MINNEAPOLIS — Talk about delivering in the clutch! Here it was, a freezing night in January 1973, and a pregnant woman named Jeanne Rose, already the mother of three, felt something inside her belly and said,
“Leonard,” she gasped to her brother, “you better take me to the hospital. Now!”
It was dark. It was 10 miles away. Leonard helped her into the small green Fiat. Off they drove. Suddenly, the child inside could wait no more. Maybe it was the action. Maybe it was the drama. Maybe it was this innate sense that something big was happening and this infant — who would be Jalen Rose — simply had to be a part of it. Whatever the case, by the time the car screeched to a stop in front of Botsford General Hospital in Farmington Hills, the baby was, in basketball vernacular, on his way to the hoop.
“We opened the door, they slid me toward the stretcher, and out he came,” Jeanne Rose says now, laughing at the memory. “He was born in the parking lot of Botsford, right there, near the curb.
“And you know what? The very first time I saw him, he was in the incubator, looking straight up at me, like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ “
Out of the mouths of babes. Tonight, the Fab Five freshmen of Michigan take on No. 1-ranked Duke for the championship of college basketball, and the kid who can make the biggest difference, the kid with the shaved head and the loosest basketball shorts in America, has come a long way from that incubator, but he’s still blinking through his own private haze, asking that same bemused question: “What’s the big deal?”
Is Jalen Rose for real? Can a college freshman on the verge of history be this slinky, this carefree, that he cruises through the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, trailed by dozens of reporters forming a conga line behind him, and he comes upon CBS’ Pat O’Brien and bellows, “YO, PAT! WHASSSUP!!”
He slaps O’Brien’s hand.
“You the man!” says O’Brien.
You the man?
Pat O’Brien is saying this to Jalen Rose, who is only 19 years old, one year out of high school, playing in his first NCAA tournament? You the man? Well. That’s nothing compared to the confidence oozing from Rose himself — and from the rest of the Michigan players. It is the reason experts hesitate before picking Duke, the defending champion, to beat the obviously less experienced Wolverines tonight. It is the reason fans bounce around this city saying, “Hey, don’t count these Michigan guys out. They seem so cocky.”
It is this kid with the Pistons cap that his coach keeps whispering to take off, this kid who, in three days on the national stage, has already said things like, “I fear no one.” Or “If another team came along like us, we’d have to teach ’em a lesson.”
Or, when asked about tonight’s championship showdown, to be watched by 50,000 live fans and millions more around the world: “I’ve played in tougher games than this.”
Can Jalen Rose say that?
He can. He does. And he probably has. All day, all night
Every summer, in pick-up games and youth leagues and development programs and what have you, games in hot, sweaty gyms, against the best Detroit talent from every level, pro, college, names like Isiah Thomas, John Salley, Steve Smith, Derrick Coleman, the kind of games where the pace is furious, the fouls are overlooked, and the stakes, well, the stakes are nothing but pride, which can be the highest stakes of all, there was Jalen Rose. All day. All night. All hoop. He has been virtually attached to a basketball since bounding into St. Cecilia’s gym when he was 11 years old, and he has never let go, not through all those championships at Southwestern High School, not through the recruitment to Michigan, not through his first regular college season, which has already hailed him as a phenom. Even household moves, he does under an imaginary shot clock. “I’ve seen him throw his shoes in the closet like he’s shooting them,” says his mother.
She laughs and shakes her head. She is sitting in the Marriott upper lobby, outside a room where her son is entertaining yet another horde of reporters. Other parents mill around. Jimmy King’s mother and father. Ray Jackson’s mother and father, snapping pictures with a Polaroid.
Jeanne Rose sits alone.
Jalen’s father was former Piston basketball player Jimmy Walker. He was absent the day his son was born. He has no contact with Jalen now. He is not discussed at home. There are no pictures. No souvenirs.
But Jalen. Jalen is the souvenir. The silky moves. The ease with the ball. The natural way he lifts into the air and stretches his spider arms over the grasping defenders. This is more than learned, this is inherited. It is what Jalen, who has a curious way with words, describes as “in the roots.”
And that’s all he says about his father.
“Do you ever talk to him?” a reporter from Miami asks.
“No,” Jalen says.
“Does he write you?”
“Do you wonder about him?”
“Do you miss him?”
When he got out of high school, Rose, who is named partially for his father James (Ja) and partially for his uncle Leonard (len), had a tattoo etched on his chest. It reads: “BOSS.”
“I put it there to show that I’m my own person,” he explains. “That I will control my own destiny.”
“What was your mother’s reaction?”
“Same as you,” he says, grinning. “She just wanted to know what it means.” Words and action
Here is what Rose means to the Wolverines. The swagger in their step. The nasty in the their vocabulary. Maybe a championship trophy in their hands late tonight. There are few more loquacious players in big-time college basketball than Jalen, who likes to say things like, “No way that shot goes in!” or “I’m gonna dog your ass” or “You didn’t think I would miss, did you?” It is summer talk, basketball bravado, it is harmless (even if one Big Ten official ordered Jalen to “Stop smiling!” during a regular-season game). Remember, this is a kid who has seen the hard edge of life, the underbelly of Detroit. He will not let little things like words bother him. On Sunday, when the subject of hotels came up, Rose playfully asked his coach, Steve Fisher, “Hey, coach. What hotel did you stay at last year at the Final Four?” knowing full well that Fisher’s 1991 squad failed to even make the tournament.
His coach? He poked his coach?
But OK. Rose is more than words. He is action, too. And in all games as big as tonight’s, there are moments when someone has to step up and take the pressure shot. Force the action. For Rose, who averaged 17.5 points per game during the regular season, the problem at that moment will not be getting the ball into his hands, but getting it out.
This is a kid who will fire from three-point range, drop the shot, then backpedal as the cameras zoom in on his grimace, which seems to say, “Don’t even bother zooming in, that shot was nothing.” This is a floor general who raises five fingers a split second before Fisher yells out “Five”, and raises four fingers a split second before Fisher hollers “Four!” This is a 6-foot-8 whiz who brings the ball up court and cuts to the middle, then takes the shot: the very route speaks of confidence. Where is everybody? Oh, there? Here I come. Try and stop me.
“I’ve always been comfortable with pressure,” he says. “I don’t know where it came from. Maybe from dreaming about it so much as a kid, watching TV and imagining what I would do in those situations. Now I’m here, and I’m ready to do them.”
In this way, he is the quintessential 1992 Wolverine. Too young. Too brash. Full of nothing but dreams. And just maybe capable of making them come true. What a story this will be if it happens tonight, for all of them, for Chris Webber, for Juwan Howard, for King, Jackson, and all the upperclassmen. In some ways, they are all like Jalen was in that incubator 19 years ago, blinking out at this big new world with a lazy confidence, as if it’s all there for the taking.
As they scurry Rose off to the bus, someone asks about his unusual arrival on earth. He laughs.
“How do you think you were affected by that — being born in a parking lot? What do you think it gave you?”
He yells over his shoulder, “Hard-headedness?” and does not wait to see if this is the correct answer.
He knows it is.