Fourth of five excerpts from from “Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream” by Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom. “Fab Five” is published by Warner Books, 359 pages, $21.95.
On a cold January night in 1973, Jeanne Rose felt the stirrings of her fourth child. She called her brother Len — “Hurry up, I’m having the baby” — to drive her to the hospital. He raced over in his green Fiat, helped her in and slammed on the accelerator. By the time they reached the hospital, Jeanne was deep into contractions.
“Hang on!” Len urged.
“I’m trying!” she said.
Len ran and got the nurses. They came racing out with a stretcher. But as they slid Jeanne from the car seat, the baby, a boy, suddenly popped into the world, right there in the parking lot. It happened so quickly the nurses fumbled him, bumping him against the curb, leaving a bruise above his nose for a year.
This was not a normal birth, but, then, not much Jalen Rose did was normal, from the time he almost drowned trying to jump across a swimming pool, to the time he was arrested in a drug bust while playing video games. Of all the Fabulous Freshmen at Michigan, he was at once the most puzzling, disturbing, fascinating and charming.
He was also surprisingly similar to a man he does not know and has never met.
His father. Here today, gone tomorrow
Jimmy Walker was an All-America at Providence and a flashy first-round draft pick for the Pistons in 1967. He was known for his ballhandling and his deadeye shooting. He was also a talker. One time, during a game, he was hitting baskets with such accuracy, he ran up to the ref and said, “Hey, ref, there’s something wrong with this ball.”
“It keeps going in.”
Among the Pistons, Walker was also known to party all night, sleep all day, take a bath and be ready to go. He liked his women, had plenty of them, and fathered at least four children that people knew of, without ever marrying the mothers, or taking much, if any, financial responsibility.
He hooked up with Jeanne late in his Pistons career — although he was married at the time — and, true to form, he was gone by the time the baby came.
Jeanne never mentioned him again.
So Jalen never met his father. But the man lived inside him. Those who knew them both could see the connection, in their gap-toothed smiles, their gangly arms, their love of on- court conversation, and, mostly, their basketball. One day, when Jalen was 11, he was playing at St. Cecilia’s gym in Detroit. Sam Washington, who ran St. Cecilia’s, watched Jalen, and remembered when Jimmy Walker used to play in this same building.
Sam went into his office, set up a movie projector, then called for Jalen. He shut the door.
“See that?” Sam said, turning on the machine.
On the wall, Jalen watched a young man with a short Afro dribbling downcourt, then spinning 180 degrees and losing his defender with ease.
“That’s your father,” Washington said. “I knew him. He could really play.”
He shut the projector.
“And so can you.”
Jalen bit his lip. He had heard of Jimmy Walker, mostly from his brothers and sister, but until that moment, had never seen the man play basketball. Now, in that office, he felt a surge of something. Anger? Pride? Destiny? He left the gym, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it. A few weeks later, he found a bubble gum card of his father’s career, and he kept it in his pocket wherever he went. Sometimes, in outdoor pickup games, he would reach back to finger the card, and say to himself, “I’m gonna be you today.”
Although he never told his mother about the card, he took it with him everywhere, and would flash it like a badge to impress the older kids on the court.
“Go on home, you’re too small.”
“I ain’t small. Check this out.”
“That’s my father.”
And in he went. Playing better players made Jalen better. So, in a small way, that card helped further his career. For two years, he kept it with him, memorized it, fingered it until it was crinkled and frayed. At night he would put it in a box, or leave it in the pants he was going to wear the next morning.
Then, one day, he went to check his pockets, and he couldn’t find it. He looked everywhere. Nothing.
The most important influence Jalen Rose never had.
Gone again. The mystery man
March, 1993. A tennis club in suburban Atlanta. The weather was warm with spring, a light breeze bringing the smell of pine needles. When the breeze died, you could hear the thwock of tennis balls from the courts on the hill.
Shortly after two in the afternoon, a beige Mitsubishi Diamante rolled down the long entrance road. A tall mustached man in a white tennis outfit stepped out and came around the front of the vehicle, past the license plate that had, as its first two letters, “JW.”
He walked with the same pigeon-toed gait as his son. A high-collared white T-shirt peered out from his designer sweat suit. He looked younger than his 45 years, with few lines on his face and a full head of hair, cropped short, the hairline low on his forehead, same as Jalen. He had Jalen’s mouth and Jalen’s slow, deliberate way of looking at you. Sunglasses rested on the bridge of his nose. He carried a cellular phone.
He had not been interviewed in many years, and he seemed cautious, suggesting a picnic table up near the clubhouse. When told that finding him was extremely difficult, that most people who used to know him now called him
“a mystery,” he grinned and said, “I’m no mystery.”
