One of the biggest stories of the last two months of the NBA season has been Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose's decision not to play despite being medically cleared for action. At first, Rose's decision was met with understanding, but criticism has ramped up as his absence stretches longer and the Bulls continue a very surprising playoff run without him (and many other key players). There have been various arguments against Rose's decision, such as the claim that he's hurting his team's chances at a title, references to the standard set by players who have soldiered on through immense pain, and the less severe assertion that his refusal to rule himself out of the postseason is annoying and manipulative.
The Bulls, for their part, have been more than fine without him, exceeding all expectations for a Rose-less season despite having several other things go wrong. Yet they have not forgotten Rose or his importance to the team. Joakim Noah, the team's vocal leader, stood up for his teammate's decision not to play after Monday's Game 1 win over the Heat. From Nick Friedell for ESPNChicago.com:
"Derrick's a brother," Noah said. "And to see him go through this is tough, but at the end of the day it's really funny how quick people are to judge. But people don't know what it's like to lead a team, especially after you tore your ACL.
"If you tore your ACL and you have to be the starting point guard and have the expectations that Derrick has, then maybe you can judge, but everybody who hasn't been in that situation before should really shut up because I feel like it's just so unfair to him and to this team. We're fighting, and everybody's going to just s--- on somebody who's been giving so much to this organization. It's crazy to me." [...]
Noah did not acknowledge whether he has spoken to Rose about the criticism, but it was clear he didn't like what he has been hearing. Rose said on Saturday that he hasn't paid much attention to the criticism, but Noah and the rest of his teammates have made it a point to stand up for Rose's decision not to play.
"He can say that he doesn't [listen to it]," Noah said. "I think he's dealing with it unbelievable. He's tough as nails, man. He's not budging. He doesn't let none of that affect him; whether it's praise or people judging him about his decision, he's the same. He's the same, and I really respect that because I don't think a lot of people could deal with the things that he deals with on a daily basis."
Noah's comments are impassioned, righteous, and informed. It's that last adjective that matters most, because it counters some of the harshest criticism of Rose.
It is fine to want Rose to play — he has been one of the league's most important and well-liked players for several years, and his absence takes away from fans' experience of the playoffs. But it's another thing altogether to say that Rose owes it to himself and his teammates to play. In effect, that response posits that Rose is shirking his duties and failing to fulfill at least one responsibility.
Noah has played through serious pain this postseason to play some of the best games of his career. If anyone has an argument that Rose should play, it's him. Yet, based on what he's seen from Rose and his own firsthand sense of the Bulls' needs, he is very willing to stand up for his teammate in public. Noah believes that Rose knows what's best for his mind and body, this season and beyond. He's not going to judge his teammate just because his return might provide a short-term boost to the Bulls' fortunes.
It's a response grounded in empathy for Rose's predicament and the bonds of teammates. Typically, the concept of the team sacrificing for each other is used as the rationale for players coming back from injury whenever possible. What Noah explains is that the relationship can also run the other way — that the team can identify with the needs of an individual and postpone instant gratification for his long-term well-being. If you're willing to set aside the common (as well as arbitrary and constantly shifting) standard of toughness that defines most rushed rehab processes, the space that Noah and the Bulls are allowing Rose is an inspiring display of the human relationships that can occur in high-level sports.
Again, there's nothing wrong with feeling disappointment that Rose won't play. He can do things on the court that few, if any, other athletes in the world can do. On top of those visceral thrills, his return would be a fiercely compelling story and add considerable drama to the playoffs. However, his absence has not been a total loss for the league. What Noah said about his friend and teammate on Monday night is not to be dismissed. It's a statement of deep feeling, a reminder that mutual respect and trust can be just as important to the postseason as intense opposition and animosity.