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As Rose Goes, So Do They Go

April 05, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

NEW ORLEANS — The "problem" with Michigan isn't with the whole basketball team. The "problem" is with Jalen Rose. He's the one with the mouth. He's the one woofing and tweeting like a hi-fi, from one end of the Wolverine arena to the other. He's the instigator. He's the one in everyone's face. He's the loose cannon.

Chris Webber is a polite, well-spoken, prep-school lad. Ray Jackson and Jimmy King are laconic Texans who wouldn't say "boo" unless it was Halloween. Juwan Howard is a gentle soul who voluntarily visits children's hospitals and tapes their Crayola drawings to the inside of his locker. Rob Pelinka isn't a student-athlete; he is a scholar-athlete. These are the "undisciplined," "bad-attitude," "loud-mouthed" Michigan Wolverines.

No, it's Jalen Rose who is responsible for much of Michigan's reputation as the team prepares to play tonight for the national championship. He's the drum major; they march to his beat. He's the one who talks the talk and walks the walk. He's the prankster who once set Webber's pants on fire--"like he was Michael Jackson." He's the high-fiver, jiver and playful playgrounder whose example the other Wolverines can't help but follow.

To see Jalen Rose on a basketball court is to watch a Magic Johnson-sized guard with limbs like a windmill and gums that never stop flapping. To meet him in person is to understand him a little better. To know that, basically, he's harmless. To learn that, when you see Rose "talking trash" out there, doing a number on someone, Wesley Sniping away, pounding on some dude's ear drums, what he actually is saying might not be so trashy. Read my lips, Rose says.

Like when he was annoying little Travis Ford of Kentucky at the free-throw line Saturday. What was Rose saying? "He was saying: 'So, where you having dinner tonight?' " Ford related later.

Rose is the one who goes jumping into teammates' arms after baskets. When Magic Johnson did such a thing, it was known as enthusiasm. (When he did it to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at first, it was seen as rookie nonsense.) With this young motormouth from the Motor City, though, it comes off like "street stuff." Like stuff he should have left back at Detroit Southwestern High. The kind of disrespectful stuff no respectable coach, no Dean Smith or Bob Knight or Bighouse Gaines, would ever permit.

Like fun.

"If I'd have gone to North Carolina," Rose says, "and Eric Montross was my teammate instead of my sworn enemy, and Montross went up in a big game and dunked one, man, I'd have jumped up and hugged him like I was his girlfriend."

Jalen Rose is a live wire. He seldom measures his words or deeds. He doesn't know how. It's in his nature. No matter what happens, Rose won't hold back. Whenever a question is thrown out to Michigan players, while others back away shyly, Rose springs at it like a loose ball. When someone wonders "how many times out of 10" this current Wolverine team could defeat the school's 1989 championship team, the others demur or defer. But Rose mutters loud enough for some to hear: "Nine."

The kid can't help it. Some would call it clowning. They would see him as Michigan's baggy-pants comic. Others would call it something else. They don't seem to know what to make of Jalen Rose, as though he is doing something Duke or Nevada Las Vegas players never succeeded in doing, playing "street ball." As though Larry Bird or Scott Skiles never trash-talked.

Someone wondered whether a hint of racism might be lingering, and naturally Rose had an answer. A no-comment isn't in him. And it was a sharp answer, too: "Yeah, I know what you mean," he said. "When you say 'street ball,' what are you saying? But no, I don't think it's racism. At least I hope not."

What, then? Why have he and his teammates been perceived to be outrageous or out of control? Why the bad rap?

"Maybe it's like a rumor," Rose says. "It's like I tell somebody I'm driving a blue Chevy. They tell 20 other people. They tell enough people, somebody will probably have me driving a green Mercedes."

Tonight might be the final curtain for the Fab Five as presently constituted. Rose says: "Anything we're doing out there on the court, we're just showing love for one another. This team came to school together as a unit, like a family. For us, it's like playing with your brothers. When someone does something good, you ought to be able to give him a hug without being, quote, undisciplined.

"Understand something. When I'm out there on that court, I feel nothing can go wrong. For me, it's the best place I could be. It's like I'm in heaven. I'm happy and I want to be able to act like I'm happy."

And so it goes for Rose. At 12, he was so happy-go-lucky that he planted "caps" in Webber's pants, waited for Chris to pull them on, then shot his cap pistol at the pocket to make them go bang-bang-bang. Was it Rose's fault that Webber's pants caught fire? Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean he bought Chris a new pair. "No, couldn't afford that," Rose said. "Was just one less pair of pants he had from then on."

Jalen Rose, a real piece of work.

You might do a burn.

But he didn't mean anything by it.

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