“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.” Those words, written by 19th Century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, may turn out prophetic for two of America’s most talented 21st Century athletes beset by career-threatening injuries, Derrick Rose and Robert Griffin III.
Three years ago, Derrick Rose was named the youngest MVP in NBA history, an award that places him in the pantheon of basketball’s greatest players. Since then, he has suffered two serious knee injuries and is currently recovering from his second major surgery, having played only 50 games since becoming MVP. He is scheduled to rejoin the Bulls for the 2014 season, and hopefully will return to embarrass defenders with his dazzling speed and quick cuts. But it’s a short list of basketball players who have regained all their previous skills after two knee surgeries, and arguably no one has ever come back at to play at the level Rose does.
How good he will actually be when he returns is problematic for the Bulls and their fans. Chicago has followed Derrick Rose since he led Simeon High to back-to-back state championships and there have been high hopes he would accomplish the same for the Bulls. With those expectations, Rose has faced as much pressure as any athlete in Chicago history.
This was apparent in the discontented murmurs when Rose opted against playing in the final month of the last season. He made a wise decision not to test his surgically repaired knee immediately against top competition at a time when the Bulls were not well-positioned to win the NBA championship. Rose’s surgeon did Derrick no favors by announcing publicly he was cleared to play, unwisely placing even more pressure on him. Fans, media, and even physicians sometimes forget the physical and mental obstacles serious injuries pose to world-class athletes. Those like Derrick Rose have been conditioned for years to compete; it is rarely a matter of not wanting to help the team.
Chicago fans should heed the cautionary tale of Robert Griffin III. The same year Derrick Rose earned the MVP, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. The Washington Redskins, impressed by his speed, throwing arm and versatility, traded several draft picks to acquire him out of college to be their quarterback. Their plan to make him the face and future of their franchise began well; he led them to the playoffs after one of the finest seasons a rookie quarterback ever had.
Then everything unraveled. RG III’s freewheeling style left him especially vulnerable to vicious hits by defenders. In the second half of a playoff game last year, he was limping noticeably after aggravating a previous knee sprain. It was obvious to virtually everyone watching that he could not run or throw effectively - basically a sitting duck against an aggressive Seattle defense. After discussion between the Redskins’ team physician and coach, who must have believed the Redskins could not win the game without him, they let RG III continue playing. A few plays later, he sustained a much more serious knee injury, requiring surgery and six months of rehabilitation.
It is worth noting the team physician involved in that decision was Dr. James Andrews, widely acknowledged as the best sports orthopedic surgeon in the country. Nevertheless Dr. Andrews was roundly criticized for not holding RG III out of the game. The Washington fans didn’t appreciate that the immense pressure on the sidelines in front of millions might cause even an expert orthopedic surgeon to make a different decision than he would make in the relaxed atmosphere of his office. (Coach Mark Trestman faced similar criticism earlier this year for keeping Jay Cutler in a game after he was obviously injured. In retrospect, not a good call, but again, it’s much easier up in the stands.)
Today, RG III is back but he has been playing with a knee brace, and is nowhere close to the player he was last year. After a recent game, one opponent said, “I personally don’t feel he should be playing right now… You can see it. Everybody can see it.” Meanwhile, the Redskins founder; as of this writing their record is 3-10.
Fans and media who lionized RG III last year now demand he be benched - and so he is. In light of the Redskins’ record, one wiseguy called him RG 3 and 10. Jibes of that sort unfairly malign a superb athlete who has become the victim of circumstances in Washington, a town not known for its kindness to those in the public eye.
In this era of talk-radio, social media, and ESPN, professional sports has become a rough neighborhood. Combined with the astronomical salaries of today’s athletes, this fuels fans’ sometimes unreasonably high expectations. No matter how much they earn or how talented they are, athletes are only human. They face constant pressure: injuries that can end a career in an instant while they must perform their craft in front of the whole world.
Memo to Chicago: When Derrick Rose returns, no matter what his game looks like, it behooves you to treat him better than Washington is treating RG III.
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