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537 days later, Derrick Rose returns to UC

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Updated: October 17, 2013 12:10PM

Right there. Between the “B’’ and the “U’’ of the “BULLS’’ lettering painted on the baseline. Excruciating pain marked the spot.

Five hundred thirty-seven days ago, the Bulls were leading the 76ers by 12 points late in a first-round playoff game at the United Center. And Derrick Rose was perfectly fine. Everything was so fine that, on press row, a radio guy sitting next to me announced, “This is over,’’ and walked out to beat the traffic.

It wasn’t over, though in a very real sense, it was all over. A few minutes later, Rose was writhing on that spot on the court, the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee not at all agreeing with the landing that had followed his hop-step. The ACL was torn, and you know how the last 171/2 months have gone: surgery, rehab, drama, recriminations, etc.

It isn’t over. On Wednesday night, Rose took his first real steps on the UC court since the injury. Oh, he had warmed up before games there last season, which struck some as a cruel tease. And he had sat on the Bulls’ bench in street clothes on occasion, which struck others as criminal: He should have been playing!

But he hadn’t been back in uniform at the United Center, and not with a crowd watching his every move. And he certainly hadn’t been there after sitting out the previous game with knee soreness and setting off enough alarms to wake up a cadaver.

So here was public-address announcer Tommy Edwards, selling something that didn’t need much selling: “From Chicago, 6-3, No. 1, Derrick Rose.’’

Primal roar from the paying customers.

All this time later, Rose’s knee is still one of the biggest stories in Chicago. We can debate all we want about whether it should be, but the fact remains that it is. And it will be. The Bulls pretty much assured that Saturday, when they decided minutes before their preseason game in Rio de Janeiro that he wouldn’t play because of soreness.

It’s why this preseason game carried some import. The conspiracy theorists were watching Rose’s every move and every minute played. Had the Bulls been hiding something in Rio? Were they going to be playing this will-he-won’t-he game all season? Were we going to be subjected to more of these mysterious “rest’’ games during the season?

For mental-health purposes, I suggest you stop, otherwise you won’t make it to February.

There was at least one definitive answer for the doubters — a ridiculous three-point play off a crossover and a falling drive to the basket at the end of the first half. You don’t do that if there’s something wrong with your knee. Rose got up and finished with 22 points in 22 minutes in the Bulls’ 96-81 victory against the Pistons. And no limp.

Let me guess: You want to see how he’s walking Thursday.

Of the spectacular drive and ensuing contact, Rose said, “That’s the way I normally play.’’

Normal is good. He said the tentativeness he had earlier in camp is gone.

“I still got to knock some rust off,’’ he said. “Get my feet under me for my jump shots. That’s about it.’’

Joakim Noah made his preseason debut and didn’t seem bothered by the groin injury that had sidelined him. There will be no shortage of energy this season if Noah and Rose can stay healthy.

Can you see a championship team in there? When we last saw Rose playing at the UC in 2012, that’s what the Bulls thought they were. I didn’t think they had enough to supplant the Heat at the time. I want to see a few other scoring threats besides Rose before I believe it now.

This game was another step that had to be taken. It’s a step he said he longed to take in front of the home crowd. Early on, he found himself on his butt after the Pistons’ Kyle Singler sent him flying. That’s what he longed for? There’s going to be a lot of that.

There was lots of oohing and aahing at the UC, as if people were seeing something exceptional for the first time. They can be forgiven for forgetting what Rose can do with a basketball. It has been awhile.

Eventually, the fans shook off the rust, too. They chanted “M-V-P, M-V-P’’ when Rose shot free throws. Just like the good old days —pre-April 28, 2012.

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