Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, right, goes up for a shot over Indiana Pacers forward David West, left, in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Indianapolis, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Updated: November 7, 2013 6:57AM
INDIANAPOLIS — All of it was ancient history. The medical examinations and the cross-examinations. The suspicions and the ugliness. The ultramarathon debate over whether he should have played last season and the bone-crushing weariness that accompanied it. The unceasing noise.
Now it was just Derrick Rose and a basketball court, the way it used to be but, for the longest time, wasn’t. Perhaps you heard the news: Rose sat out the 2012-13 season while recovering from a torn knee ligament.
So here he was Saturday night, ready for anything and everything from his first game in more than 17 months, a preseason meeting with the Pacers. For the little things. The things that reminded him he was a basketball player again. Making sure his shirt was tucked in the way he likes it just before tipoff. Gathering his troops after a basket by a teammate. Running over to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau for a quick conference during a stop in play. Fighting through a pick.
And then the big stuff. Driving hard to the hoop early in the first quarter, with a first step that put all sorts of torque on his left knee and quite possibly took out some floorboards. Elevating as he approached the basket, throwing up a wild layup, missing and scoring off the put-back.
If this was a baby step, it came with a 42-inch vertical leap.
“It’s a blessing just to be back on the court,’’ a relieved Rose said after scoring 13 points in 20 minutes.
The surgically repaired knee held up all night, didn’t buckle, didn’t shy away from contact. It couldn’t. It was under orders from its commanding officer.
By the time the night was over, Rose had taken the ball right at Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who stands 7-2, and got thrown to the floor like a bag of laundry. OK, the drive was a little too enthusiastic for some of us, but the man had been cooped up for a while. He got back up, the important thing.
“I’m used to getting hit now,’’ he said. “Falling, slipping, all that stuff. I got it out of the way in training camp.’’
He played Saturday with no concern for his own personal safety. That’s mostly a good thing because it’s what has made him a great player. He’s going to have to find other, safer ways to get his points — ah, never mind. I’ve been saying that for years, and he has yet to listen. It’s how he plays. An armed convoy to get him to the basket would be a good hire for the Bulls, but it could have luxury tax implications.
What can you do? Nothing. Ask the Pacers. In the second quarter, he went up and under George Hill and David West for a coast-to-coast layup, then did it again on the next possession.
“That’s the way he played before the injury, and he’s back to playing like that,’’ Thibodeau said. “And for him, that’s his game. The speed, the quickness but the power to go along with it — that’s what makes him so special and unique. There’s no one like him.’’Rose had four turnovers. He’s not in synch with his teammates yet. It will come. His jump shot was off too. What, you thought rust would take a sleeping pill just because it was Rose?
Pacers fans booed him whenever he got the ball, possibly over his missed season, which would only prove that there are uninformed people in other places than Chicago. All I know is that much oohing and aahing accompanied his two-handed dunk off a steal in third quarter.
We came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to see how Rose would fare but also to make sure he didn’t end up in a heap on the court. There wasn’t ghoulishness in that, only the reality of his situation, made starker by his full-contact approach to the game.
Afterward, he revealed that his vertical leap is now five inches higher than when he came into the league five years ago. Can we expect a rash of self-induced ACL injuries from players who want to jump higher?
Through it all Saturday night, Rose wore his standard blasé look, though underneath the façade something like a lava field must have been bubbling.
“I knew I was going to play the same way,’’ he said. “Play aggressive, make ’em stop me.’’
The only person who could stop him was Thibodeau, who limited Rose’s minutes. Rose wasn’t pleased. He’s back.