Players fall to injuries all the time--especially, it would appear, in Chicago. In their most recent seasons, the Bears and the Blackhawks saw their cornerstone players, Jay Cutler and Jonathan Toews respectively, sidelined by injuries. But when Derrick Rose went down in the first game of the playoffs Saturday, it felt different: This was our guy; this was our year. This felt like a death.
Like a death, I began to experience the seven stages of grief over the weekend. I’m aware this sounds incredibly dramatic—but I also know I’m not alone.
“It was like being in a morgue on Saturday,” WBEZ’s sports contributor Cheryl Raye-Stout said of the mood in the United Center after Rose hobbled off the court.
My older brother sent me a text asking, “Does NBA.com sell 2012 Chicago Bulls commemorative urns?”
WBEZ's midday executive producer Justin Kaufmann told me that he shed tears. "Not just when I heard the news, but later, when reminiscing about hearing the news," he said between wimpers.
Ever since the Bulls lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the dialogue around the team has been obsessively focused on a rematch—and redemption. But the prolonged NBA lockout birthed a grueling, condensed schedule—in a period where teams traditionally played 50 games, there was suddenly 66.
Since leaving Simeon High School on Chicago’s South Side, Rose played in 98 percent of his games, 280 of 286 games—until this season. This season, Rose was plagued by injuries, from turf toe to back pain, and spent 27 of those 66 games on the bench.
So when the reigning MVP went down—it felt different. And so, the city of Chicago began to grieve. First there was the initial shock and denial which was quickly replaced with pain and guilt once suspicions of the tear were confirmed.
Then came the anger and bargaining. Chatter around town quickly turned catty: “Why was he in the game? What was Coach Thibodeau thinking?" Thankfully, players and coaches around the league were quick to squash it.
Next step: depression...hooray! It was pretty easy to wallow there in stage four for a while. Stage five, the upward turn, that was tough.
Bulls guard Kyle Korver called on fans for support Saturday evening on his Facebook page:
"Right about now, the disbelief has faded, anger has subsided and were all wondering... why? Why. Why. Why Derrick, again? Derrick is more than an MVP to our team. He's our friend, our brother he inspires us to be the very best we can be, just by who he is and how hard he plays. That he has spent so much time this year hurt, was frustrating. Now that he is out for the rest of the season, well its just plain sad. No one is to blame; what happened, did. We send him our prayers, our love, our good wishes that he heals and comes back stronger, better, healthier than ever before.
Bulls fans. Now is not the time to ask why or to get bitter. Now is the time to refocus and ask "How are we going to win this Championship?" We have the best Team in the league. This season has proven, we are a TEAM and it has taken us ALL to have the best record. Lets focus on whats ahead. This is an incredible opportunity for All of Us to step up and make it happen. We're all gonna have to work harder and smarter. We are all gonna have to believe in ourselves. That we are more than the sum of our parts. We need YOU to believe with Us. We need You to believe for Us. We are going to keep going strong. One quarter, one game, one round at a time. Until its over. That's how we're gonna do it."
Then Rose helped pick the team—and the city—up by the bootstraps on Monday by visiting his teammates at practice. Step six, reconstruction, felt familiar: The Bulls relied on its Bench Mob all season long. Players like Korver, John Lucas III, Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson had been cutting their teeth all season.
Now, as the Bulls prepare for Game 2 against the 76ers tonight at the United Center, it’s time to move on to stage seven: acceptance and hope. Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen knows all about the final phase. When Michael Jordan unexpectedly retired from basketball just before training camp for the 1993-94 season began, many doubted the reigning champions would be successful—the skeptics were proved wrong when the Bulls made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals that year. The team's ability to rebuild in the '90s might explain why Pippen penned an open letter to the Bulls Tuesday morning.
"You’re still the best team in the NBA until an opponent proves otherwise. So go out there and play like it," Pippen wrote.
On Tuesday’s Afternoon Shift, Bulls.com writer Sam Smith, longtime sportswriter and Jordan biographer Roland Lazenby and hometown hoops hero (and current Comcast SportsNet Bulls studio analyst) Kendall Gill help rally the troops toward acceptance and optimism. To join the conversation, call 312-923-9239 or hit us up on Twitter at #AfternoonShift.