The idea of 'sports as escapism' is perhaps the chief perk of fandom, the main reason so many of us choose to spend our leisure time talking, thinking and worrying about a world populated by super-humans with unthinkable physicality playing children's games for ungodly sums of money. It's a fantasy land that barely has footing in the reality everyone else exists in. It's a bit silly and we know it, but it's still important. Sports offer a necessary relief from the cruelness of five-day work weeks and bills and complicated relationships. This is what we do for fun for a reason. Most of the time, it's just that. But there are instances when sports can be as sobering as even tangible hardships, when real grief sets in and you can't help but wonder if all of this is even worth the trouble.
Derrick Rose's torn ACL certainly qualifies as one of these moments.
ACL is the most harrowing acronym in the sports lexicon, a toxic three-letter combination that can rob an athlete of its very being. A properly functioning knee can enable the human body to do some amazing things, but it can all be taken away just as swiftly as it's granted. When you think about the pressure exerted on the joints of our most blissful athletes, it's a wonder all of these very vulnerable ligaments and tendons are as durable as they are. Just one false movement and it can all be over. On Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers, all of Chicago learned this lesson in the most disheartening way possible.
The Bulls were in control. The game was not in jeopardy when Rose, Chicago's homegrown superstar guard and only consistently potent offensive threat, launched himself for a patented power jump-stop in the lane against the 76ers with 1:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, his team holding a 12-point lead. He landed awkwardly, grimaced, and fell to the floor in pain after pulling up lame on the second jump of his planned attack.
It didn't look particularly gruesome. This wasn't Willis McGahee's knee bending in the opposite way a knee is supposed to or Shaun Livingston visibly snapping his leg in half. It was quick and it was subtle and it was certainly decisive. Rose laid on the floor in clear pain for what seemed like an eternity until two members of Chicago's staff helped him off the floor and into the locker room. The entire world could see just how difficult it was for Rose to walk.
It's hard not to expect the worst in a situation like this. As a sports fan, you're almost pre-programmed to anticipate the most cataclysmic scenario. I told friends and family I thought Rose was done in the wake of the fall, one that erased every last positive vibe in what would have been an excellent start to the 2012 postseason for our Bulls. Still, when the news finally dropped on Twitter that Rose had torn his ACL and his season was over, no amount of apprehension can fully prepare you for the gravity of the news. It's so final. Derrick Rose is done and with him, so are the Bulls' title hopes.
It's a devastating worst-possible-scenario for Chicago, who battled and overcame so many less severe injuries throughout another remarkable regular season under Tom Thibodeau. Rose missed nearly 40 percent of the regular season with an amalgamation of bodily pains: back, toe, ankle, groin, foot. Fellow starter Richard Hamilton missed even more time and heart-and-soul forward Luol Deng was absent for 12 games as well; even with Deng on the court over the final two months of the regular season, his injured wrist was still clearly a handicap. The Bulls finished an impossibly admirable 18-9 without Rose en route to securing homecourt advantage for the duration of the playoffs. They're still a very good team. But so far as the faint dreams of raising banner No. 7 in the United Center are concerned, Chicago's chances for real playoff glory died the moment Rose's knee did.
It's awful. The Bulls were a contender; if Rose could have used the first round or two of the playoffs to regain the rhythm he lost during a regular season plagued by injuries, they had a very real chance at a championship. Opportunities like the one Chicago just lost do not come around often. More than anything, this is what stings most about Rose's fall: there was a real chance something special was brewing here. Now it's been cut short before it was ever really tested. The 2011-2012 Bulls will remain a What If, the saddest possible fate for any team that aspires to be forever memorable. We lost a good one on Saturday.
Until the fateful moment, the Bulls looked inspiring. They punished Philadelphia by dominating the boards, contesting shots and knocking down their own jumpers. Even in the first round of the playoffs, these Bulls were still a bit of a mystery. For 47 minutes, we saw a glimpse of what they might have been capable of. The ball movement was crisp. Their defensive rotations were as tight as ever. With a healthy starting five and a hyper-talented bench settling into appropriate roles, these Bulls looked like they could have accomplished anything and everything. Now it's over, and the severity of the injury even puts future seasons in doubt.
Will Derrick Rose ever be the same? Plenty of athletes have come back from this injury, but nothing is guaranteed. For a player so reliant on natural born athleticism, one that excels because of an otherworldly ability to cut and leap and run, it's fair to question just how strong he'll return. We may never see Rose at the peak of his athletic destructiveness again, and that is a sports tragedy. Still only 23 years old. Game's this dynamic shouldn't have to reinvent themselves so soon.
The Bulls can still go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals, though even the most optimistic fans must have trouble envisioning them getting past Miami in a seven-game series. Without Rose, they just don't have the horses. There isn't enough firepower. For this team, there was no backup plan. What's ultimately depressing about Rose's injury is how it makes everything else feel vastly unimportant. Yeah, there's basketball to be played, so what, whatever. Does it even matter anymore? We waited so long to see what the Bulls could do with another shot at Miami in the postseason. Now, best case scenario, we wait 13 more months, assuming Rose is back and everyone else can keep up this unbelievably high level of play. It's hard to accept that's likely.
It's a cruel and unfortunate fate for this city and this team, and a reminder just how difficult it really is to win a championship. I keep coming back to Jay Cutler's season-ending broken thumb that derailed a promising 7-3 Bears season, but this is worse on numerous levels. This soul-crushing, and the worst thing that could have happened.
These Bulls were a title threat; that's gone now. Rose was among the most breathtaking natural athletes in the universe; that's now jeopardized . These playoffs that were about to be so much fun now just hurt to look at.
It's a testament to strength of these Bulls that the team will likely handle the news better than the fans. I think they'll beat Philadelphia and I won't be surprised if they defeat the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics series. But while our juggernaut just morphed into a fun underdog with nothing to lose, attempts at spin just feel cheap and feeble. There is no Ewing Theory here. The Bulls have been taken from us, and the ensuing sadness is genuine and deserved. We'll never know what the 2011-2012 Chicago Bulls could have been, and we never will.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.