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For injured players, hard to know when recovery time is over

POSTED: Aug 17, 2012 1:14 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Derrick Rose is being very careful with his rehab from a torn ACL suffered in last season's playoffs.

Jerry Reinsdorf says Michael Jordan came back too soon from a broken foot in his second NBA season, a "mistake" that the Chicago Bulls simply got lucky with then and will not repeat now, as current franchise player Derrick Rose grinds his way back from knee ligament surgery.

"I was scared to death [Jordan] was going to be hurt again, and that would be the last we would ever see of Michael Jordan," Reinsdorf said in a weekend interview with ESPN 1000 in Chicago. "This time I'm not going to make that mistake. Until the doctors say [Rose is] 100 percent and they put their reputations on the line, he's not coming back."

Jordan always said he was fine by the time he came back in March 1986 because he already was going harder on his healed foot in practice than he needed to go on game nights. Knowing Rose and the intensity with which he has attacked his rehabilitation since surgery in May, the Bulls' MVP already feels that way.

So sometime deep into this season, the Bulls may face a Rose redux of that Jordan predicament. It could, in fact, wind up being the most, er, interesting aspect of 2012-13 for their team in what's being positioned as a "transition" year. Is Rose ready? Too soon? Overdue? Headline and Tweet possibilities are endless.

Chicago is a city that knows precisely when to pull a T-bone off the grill but the tricky thing with something like this is, you can't stick a fork in Rose to see if he's done. Guess wrong early and he might wind up really done, if Rose were to tear the repair and do more extensive damage. Guess wrong late and, well, the Bulls lose some additional games, backpedal perhaps to a better draft slot and keep Rose -- allegedly anyway, since re-injuries and setbacks can occur at training facilities too -- out of harm's way.

Isn't that -- getting hurt again -- really what it comes down to, though? It's all hindsight. An athlete who returns from a serious injury, only to go down again in short order with something identical, similar or somehow related "came back too soon." If he or she never gets hurt quite like that again or, at least, puts a lot of games and, say, a couple of seasons between the comeback and a recurrence, then the timetable was just fine.

For every NBA player who heeds his bosses' or his agent's wishes, taking more time rather than less, there is one who hurried back too soon. Or, at least, looks back on it that way, because few express that concern when they're first stepping back onto the court.

Then there are those who get hurt two, three or four times not from coming back too soon but from coming back at all. Maybe Sam Bowie, Allan Houston, Yao Ming, Greg Oden and others would have fared better in their multiple rehabs and returns if they had embraced longer layoffs. Bill Walton and Grant Hill finally got it right, right? But for the other guys, their initial injuries might have been career-ending, period. Could be their bodies weren't built for NBA rigors. That would make a failed comeback more of a last gasp in a shortened career.

Penny Hardaway, All-Star point guard for the Orlando Magic in the 1990s, still is convinced that he came back too soon from microfracture knee surgery, specifically after the second of what would be six surgeries. "Back then you played hurt, so [Magic management was] like, 'Oh, it's just in your mind,' " Hardaway told SLAM magazine in an interview last season.

Hardaway said he felt pressure from the organization, coach Chuck Daly, and fans and even teammates who questioned his pain tolerance and drive.

But the "other" Hardaway, former NBA point guard Tim Hardaway, resisted those pressures in Golden State and sat out the entire 1993-94 season after ACL surgery. "My biggest thing was getting my head and knee on the same page," he told the Chicago Sun-Times recently, "so I could do the same things I did before the injury -- doing the crossover, exploding to the basket, not being afraid to lay the ball up over a big guy. I had to get to a point where I didn't fear leaping off my left leg."

Hardaway, a Chicago native whose niece Mieka Reese is Rose's girlfriend, added: "Next year is going to be very hard for [Rose]. I've been there."

There are, after all, hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, and a relentless clock ticking loudly, waiting for teensy bits of tissue and bone to heal.

Come back "too soon" and a player risks not only re-injury but a compensating injury from altering his form to favor the initial problem. There are mental challenges, too, in the form of limitations on the court or in the field, and the frustrations of restricted minutes or abilities.

The flip side, though, can be just as bad. Shackling a player's competitiveness. Rehab fatigue. A loss of identity.

The Bulls have been spooked in the past by the now vs. later decision. Besides, Jordan in 1986, there was Joakim Noah in 2010, when then-coach Vinny Del Negro allegedly left the center on the court too long in his return from plantar fasciitis and triggered a heated confrontation with his boss, John Paxson.

There was Richard Hamilton claiming he twice came back prematurely from injuries last season. And there was Noah as recently as May, gruesomely spraining his ankle in Game 3 of the first round against Philadelphia, only to sub back in and hobble around like a horse pulling up lame on the backstretch. Coach Tom Thibodeau explained that the team's medical staff cleared Noah to try -- but three months later, Noah skipped the Olympics with France's national team while still rehabbing the ankle.

There are a lot of NBA players hoping to return from injuries this season, including five guards coping with the dreaded ACL rehab (Rose, Eric Maynor, Ricky Rubio, Iman Shumpert, Baron Davis). They're all on different clocks, their injuries, repairs and personal healing times different as well. That's why the general prognosis -- "eight months to a year or longer," the surgeons typically say -- has such vast wiggle room.

Rubio, for instance, tore up his knee in early March. But this week, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the charismatic point guard is ahead of schedule. "The doctors said he was progressing faster than normal, and normal was supposed to be in January," Taylor said. "Faster than normal would be December. He's going to start running and stuff in a few weeks."

Rose, however, has the added incentive-slash-pressure of a new marketing campaign built around his comeback by the sneaker manufacturer he endorses, adidas. The first in what will be a series of commercials shows Rose in various weight-room and rehab settings, intercut against dramatic music with big bold words like "belief" and "focus" and "push" superimposed on the visuals.

Unfortunately, what's missing is a jump cut to Reinsdorf's mug at the end, wagging an index finger Mutombo-like while saying, "Not so fast, young fella."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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