Before Game 3 of the Bulls-Heat series at the United Center, Scottie Pippen presented the honorary game ball.
Seeing Pippen looking as lean and athletic as ever, I facetiously asked on Twitter whether he could stay and guard LeBron James for 10 to 12 minutes. Instantly, the number of similar, snarky replies showed some Bulls fans have the memory of elephants. "Yes, but for only 1.8 seconds.''
Pippen won six NBA titles, made seven All-Star teams and earned recognition as one of the league's 50 greatest players ever. Yet, around Chicago, Pippen still hasn't totally escaped the stigma attached to his refusal to enter a 1994 playoff game against the Knicks when a game-winning play with 1.8 seconds left was drawn up for Toni Kukoc. That was nearly 20 years ago.
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Which brings us to Derrick Rose.
Fair or not, Rose potentially faces the same reality about his sullied reputation. Rose has undergone a stunning transformation from one of Chicago's most beloved athletes into the Bulls' MVP: Most Vilified Player. Next season, inevitably we will look differently at the player wearing his familiar No. 1.
To some observers, Rose represented the antithesis of the Bulls team that never quit during a memorable playoff run. For everybody who learned the hard way to assume nothing in regard to Rose, the worst fear is the superstar peaked at 22. He has much to prove.
It might take only one All-Star season from Rose to wash away the stain of his season as a $16 million bystander. It might take an NBA championship. Then again it might never disappear and Rose always will be a guy who makes people wonder how badly he wants to be on the court.
Whether you think Rose should have played on his surgically repaired left knee no longer matters. He chose not to, missed all 94 games, and we have to respect his decision even if some of us questioned it.
All that matters now is what Rose does as he embarks on a comeback that involves more than just learning how to trust his knee again. He must start trusting himself more too. The end of the Bulls season marks the beginning of the second phase of Rose's career that requires changes that have little to do with dribbling and driving.
So begins Rose's summer of rediscovery. He can disappear to California now, please. Come back committed to being more assertive, on and off the court.
Rose will be 25 in October but nothing about him throughout the comeback saga screamed independence or maturity. Nothing asserted Rose as a leader taking charge of his future, critics be damned. He missed all season but still played games — with words. At best Rose came across as naive; at worst, delusional. The more Rose tried to enlighten, the more he confused. Nobody knows but God when I'll return.
Huh? Once Rose started talking such gibberish, what went on in Rose's head became as compelling as what happened with his knee. Clearly, competing agendas in Rose's inner circle resulted in bad advice, or none at all, and contributed to everybody's botched public handling of his recovery.
Rose forgot his agents work for him, not the other way around as it often appeared to more than just outsiders. Same goes for older brother Reggie, who got a pass from Derrick after he made Bulls officials roll their eyes when he recklessly ripped Bulls teammates. And nobody ever will know the level of input from Adidas, which fraudulently sold Rose's return but really should offer a refund.
The most consistent, unified message came from Bulls players, management and coach Tom Thibodeau. In a pro sports world full of jealousy and pettiness, that indeed is rare and commendable. Long after Gar Forman said in early January "we're optimistic he'll be back at some point this season,'' nobody whispered behind Rose's back.
It was the least the Bulls family could do for not ruling Rose out for the season as they should have once they sensed his hesitation; rather than maintain a charade that continued through the season's final game.
There Rose was 30 minutes before tipoff Wednesday night, drenched in sweat and the only player on the floor at American Airlines Arena, practicing cross-over moves and double-pump-reverse layups for the crowd. If I had a poster board and a Sharpie, I would have held up a "9" to judge his trick shots.
Rose looked unstoppable, the way Bulls players swore he looked in practice and the way he always looked in public, pre-game workouts that would have been conducted better in a private gym.
All they did was leave witnesses asking why Rose couldn't do those same things in a game. Around Chicago, it's a question that will linger uncomfortably awhile.