Rajon Rondo, now with the Chicago Bulls and still an enigma.

Using different methods, two enigmatic point guards whom Bulls fans know well delivered desperate messages before their teams meet Thursday for a sociological experiment disguised as an NBA game.

Current Bulls backup Rajon Rondo, in a masterfully calculated 11-minute media session Tuesday dripping with sarcasm, issued his front office an edict: Notice me. Former Bulls star Derrick Rose, in an irresponsibly impulsive disappearance from the Knicks on Monday night for reasons that remain vague, said this without saying it: Help me.

For everybody's good, hope that the right people heed both men's words.

Start with Rose, whose troubling actions announced his instability had approached a career-high level. We can agree that a 28-year-old professional being paid $21 million to play basketball owes his employer a phone call, a text, a Snapchat or an Instagram message before going AWOL for a game. We can pound the Knicks for fining rather than suspending Rose and pummel Rose for being Rose, a mysterious loner whose clumsy manner of communicating made him one of Chicago's most polarizing athletes. We can make the easy connection between a kid who grew up in Englewood sheltered by his family to keep him alive becoming a man who went running home to Mom at the first sign of struggle away from home.

Or we can take a step back, take a deep breath and consider that perhaps all the indicators say the point guard who always was a little naive needs an assist. There must be more than meets the eye when a player who once professed in a commercial that basketball is everything skips town to get away from the game. When the Tribune reported that a source said Rose was "overwhelmed mentally," his compromised state of mind likely wasn't due to learning the triangle offense or adapting to New York pizza. It suggested evidence of something building within him that could be as difficult for Rose to overcome as any of his three knee surgeries, private pain being processed very publicly. That isn't condoning Rose's odd behavior as much as trying to interpret and understand it.

The Knicks decided to let Rose play Wednesday against the 76ers, but given the preceding 48 hours, is the basketball court the best place to heal for a player struggling so obviously from the shoulders up? Rose's situation begs for a leave of absence. In the NFL, observers rightly erupt when a quarterback returns to play after a big hit without undergoing acceptable concussion protocol. In the NBA, Rose escapes for a mental break by disappearing for a night and discusses his need "for space" upon returning but starts the next game as critics clamor for a suspension rather than an intervention.

You don't have to have Ph.D. next to your name to wonder if Rose has behaved like someone prone to depression.

Awkward immaturity in Rose's past makes him an easy target in the present, and any pro athlete who lets down his teammates, his organization and his city by skipping a game deserves heavy criticism. But the most effective response now would be somebody figuring out how to help Rose improve his ability to cope.

As for Rondo, he appeared to be coping just fine with his exile to the end of the bench before Tuesday's emergency 27-minute stint for the short-handed Bulls. Raising valid questions but not his voice in a pregame interview with beat reporters, Rondo revealed a Bulls operation that inexplicably still struggles communicating with players. Asked if coach Fred Hoiberg had explained why the guy who signed a two-year, $29 million contract last summer suddenly had fallen out of the rotation, Rondo provided a glimpse of his perspective.

"Um, how can I say this?" he said. "No."

Addressing a Bulls assistant telling him the team was trying to "saving me from myself," Rondo was as blunt.

"I thought it was (expletive)," Rondo said.

The longer Rondo spoke, the more embarrassing it risked becoming for the Bulls. Even if Rondo resurfaces in the second half as a second-team contributor, his daily presence gives everybody in the organization an unnecessary worry for a team committed to eliminating dysfunction. Proud veterans such as Rondo don't forget, as his postgame reply after scoring 12 points and playing well reminded everybody.

Reporter: How did you feel out there?

Rondo: Fast.

That answer took a subtle but direct shot at Hoiberg's recent assessment that Rondo was slow. Hoiberg showed an independent streak benching Rondo, but the Bulls front office holding on to a player with his volatile past only complicates the coach's job. Rondo's remarks provided laughs for everyone except general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson.

His next outburst might not be funny at all. Doing nothing is dangerous.

A dilemma at point guard demands immediate attention _ something true for both teams playing Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.


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