. ‘‘Not one player has criticized him on the record, off the record, nothing.’’

For teammates, the only bad feeling related to the injury seems to come from remembering seeing it happen.

‘‘I’ll probably remember that day for the rest of my life,’’ Noah said.

The family

Right after the Feb. 21 trade deadline, Reggie Rose, Derrick’s brother and manager, spoke to ESPN Chicago and slammed the organization.

‘‘Have you made any trades to get better?’’ Reggie Rose said. ‘‘It’s frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him.’’

Derrick Rose distanced himself from those comments in a statement, but some assumed the dots were connected. If Derrick wasn’t on the court, how much of that was because of Reggie’s influence?

‘‘I’m sure he listens to his brother, but Derrick makes the final decisions,’’ one member of the organization said.

Another concern was whether Reggie was speaking for his brother by pointing a finger at teammates, specifically Boozer. There was speculation Rose didn’t like playing with Boozer, but that was news to Boozer, who earlier this month told the Sun-Times he loved playing with Rose and that they hung out together off the court.

The business

Home attendance, with or without Rose, hasn’t changed. For the fourth consecutive season, the Bulls are atop the NBA in attendance.

Television ratings are a different story.

According to CSN Chicago, the household ratings for regular-season games averaged 4.49 in the 2010-11 season, 5.81 last season and dipped to 3.23 this season, when Rose missed all 82 games.

Then there’s Adidas and the role it plays in the Rose brand. The company signed him to a 13-year deal that could reach anywhere from $200 million to $250 million with incentives. The Bulls are paying Rose $94 million through the 2016-17 season.

When Adidas launched a campaign called ‘‘The Return’’ in August, using words such as ‘‘belief’’ and ‘‘push,’’ it sounded like his return this season was imminent. Asked recently about the campaign being false hope, Adidas sent the same statement twice by e-mail: ‘‘Adidas continues to support Derrick in his recovery, and we know he will be back on court better than ever when he’s healthy and ready.’’

Adidas is smart to stay under the radar now, as any sponsor of Rose would be.

‘‘If you’re Adidas, you know there is some negative because people are grumbling about why Rose isn’t playing, but is it a big enough negative? Most cases, no,’’ said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of Chicago-based sports marketing firm IEG LLC. ‘‘Sports fans have notoriously short memories. Even if we get upset with our favorite athletes or teams, once they get back to doing what they do, especially if they’re winning, all is forgiven. I think that’s what Adidas and all the companies that sponsor [Rose] are banking on.’’

The reality

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the Rose injury. No one died on the court that day. Life went on.

But something changed.

The kid from the tough streets of Englewood who could do no wrong now has questions surrounding him. He’s now just another athlete who has to prove himself and earn fans’ trust back.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Maybe the Rose pedestal needed a few chips.

The best comeback stories usually do.