Maybe not. But Jimmy Walker had vanished after his pro career ended, rather ingloriously, when he was released by the Kansas City Kings in the late
’70s. He floated around. He opened a nightclub. It quickly failed. There were reports of him in Virginia and even back in Boston. The IRS repossessed his auto for back taxes.
And then nothing. He seemed to drop out. Phones were disconnected. Addresses were no longer valid. Friends such as Dave Bing, who used to room with him on the road with the Pistons, tried to get in touch but had no idea where he was.
“I’ve done this and that,” Walker said now. “I’ve got some investments in real estate, like the house I’m living in. I spend time with my mother; she’s in a nursing home now.”
But what happened since 1978?
“Nothing happened. I’m doing fine now, so it had to turn out all right, right?”
Did you work?
“Well . . .” he grinned. “How do you determine what work is?”
He definitely shared Jalen’s gene pool.
Of course, as far as Jalen was concerned, Jimmy Walker never disappeared, because he was never in the picture. Only 15 years after Jalen’s birth did Jimmy hear, through the grapevine, that the son he’d left behind in Detroit was turning into a pretty good ballplayer. Soon he started seeing Jalen on TV, with the Michigan Wolverines.
“I’m sure Jalen is apprehensive about meeting me,” Walker said now. “I didn’t handle the situation well. I think, when Jeanne told me she was pregnant, being the immature person I was, I said, ‘Stop kidding.’ I was married at the time, and my former wife was putting me under all this pressure . . .
“I remember Jeanne being angry . . . we didn’t communicate right . . .
“For all Jalen knows, I could be a jerk.”
That, it was safe to say, had been assumed more than once.
But as Walker removed his sunglasses, leaned forward and talked about his own life, it was obvious that, for better or worse, father and son shared more than genetics. Walker was also raised without a father, in the decaying Roxbury section of Boston. His mother worked five days a week in a laundry.
One night, while walking with his best friend, Bill Wooten, making plans to get Chinese food, Jimmy bumped into two men coming out of a liquor store. They were half-drunk and yelled at the kids to get out of their way. They moved on. Jimmy and Billy flipped a coin to see who would get the food and who got to go home and change clothes.
As Jimmy walked up Maywood Street back to his apartment, he heard a gunshot. He ran back down and found Billy lying in the street with a hole in his chest.
“I’m cold, man, I’m cold,” Billy kept saying.
He died in Walker’s arms.
Now Walker drummed his fingers on the picnic table. A breeze blew. He claimed he was doing fine, but several times during the conversation, he suggested that maybe he should be getting paid for talking.
“You know . . . maybe some form of . . . compensation? You know what I’m saying?”
Eventually he talked about meeting his son, maybe even making a trip to see him during the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t want to create the impression that I’m getting ready to contact him now because he’s following in my shoes, you know, he’s getting ready to be a millionaire. It’s not like that. But it’s time, probably, for us to talk.
. . .
“If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed in touch.”
He fingered the portable cellular phone, which had stayed in its case the entire conversation.
“You know what’s gonna happen when Jalen and I first see each other?” Jimmy Walker said. “He’s gonna be walking toward me. I’m gonna be walking toward him. We’re not gonna really know whether to say hello, shake hands — and we’re gonna end up hugging. I guarantee it.”
He grinned. He said he had a match to play. Before he left, he was asked about his father, whatever happened to him.
“I think,” he said, “he got burned in a fire.”
How old were you?
“A sophomore in college.”
Same as Jalen?
Do you remember feeling anything when you heard the news?
“I felt that a person just died, that’s all. Just a person.”
He walked toward the courts, then stopped, took a pen and wrote something on a piece of paper.
“Give Jalen my number. Tell him to call me, if he wants.” Why now?
Jalen took the news that his father was alive and offering his phone number with typical suspicion.
“Where’d you see him?” he wanted to know.
“What city does he live in?”
“Is he coming to the tournament?”
If there was excitement, he hid it; if there was fear, he hid that, too. Jalen had the unblinking poker face of a million pickup games, where you first measure your opponent with your eyes. His father, all these years, was just an image on a wall in a Detroit gym, dribbling to the sound of a silent movie projector.
Now he wants to get in touch?
“I can’t get him no tickets,” Jalen warned.
When told he didn’t want any, Jalen said, “Oh.”
So, did he want to talk to him?
“If he comes around, I’ll see him.”
What would he say?
Would he want to hit him?
“Nah. I might ask him where he’s been all these years.”
But he wouldn’t be angry?
“I dunno. He’s still my father, right?”
How about the telephone?
“Lemme think about it.”
He walked away, and joined the rest of the team as it headed for the airport.
THURSDAY: The Time-out.