The image that defines Derrick Rose is the one where he's crumpled on the ground, holding his knee like it's radiating cartoon pain-waves. This happened just once, but in the mind's eye, a version of it occurs continually, every time Rose pulls, tears, or sprains something. He is a bleak, one-joke sketch character. It's not difficult to picture him falling to the floor in agony in increasingly improbable scenarios: while bending over to pick up a quarter, executing a high-five, being shot in the leg by a water pistol. He is fragile in a way that anyone who likes basketball wishes he weren't, in a way that suggests he might never again be able to stay on the court for more than a few weeks at a time. If Rose's rehab schedule holds up—as ever, the Bulls are hanging their star out to dry by publicly insisting he'll be back before the playoffs start—he will return from his latest meniscus surgery a couple weeks before the grim anniversary of an ACL-rupturing that sent him into a three-year spiral of only intermittent healthfulness.
This is upsetting because Rose used to be a great player, and now he's a sometimes-very-good one trapped in a cycle of collapse and reconstruction, but it's also upsetting because it's a dose of abject unfairness in an arena that is supposed to be immune to it. Sports are designed to be meritocratic, and even if they constantly fall short of that ideal, a basketball court is, all things considered, one of the fairest places on Earth. It is governed by rules that are mostly followed and properly enforced. This lawfulness allows ingenuity and skill to win out more often than not. The almost perfect justice of an NBA game is not its most obviously enjoyable quality, but it helps make it what it is.
It also renders it a welcome refuge from reality. We are all fucked, by institutions and each other, on a day-to-day basis. The state is racist, and the economy is run by cynical plutarchs. Some jerk sideswiped your car in the grocery store parking lot. You go out to dinner and get food poisoning. To be human is to be persistently imperiled and inconvenienced by forces beyond your control. You can do everything right and end up broke, miserable, and dying. This is the unstomachable truth.
In the face of this, it is refreshing to sink into your couch and take in a ballgame because, the slim possibility of some egregious late-game refereeing aside, you can be confident that one team will win because they played better than the other one. The spectacularness of the action would be less meaningful if it didn't work this way—if amassing more goals or points did not guarantee victory. A sporting event is a dream in which actions and deserved consequences are very nearly twinned.
Derrick Rose's predicament represents the inverse of this. He's been punished repeatedly for doing nothing wrong. He has a body that is both spectacularly well-engineered and hopelessly broken. His injuries have come not due to a lack of conditioning or the adoption of dangerous hobbies, but because his frame is unable to handle the violence with which it encourages him to play. Rose is an F-15 that catches flame whenever it breaks the sound barrier. What gives him the ability to hopscotch through the lane also results in sprained ankles and shredded knees.
Rose's doozy of a hamartia is despair-inducing in a way sports generally are not. Losing on a buzzer-beater hurts, but it's something you can accept in time. What has happened to Rose over the past three years is enough to make you angry about the cruel randomness of existence. It is some fist-shaking-at-the-heavens bullshit. It is tax laws and disease and catastrophic weather.
It is not why we're here, in other words. We invest in sports to see people like Derrick Rose apply their talent and dedication to their craft toward winning in a way that makes us scoot forward in our seats and emit strange, joyful sounds. We don't do so in order to be walloped by the same overwhelming sense of dread that regularly punctuates our non-sports-watching lives.
Rose's frailty is a reminder that this ostensibly egalitarian corner of the world we've carved out can be as unjust as the rest of it, because it's not actually a refuge from reality. This is something we're aware of at all times, on some level or another, and anyway, cosmic gut-punches are nothing we're not used to, but knowing what life is like does not take the sting out of its various disappointments and aggravations. What has happened to Rose is sad, for us and especially for him. That he deserves better is obvious, but its obviousness doesn't change a thing.