Photo via Flickr user Keith Allison
There is only so much information that fits onto the back of a basketball card, and only so many types of information that are supposed to appear there in the first place. All of which was fine by me during my years editing and writing cards for Topps. Provided I was able to turn off various critical parts of my brain and hand the controls over to my inner sweatpants-clad 11-year-old—and he's got the wheel a lot of the time, if I'm being honest—writing copy for basketball cards was actually pretty fun. The tough part, the only real grind of it, was the repetition. Because there were so many product lines, every rookie got at least a half-dozen cards, and most big-ticket prospects got even more; this was problematic because there are invariably and inevitably only so many things to say about these gangly teenage superhumans. This was not always the case—I had written like ten cards for the tragically broke-bodied and elder-faced seven-footer Greg Oden before I got around to mentioning his childhood wish to become a dentist—but it was generally true. There are still nights I wake up, screaming things like “was a high-jumper in high school!” or “enjoys playing video games!” My doctor says I should try never to think about Spencer Hawes again, and I'm trying to do my best.
This all goes back to one of the fundamental weirdnesses of writing and thinking about sports: all the blazing physical genius on display in the average NBA game does not in any way mean that the player on whom that genius was bestowed is even remotely an interesting person. In many cases the purest in-game transcendence pours out of what are otherwise thunderously mundane, or even objectively shitty, humans. Oddly, the warped and bile-belching defectives often seem more logical than the quiet ones with stuffed-animal eyes and sweet tooths and video game habits. Some hungry genius melting its owner from the inside out makes some sense; such raw brilliance inhabiting a player as opaque, affectless, and dull as Derrick Rose is something else entirely.
This isn't Derrick Rose's fault, by the way—he doesn't owe anyone a bunch of interesting hobbies or quirky quotes, and we should all hope that basketball fulfills something inside him. I wrote what must have been a dozen cards for Rose, who won the MVP award in 2011, wrecked his ACL in the first game of last year's playoffs, and has spent the last week getting kicked around by tough-guy sportswriters outraged that he's not back on the floor in his Chicago Bulls' series against the Miami Heat. The most interesting thing I ever came up with, after reading numerous profiles and features and interviews, was a quote from a former teammate revealing that Rose basically only ate candy and canned pineapple and syrup. I put it on a card. There was nothing else.
To be fair, Derrick Rose was 19 at the time, and had spent most of those 19 years playing basketball. The game—his facility for it and dedication to it—extricated him from a Thunderdome-ian Chicago neighborhood, made him great, and then made him rich and an icon in his hometown. This is a good story, and Rose is beloved in Chicago for good reasons. But he hasn't played in a game since he hurt himself last year, and despite Bulls team doctors clearing him months ago (this news was, we must assume, leaked by the Bulls front office in an effort to get fans and writers to demand that he play) and what have been reported to be characteristically dominant practice sessions, it's increasingly difficult to imagine Rose suiting up for the Bulls in their current war against the Miami Heat that vaguely resembles a playoff series. The Bulls managed to steal a game in Miami, but they're almost certainly too shorthanded to win many more—their best big man is playing (quite well, actually) with a debilitating foot problem, Rose's erstwhile replacement is out with injury, and the team's top wing watched the team's last two games from a Chicago hospital bed while recovering from a spinal tap and a particularly vicious bout of the flu. This is all meaningful as context, but it might have had nothing to do with whatever decision Derrick Rose made to play or why he made it—or with Rose being thrahsed and mocked and ham-handedly psychoanalyzed by the nation's worst and loudest sportswriters for making that choice.
There's a lot of “appears to” in Rose's decision, because—true to form for a player who has basically never said a surprising thing into an live microphone—he hasn't quite been able or willing to explain himself. He does not feel mentally ready, he says, but he might soon. He feels good, he'll say, but not good enough. Given the Bulls' apparent institutional preference for letting players wreck themselves, Rose's apparent decision makes solid long-term sense for both him and the team, but Rose isn't quite making clear what that decision is. He’s definitely going through some shit, and you would be to if you got injured so badly you couldn’t perform at your job for a year. It's just unclear what that shit consists of, both because Rose is habitually not clear about anything in public, and because fit-pitching talk-radio kidults and purveyors of dim bombastic literary Steak'um—here's CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel, making a Skeptical Pooping Man face in his author photo and going in on Rose with every snarly one-sentence paragraph he can extrude—don't really care much about finding out the reasons for anything.
This is a familiar sports discourse thing—start with some half-reasoned gripe about These Spoiled Millionaires or Arrogant Ungrateful Thugs or whatever, and then find something to drape all that wet rage over. And given that Rose's teammates seem fine with the decision he's making, it's safe to assume that Rose himself isn't bothered by the rhetorical doofstorm swirling above him. But it doesn't seem too much to ask that we just take Derrick Rose at his halting, ambivalent word—that he wants to play, but for various reasons just can't. In padding out all his collectibles with various anodyne words, I learned only one thing about him: Derrick Rose's entire brief existence has been basketball. Or at least that was how he told it. Whether he was concealing or protecting some deeper thing is something we can't know. It wouldn't fit on the back of a card, anyway. Besides, it would be his business.
Previously: The Last Kings of Sacramento