CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Uh-oh. Now they had Jalen Rose’s attention. Now he was awake. The Illinois crowd had foolishly decided, as college crowds do, to take yesterday’s headlines and turn them into nasty chants, and with Rose at the free throw line, some bright light yelled, “Crack house!” and someone else thought it was cute, and yelled, “Crack House!” and it caught like a lighted wick. “Crack house! Crack house!”

Rose dropped the free throw. Swish.

“JUST SAY NO!” came the next chant, louder now, turning to thunder. “JUST SAY NO! JUST SAY NO!”

Rose dropped the free throw. Swish. He ran downcourt. He looked up. And he pointed.

This is the worst thing you can do to avoid a fight — unless, of course, you want a fight. Unless you need a fight to really play your best. Jalen Rose, hard off Appoline Street in Detroit, doesn’t even break a sweat until there’s a fight, an argument, a challenge. Someone says, “You can’t,” he shoots and says, “I just did.” A fight? A taunting crowd?

“Yeah, baby, I like this,” you could almost hear him say. He hitched up his extra long shorts. He narrowed his gaze. If the power went out at that very moment, you could have lit this gym with the fire in his eyes.

That quickly Wednesday went from just another Big Ten night to a night you can circle and order the replay tapes. Suddenly, we had the real Jalen Rose, the spinning, unbridled, devil- may-care, hot-night-in-a-summer-gym-and-you-can’t-stop-me Jalen Rose. From that first
“JUST SAY NO!” — that first smashing of the gauntlet, Rose played his most inspired basketball in months, driving through crowds for banking lay- ups, stripping the ball at crucial moments, yanking down rebounds as if saving his CD collection from a fire. And yes, even dropping free throws. One after another. He would finish with 23 points and a bagful of big plays.

And in the final seconds of the victory, he ran down court, holding a finger to his ear, looking at the crowd as if to say, “I can’t hear you.”

Just say yes.

That’s what I was saying to him after those free throws,” Chris Webber, his best friend and teammate said after Michigan’s 98-97 overtime win. “I would go up and whisper, ‘Just say yes.’ You know, just to make him laugh.”

Rose needed a laugh. The reports that he had been ticketed for loitering in a house where drugs were suspected of being — back in October, this was — had momentarily shaken his otherwise steady axis. Even though the police had said he did nothing wrong, the spotlight, the press conference, the embarrassment had made him uncomfortable. So did watching all the reports on TV in his hotel room Tuesday night. He and Webber talked about all the attention he was getting, and Webber said it “made him mad.”

But now Rose was on the basketball court, his turf, someone had said, “You ain’t nothing,” and his instincts took over. He was all the way back to the asphalt on some downtown corner. Game time.

“Hey, I’m a competitor,” Rose said. “When someone doubts me, that’s when I want to prove them wrong.”

“And you heard that crowd doubting you?

“Oh, yeah. I heard them.”

From nine minutes and 13 seconds left in the second half until this whole draining affair was over, it is hard to say what was the Jalen Rose highlight. It might have been the driving baseline jumper he hit to tie the game near the end of regulation. It might have been the steal he pulled out of his magic bag, stripping Illinois’ Andy Kaufmann as he went up for what could have been the winning shot.

It might have been the back-to-back rebounds he snared in overtime. It might have been the “and one!” he yelled at Illinois’ Richard Keene, after dropping the jumper and drawing Keene’s foul. Or perhaps it was the remarkable shoot, miss, follow-with-your-own-rebound-put-it-up-and- get-fouled play to erase Illinois’s final lead.

“I always tease my teammates that I’m like Moses Malone with a rebound,” Rose said of that play. “So when that first shot missed, I said, ‘Moses!’ to myself, and — I don’t know — something happened. I went real high and got it.”

Moses?

Well, why not? He certainlydid lead them to a promised land. They will get a No. 1 seed now, these Wolverines, provided they don’t blow a gimme on Saturday against Northwestern. And then, thank goodness, the NCAA tournament, which is what they’ve been thinking about most of these last four weeks, anyhow.

As for Rose? Well, it’s worth noting that Rose spent the day clowning around, shooting baskets, playing video games and shaving his head. In the warm-ups before the game, he did the usual routine, which is to challenge someone to outshoot him, and then yell, “Uh-oh!” when he launches a shot, in anticipation of a swish. When the starting lineups were introduced, Rose came strutting out, bobbing his head, hands bent backward, sporting yet another look in basketball fashion: black socks, pulled up high, with black shoes, suggesting an accountant in gym shorts.

In other words, just another day in the life of Jaxl Rose.

If we were expecting some burdened young man with bags under his eyes, full of remorse and regret and sorrow and guilt, well, forget it. Rose doesn’t work that way. He has no need.

Unfortunately, the public doesn’t forget things so fast. You can expect plenty more Illinois-type crowds for U-M. All through the tournament, on every free throw. Fans look for any edge they can get, and Rose, a cocky target anyhow, will bear the brunt of it.

“That’s OK,” Webber said, “I always tell crowds, the worst thing you can do to Michigan is get on us. Then all we do is prove you wrong.”

He has a point. After Rose hit yet another free throw amid the taunting of the fans, he ran down court with his finger to his lips. “Shhhhhh!” he seemed to say. And the crowd was quiet. After everything that had happened, after all the headlines and negative attention, Rose had taken a basketball and played a game and done what he wanted: He had shut them up. He is very good at this.

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