Derrick Rose’s past looms over Zach LaVine’s return

Vincent Goodwill
NBC Sports Chicago

The final piece, the biggest piece of the Jimmy Butler trade will finally take the floor Saturday night against the Pistons and be washed with cheers from a crowd anxious to see if Zach LaVine can re-capture his old glory.

But even though LaVine was traded for Butler, the ghost in the room is Derrick Rose.

It's always about Derrick Rose and hopefully for the Bulls, the lessons learned from the mistakes made with Rose several years ago.

LaVine's ACL injury last February, while not as publicly jarring as Rose's ACL injury in the 2012 playoffs, has allowed the Bulls to hit the reset button on an era that began to disintegrate the moment Rose's knee unexpectedly gave out.

As fitting as it is for LaVine to make his debut against the team he injured himself against, it's even more so fitting and perhaps even a test for the Bulls franchise to show it's grown from that 2012-13 season-when many around the NBA and media felt the Bulls were tacitly pushing Rose to get back on the floor for a playoff run when Rose was clearly not ready physically or mentally to jump right into high-stakes playoff basketball.

LaVine's 344-day layoff, from the outside looking in, has been far different than Rose's absence. Think of how many times the Bulls pushed back against LaVine returning. Initially, many around the team said Christmas, and even LaVine thought he'd be back on Dec. 15th.

He didn't have a setback or anything, but with the Bulls winning more than expected after a disastrous start, the team seemed doubly cautious with LaVine-even as LaVine pressed to get back on the floor.

They've been as transparent with LaVine's process as they've been about any subject in years, knowing the gravity of the situation and even if they will never admit it publicly, perhaps the responsibility they've had in matters from the past.

"At first it was out of my mind because I never really thought of myself as being, like, injured," LaVine said. "It's really weird. It's just different situation. I'm a different person Everybody handles things differently but you can understand the err on the side of caution for them because what they invested."

"I appreciate them for taking that in consideration because if they wanted, just go out there and throw me out there. It shows them waiting and making sure everything is OK."

Rehab is often a lonely place, filled with ups and downs on the emotional rollercoaster, where perspective is the patient's best friend.

"Not that ‘I won't get back to this point' but ‘damn this sucks'," LaVine said. "You get to a point, it's 11 months. You have doubts and little things like, ‘will I be able to do this again' or ‘I won't be the same'. Then the next day you're better at it, or better at something else. I try to stay even keel and steady through the process."

From the moment Rose went down, people have to ask themselves if he was afforded the humanity of going through his process without the constant questions about "when", the way LaVine has been.

LaVine knows what he represents, not just from an athletic standpoint but a symbolic one, as the new unblemished hope the front office and fan base can believe in.

The same fan base that cheered loudly for the league's youngest MVP in 2011 was the same base that cheered in encouragement a year later when Rose limped to deliver the game ball to the referees before Game 2 of the Bulls' series against the Philadelphia 76ers-days after Rose's career took a turn he hasn't recovered from.

The same fan base was splintered a year later when reports of Rose's readiness to play came into question-when someone from the inside wanted the public to know Rose was practicing and appeared ready to join the fray. The phrase "cleared by team doctors" took on new meaning, depending on who read the words, depending on whose perspective one leaned toward.

Everything became ambiguous, and Rose's words splintered the fan base even more, despite his intentions of wanting to return to MVP form was just as much a desire of his own as it was Chicago's.

By the end of the saga, everybody had a side and for most, there was little gray: Either you were a Rose sympathizer for what his body and mind were going through or you sat on the side of the team.

Either you understood the sentiment of not wanting to throw Rose back to the floor to play for a coach in Tom Thibodeau who grinded players until they had nothing left to give, or you sided with the thought that playing for a coach like Thibodeau was best, pushing players to overachieve and that the best way to rehab is to push through the thresholds, breaking through to realize there's no real fear on the other side.

The media played its part, and Rose certainly did, too. Everybody's hands had dirt on them; It was just a matter of who you thought bathed in the mud for their own benefit.

With LaVine, though, it represents a new start. He tore his ACL two months before his 22nd birthday, but unlike Rose, had never been asked to carry a franchise or the basketball hopes of a city on his shoulders.

But he wants it, and with a quiet smile and assured demeanor, welcomes the pressure that comes with playing in Michael Jordan's city, in Derrick Rose's city.

LaVine wasn't even a full-time starter during his one season at UCLA, and had to bide time as a third option next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota.

Along with Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, the Bulls have the pieces to return to a level of relevance sooner rather than later. And if LaVine is the healthy star he's projected to be, the rebuild will shoot up like a rocket and there's few places better for LaVine than the Chicago market.

Here, he'll be celebrated, championed and adored-similar in a way that Butler was, held up as an Anti-Rose figure. Unlike with Butler and Rose before him, perhaps some patience will be in order.

Mistakes can't be undone and likely won't be admitted to but future casualties can be avoided.

Because Tommy Edwards won't be saying "From Chicago!" but the proverbial ghost of Derrick Rose hasn't left the building-not just yet.

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