Derrick Rose may be in a class by himself as the quickest basketball player who ever played but if he isn’t, attendance call doesn’t take long. Before Sunday, like Road Runner zooming by Wile E. Coyote, Rose routinely left frustrated defenders in his wake, receiving smackdowns on his approach to the basket, a tax paid for opponents’ embarrassment. Ironically, Saturday there was no angry cheap shot, merely an awkward jump stop, grimace, and the sickening “pop”, characteristic of an anterior cruciate ligament tear.
Philadelphia coach Doug Collins, unmindful of the game still going on, immediately summoned help for the fallen prodigy. Perhaps at that moment, Collins flashed back to his own superlative playing career four decades ago, cut short by an ACL tear. He may have instantly realized what the rest of us would soon learn; even before there is time for us to fully appreciate the gift the gods conferred, Derrick Rose’s virtuosity can be stolen by injury.
Historically, similar injuries befell three young incomparable prodigies like Rose in baseball, football, and hockey. In their eras, knee injuries prevented them from completely realizing their own once-in-a-lifetime skills. With improved medical techniques unavailable to them, Rose can hopefully avoid their fate.
In 1951, the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, a 19 year-old outfielder who could run faster and hit a ball farther than anyone, was destined to become the next Yankee immortal in the footsteps of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. In the World Series that year, his manager played the young Mantle in right field and instructed him to cover extra ground for the aging DiMaggio, playing centerfield in his last games. Sure enough, a ball was hit between the two and Mantle raced to get it. At the last instant, he realized DiMaggio would catch it. Petrified at the thought of colliding with the imperious DiMaggio, Mantle veered away, stopped suddenly, caught his foot in an exposed drainpipe and collapsed in pain. He tore knee ligaments, and began a career of debilitating injuries.
Mantle’s training techniques weren’t always good and he drank excessively (“If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself”) but such was his talent that he actually played more games than any Yankee until Derek Jeter and still became a Hall of Famer. Several major leaguers who played with, or against, him said that on two healthy knees, Mickey Mantle would have been the greatest baseball player ever.
In the mid 1960’s, the Chicago Bears had Gale Sayers, a running back many consider the greatest broken field runner ever. In his rookie season, he broke the single season touchdown record scoring on kickoffs, punts and from scrimmage, leaving befuddled defenders grasping for air. Imagine a combination of Devin Hester and Barry Sanders. Steelers Hall of Fame defensive coach Dick LeBeau, who played against Sayers, noted, “There really has never been anybody else like him, even to this day.” Mike Ditka, an authority on such matters, and Sayers’s teammate, said, “He was the best runner with a football under his arm I’ve ever seen.” Remember, Ditka coached Walter Payton.
In 1968, Sayers suffered major ligament damage after being tackled and had primitive surgery. Dr. James Andrews, the nonpareil sports orthopedist whose career began in 1969, observed the ability to fix ligament injuries in those days was in the dark ages. Surgeons didn’t know how to fix the ACL, so they left it alone and operated on the peripheral tendons to make up for the ACL. Putting it mildly, that didn’t work.
Yet thanks to his phenomenal work ethic, Sayers actually returned and became football’s top rusher through determination and a modified running style. But after his injury, Sayers lost his incomparable spontaneity, unique fluidity, and wondrous cutting ability. He retired after playing only 68 games but still made the Hall of Fame.
Derrick Rose’s hockey counterpart was Bobby Orr, an 18 year-old who came to the NHL, revolutionizing the game with his speed, hockey skills, and preternatural sixth sense. Before anyone else, he demonstrated the ability to transition quickly from defense to offense. He led the formerly hapless Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup Championships in the 1970’s. Like Rose, Orr suffered severe ligament damage, which effectively ended his career. The Bruins traded him to the Blackhawks, for whom he played his final games. But at 30 he was a shadow of the hockey genius of a decade before.
After surgery, will the future still belong to Rose, the NBA’s youngest-ever MVP? He has been compared to Michael Jordan, a comparison flattering in itself. In truth, he is not yet the player Jordan was. However, in fairness, he has accomplished more at an earlier age than Jordan.
Knees are fragile things. No one can say whether Rose can return as the quickest player in basketball. His recovery depends on several factors –extent of the injury, quality of the surgery, nature of the rehabilitation, and that most intangible factor of all, luck. Without modern medicine, Mantle, Sayers, and Orr all became Hall of Famers, albeit with tragically marred careers.
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.” Cross your fingers for Derrick Rose.
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