The folks at Adidas might be wincing, too.
The sports apparel giant might have to find a backup plan after building its multimillion-dollar NBA marketing campaign around the Chicago Bulls' superstar point guard, whose injured right knee will cost him the rest of the 2013-14 season that will stretch into June. Rose sat out last season following surgery on his left knee, and the Bulls are reliving a nightmare.
To some extent, so is Adidas. The company that launched "The Return" campaign documenting Rose's recovery last year from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his rise from a rough South Side Chicago neighborhood to stardom for the hometown team could be taking a hit, too.
"He is their counterpoint to Nike and LeBron (James)," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based consulting firm. "But to being out effectively two years in a row and doubts as to how fragile his body might be in the future has to give them great pause, both in the near term and the long term as to whether he will fade from the public consciousness by not being on the national and international stage. One year is acceptable. Two years, people are very quick to move on to others."
Rose and the Bulls were counting on a return to the form that made him the NBA's youngest MVP in 2011 and were eyeing at a run at James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.
They can probably forget about that for now after Rose had surgery this week to repair a medial meniscus tear.
Rose has played in just 50 NBA games—49 in the regular season—since he led Chicago to the Eastern Conference finals during his MVP season. He was just working his way back from surgery after tearing his left ACL in the 2012 playoff opener when the injury to his right knee cropped up, another dagger for the Bulls and Adidas. That it happened in Portland, just a few miles from the company's North American headquarters, was another twist.
Adidas America president Patrik Nilsson and Portland-based vice president of global basketball Lawrence Norman were sitting courtside and had an up-close view. Had they shed tears, would anyone have blamed them?
Rose signed a contract extension with the company in February 2012 that reportedly was worth $185 million to $260 million over 13 or 14 years. Two months later, he tore his ACL. Now, he's on the mend again.
Adidas issued a statement wishing Rose well while pledging its support, and it's not clear how the latest injury will impact the campaign.
"I can tell you that we're focused on supporting Derrick through his recovery," Adidas spokeswoman Madeline Breskin said. "Our plans remain unchanged at this time and we will update business plans, as needed."
Ganis and Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, said the company really has no choice but to go to a backup plan at least for now.
Either way, the company is in a tough spot.
When it comes to basketball shoe sales in the U.S., Nike has a stranglehold. The Swoosh is by far the leader at 92 percent with Adidas a distant second at 5.5 percent, according to research firm SportsOneSource.
On the plus side, the basketball shoe market is up 25 percent in general. Then again, Rose's signature shoe didn't fly off the shelves last year, generating $25 million.
"They really don't have another marquee player in their stable," SportsOneSource analyst Matt Powell said.
Click on the Adidas basketball website and it's clear who's No. 1. It's Rose, who wears that uniform number.
Adidas also has Dwight Howard, but Superman's popularity isn't exactly soaring these days.
A messy split with Orlando that led to a trade to the Lakers and one brutal season in Los Angeles while recovering from back surgery were like Kryptonite to his image. Now, he's in Houston after signing with the Rockets as a free agent.
"He's kind of gone from being this lovable, endearing guy wearing Superman capes and winning dunk competitions to being a guy who sort of messes up teams, is just not really a winner and doesn't try hard enough," Dorfman said of Howard's image. "So he's not the answer. The other thing is he's a big guy, and big guys don't really sell shoes like the guards."
Rose is just the latest high-profile Adidas player to suffer serious leg or foot injuries, including NFL stars Robert Griffin III and Frank Gore along with the NBA's Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas.
"It's certainly possible, but I don't think it's an Adidas thing," said Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, a former Philadelphia 76ers physician and a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "I think it's just the fact that the shoes are so good that you can stop on the dime and that allows you to maybe twist that knee a little quicker or land and have it shift a little quicker. I don't think we're at a point where we can definitively implicate."
With Rose out again, where does Adidas turn at least for now?
A committee approach that also includes players such as John Wall, Ricky Rubio and Damian Lillard might be an option. Another possibility is going after Kevin Durant, whose Nike contract is coming up, or a college star such as Andrew Wiggins at Kansas. Dorfman also suggested focusing more on sponsoring leagues or teams instead of individuals.
How Adidas handles Rose is another issue.
"I'm not sure what you do with him," Dorfman said. "You do your best to try to keep him in the public eye."
He said that could mean Rose serving as a commentator during Bulls games, appearing at awards shows or even maybe some sort of reality show. No matter what Rose does, Dorfman said, the message needs to be tweaked.
"Maybe there's a way to adjust what they've already shot to make it a little less court-based," he said. "Maybe there's something you can do with him that talks about him—some kind of emergency spot where he talks about the fact that he'll be back without it being kind of over-promised, more of a 'stick with me folks, I'm not done, I'm not going away' without any kind of guarantees on when he's going to come back or how well he's going to play."