NEW ORLEANS — The black plastic joystick is cradled tightly in his hands. Big hands. Long fingers. He raps his thumbs, faster, faster.
“Nothing! You got nothing!” he taunts his opponent, the buttons going at warp speed. On the TV screen, cartoon football players race down a field. His team is winning, intercepting passes, making tackles. Jalen Rose is happy.
“Told you,” he says, knocking down another pass. “You got nothin’. Nuuuuthin’.”
Rap music is playing on the speakers, and it mixes with the doodooleeep-doodooloop of the video game, until the room sounds like a penny arcade inside a recording studio. In this mix of rhythm and games and beeps and booms, Rose suddenly turns and says, “Go on, ask whatever you want.”
He barely takes his eyes off the screen.
“What about your game?” I say.
He snorts. “This guy?” He nods toward the victim on the other joystick, a cousin named Bobby. “He ain’t nothing. I can talk to you and beat him at the same time.”
Now. See? Most people will hear that and say, “Aha! Just as we suspected! Jalen Rose is a cocky, rude braggart.” But those people miss a fundamental truth about Rose: This is who he is. Stretched out on the couch, joystick in hand, friend by his side. He makes no bones about it. Play basketball. Play video games. Turn up the music. By taking you into this environment, he is not being rude. He is actually saying, “I trust you. I am opening up. What do you want to know?”
Sadly, very few will ever figure this out. Or even try. This weekend is the Final Four in New Orleans, and already the Wolverines are the Crescent City’s most dissected citizens. They are the butt of more rumors, psychoanalysis and straight- out bashing than Roseanne and Madonna combined. John Chaney, the Temple coach, suggested the Wolverines disgrace college basketball. Bill Walton called them “the most underachieving team in America.” USA Today labeled them “The Fab Frauds” — this, just one year after celebrating them as lovable young colts.
It is the most flammable case of love to hate I can recall in college sports. And at the core of it all — whether they say it or not — is 20-year-old Jalen Rose, a tall, bony point guard, a shaved-head smart aleck, a prankster, a team leader, the Wolverines’ most affectionate hugger, and a kid who came into this world on the curb of a hospital, emerging from the womb as his mother was emerging from the car. Too late to make it inside, the delivery was done right there, in the cold Detroit daylight, and in the frantic handling, baby Jalen actually banged his newborn head on the concrete,
resulting in a scar that stayed with him for years.
With a start like that, you expect him to be rattled?
Unraveling the mystery
No. And he is not. Not on a basketball court — even if he shoots an air ball — and not in real life, even if he is taunted by fans yelling “Crack House!” or pundits saying his loosey-goosey style shows a lack of respect for coaching.
“When people talk about me,” he says, “that just shows how little they know. And it also shows how much they’re wondering about me.”
“You like that, don’t you?”
He grins. “I do.”
The problem most folks have in figuring Jalen Rose, his bald head, his crooked smile, is that they try to squeeze him into their world. Won’t work. You have to go to his world to get an answer.
And his world is basketball. So imagine you’re playing Jalen one-on-one. First thing he might do is drop a shot on you, then stare you down. When you miss he’ll say, “You’re sorry,” and laugh. He’ll watch your face. See how you react. When he has the ball, he won’t offer any hints — will he drive? will he pull up and shoot? He’ll wait until you commit, then go the other way. Now he’s learned something else about you, and he tucks it quietly in his brain.
This is Street Basketball 101. And Rose has played enough of it to last four lifetimes, in downtown Detroit, in St. Cecilia’s summer leagues, across the country with AAU teams. It is what got him this far. It is the thing that makes him special, and the thing he trusts the most.
So is it hard to understand if he approaches life off the court with the same tactics? You meet him, he is aloof. He is checking you out. You make a move — you ask a question, you write an article — now he has a fix on you, he has an edge. And when he does make a move, he stays distant, watching, observing. His strength is in his game face. So he keeps it intact.
“That is how I play the game,” he admits, a little surprised that someone has tapped into it. “I see what they’re thinking, writers, reporters, but I don’t say much to them. Just like on the court. The more they wonder about me, the better chance I have of winning.”
Leader of the pack
Now, this might be nothing more than an interesting psychological footnote if Rose were not such a huge part of the Fab Five Formula. But he is. Without question. Chris Webber gets the headlines. Juwan Howard gets the work-ethic praise. Jimmy King gets the “underrated” tag and Ray Jackson gets “most improved.” But Rose is the leader. He sets the tone. If the others see Jalen scared or upset, they would likely follow suit. And so he doesn’t show it. If he’s happy, if he’s sad, if he’s worried, if he’s carefree — there is only one way he will go on the outside: loud.
“I don’t know if I’m the only leader here,” he says, “but I know I’ve got the biggest mouth. I always have. Everywhere I’ve played. I’ll tease anyone.”
“What would happen if you joined a team with someone who talked more than you did?” I ask.
He ponders. “It never happens.”
Rose can talk. He can tell a teammate, “Stop playing with gloves on,” when that teammate drops a pass, and he can ask his coach, Steve Fisher, “Hey, Fish, what hotel did you stay at in the 1991 NCAA tournament?” when he knows full well that Fisher’s 1991 team never made it to the tournament. Just to bug him. And this is what he does to people he likes!
To the opponents, his comments range from silence (more often than you think) to “You’re gonna choke” (said often at the free throw line) to “What’s the matter, your coach tell you not to speak to us?” (which he said to Rick Brunson of Temple during the West Regional final last weekend).
And yet, for all this noise, take a look at the Wolverines during warm-ups, or walking through a hotel lobby. Who is most often hugging a teammate, throwing a long arm over someone’s shoulder, giving him a headlock? Rose. There are some folks who express their feelings verbally and some who punch you in the arm and smile. I guarantee you this: Ask any one of the Wolverines whose praise would mean the most to them?
It’s Jalen. Over and over.
“Do you have any recurring dreams?” I ask him.
“Well, there’s this one. I dream of me being happy.”
“Yeah, like I’m smiling and everything.”
“Are you in a big house or a fancy car?”
“No, not so much that. I just see this giant head of me, just smiling and being happy. That’s what I dream about.”
Here is a kid who was raised by his mother in the hard side of Detroit, a kid who was told about — but never got to meet — his famous basketball playing father, Jimmy Walker, a former Pistons star. Here was a tall, gawky kid who saw just about everything you could see in a city, from gangs to bullets, and he also saw that basketball was his token in the exit machine. So he learned to play. He learned the way they play in the city, with bravado, with talk, with laughter. And when he came to Michigan he brought all that with him, and it works.
So can you blame him for sticking with it? Sure, maybe it irritates some people. Sure, it might be nice to see Rose play under a tighter leash. But that’s us talking, and most of us, let’s face it, did not grow up in his shoes.
“Are you afraid of losing this year?” I ask.
“I’m not afraid of anything. Except death.”
“Yeah. I can’t imagine the world going on without me.”
He laughs. And in his own way, you realize, that makes perfect sense. The general public will never understand Jalen Rose. They won’t spend the time watching him loosen up with the video game and the music, or playing with other people’s kids and getting them to laugh, or talking to an inner-city school group about staying in class if the kids want to play ball.
They won’t see it. Critics never do. But before they join the finger-pointing and tongue-clucking that accompanies the Wolverines this weekend, before they watch maybe their third or fourth college basketball game of the year, they should remember one thing about the relationship between Jalen Rose and the general public.
He didn’t come into your world.
You came into his.