It's news enough that this week's big Derrick Rose news wasn't about the state of his body. Rose's dazzling talent has been locked up in that body for years, and the biggest mystery of his career is whether he'll ever be healthy enough to let it out. That body was durable enough to get through 66 games last season—the most he's managed since playing in 81 contests in his MVP winning 2010-11 season. A year after that, Rose tore his ACL and missed all but ten games across the next two seasons. The minutiae of his bones, muscles, and psychological state have been their own news industry ever since. The latest report about Rose is not about that glassy frame, though. He's been traded to the New York Knicks, and the questions now are some combination of how and why.
This move, which was once unthinkable for Chicago management and fans, came to feel inevitable as the Bulls' dreary season ended. The singularity of talent, geography, and character that Rose seemed to embody as he took the league by storm doesn't come around very often—prior to Rose, LeBron James was the only one to hold the mantle of Homegrown Franchise Centerpiece, and since Rose, there hasn't been another. As such, Rose felt to many in Chicago like the counterpoint to James. At his best, Rose seemed not just a counterpoint but a correction—the rare talent who could slow or stop the King's march through the Eastern Conference, and perhaps restore the Bulls to glory. That sentiment looks strange and a little sad now, but reasonable people justifiably believed this not long ago.
Ever since the power of the cosmos reversed so harshly on Rose, the weight of the failed dream once shared between him, his organization, and his city has gotten awfully heavy. In that sense, Rose being out the door is as much a relief to Chicago fans as anything else. Four seasons of hoping for a return to the trajectory his brilliant beginnings suggested gave way to four seasons of progressively more baroque injuries; in that context, the broken orbital bone that confined Rose to a darkened bedroom for the better part of a month because the light of day was too piercing to his damaged eye barely stood out. No athlete has ever caused so many Midwestern bros to research obscure medical terms.
Rose has also been the subject of many brutal rounds of uncredentialed sports bar psychoanalysis, and it has not helped him much. The initial hometown lovefest predictably curdled once local radio hosts and columnists suggested, much more than once, that he simply lacked the Herculean strength required to clean this particular Augean stable out.
What hurt most about these words is not the rude and oft-problematic subtext and context; as an African-American athlete who grew up in one of Chicago's most devastated neighborhoods, that was always going to be there. The painful part was that Rose could provide no transcendent play to rebut all that cheap and loaded criticism. Limited not just in playing time but also effectiveness, Rose no longer glides with the old end-to-end vengeance. More to the point, his former hypnotic scoring touch is now colored by anxiety—every time he attacked the basket felt like the first chapter of his next misadventure. Nearly every Derrick Rose possession is now an experiment in fear management, full of hesitations, half-measures, fits, starts, and very occasional flights back into the glory of his former stampede brilliance.
The Bulls have moved on from Tom Thibodeau, the coach of the Rose-dream era, and now they've moved beyond Rose himself. In exchange come Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon, and Jerian Grant, three players that new coach Fred Hoiberg will try to fit into his uptempo, floor-spreading vision, but only one of which—the young Grant—seems especially likely to pan out as a fit. Even so, it's a better yield than expected for a man who's become more of an existential crisis than a basketball player in recent years. Lopez is a useful player on a good contract, and Calderon is competently Calderonian, and even if no one knows how good Grant might me, it barely matters. The point is that a new day can finally begin in Chicago.
If this is it, though, it begins with a gut punch. The goodwill between Rose and Chicago had festered to a point of supreme discomfort, but the end of the Rose Dream will probably never fully settle for the Bulls' fanbase. The day of his trade, like the day that his ACL tore, will be a where-were-you discussion topic for an audience that has had more disappointments than triumphs to cherish in this century.
The Bulls will look for another star point guard this summer, but there will be no one who can replace who Derrick Rose was, let alone what he might have meant. Of course, Rose himself was no longer quite qualified for that job either. The past couple of years were a slow, painful swan song; the former folk hero was earthbound and hamstrung and otherwise transparently mortal, and mortality tends to be a life sentence. In order for Rose to move like a new man, and in order for the Bulls to be something more than a dream sadly deferred, he had to go—not just away from Chicago, but away from the expectations that once seemed like prophecy. Taking on the task of turning around the longstanding mess in New York wouldn't be an easy ask even for peak Rose. But something had to give, and Rose, and the Bulls, are at least now trying to answer the right questions.