American Beauty After delivering a brilliant performance in a supporting role last season, Jalen Rose has become a marquee player and has helped lead the Pacers to the top of their division

March 06, 2000

Everything came so quickly to Jalen Rose--not always easily, but
quickly. It was that way from the very beginning, from that
frigid January night in 1973 when Jeanne Rose's labor pains
intensified. She had given birth three times before, but this
felt different, and as her brother Leonard drove her to the
hospital, she could tell they didn't have much time. When they
arrived, nurses raced to the car to rush her into a delivery
room, but Jalen was too fast. He was born beneath the glow of
streetlights, right there in the parking lot.

Life always seemed to come at him at breakneck speed, and most
of the time Jalen loved the pace. He became streetwise almost
overnight, the way kids with loving mothers but absent fathers
often do. By the time he reached seventh grade, he was one of
the best schoolboy players in Detroit, a smiling, charismatic
leader even in games with much older players. He eventually
moved on to Michigan, where he became a member of the Fab Five,
the precocious group of freshmen who high-fived and trash-talked
their way to the 1992 NCAA title game while most other
first-year students were still trying to find their dorm rooms.
Rose would spend two more seasons in Ann Arbor (the Wolverines
would also make it to the NCAA final in '93), but it seemed that
in the blink of an eye he was gone, headed for the NBA--a year
early, of course.

That was when things started moving so fast that even Rose had a
hard time keeping up. He played for three coaches during his
rookie season, with the Denver Nuggets, and was traded to the
Indiana Pacers after his second season. The instability reminded
him of growing up without his father, former NBA player Jimmy
Walker, with whom Rose has never had much contact. "It seemed
like every time I turned around, there was a new person or a new
system to get used to," he says. "Everything was changing all
the time, and it was happening so fast."

Lately, though, the action in Rose's life has finally slowed,
and it's no coincidence that his career has picked up speed.
After shuttling between the bench and the starting lineup his
first four years in the league, Rose turned into one of the
NBA's top sixth men last season, and this year he has become a
starter again. He also has been the key to the success of the
Pacers, whose 38-17 record through Sunday was the best in the
Eastern Conference. Three Indiana starters--guard Reggie Miller,
center Rik Smits and forward Dale Davis--have been All-Stars,
but none of them has contributed more than Rose has this season.

"I think he's their best player," Milwaukee Bucks coach George
Karl says of Rose. "It's pretty obvious that he's their first
option. I thought he was a huge contributor last year, and he's
only gotten better."

Miller remains the player the Pacers most often turn to when a
game is on the line, but Rose is usually instrumental in getting
them to crunch time with a chance to win. For the past seven
seasons Miller has led the Pacers in field goal attempts, but at
week's end Rose was shooting more often than Miller--and more
accurately (47.5% to 45.2%). Rose's scoring average has jumped
from 11.1 points last season to 16.9, and he has been
particularly productive the past few weeks. When he dropped 29
points on the Golden State Warriors in a 104-88 win last
Saturday, it was the 11th time in 12 games in which he had scored
at least 20 points. The Pacers went 10-2 in that stretch.

A slender 6'8" lefthander, Rose does not have a classic style.
He's a capable outside shooter, but many of his points come on
awkward-looking little tosses around the basket as he shoots over
smaller defenders or slithers around bulkier ones. Although he is
nominally a small forward, he plays point guard or shooting guard
when needed. "He does a little bit of everything," says Indiana
coach Larry Bird. "The combination of his size, passing ability
and ball handling makes him a tough matchup for almost any team."

The ultraconfident Rose isn't surprised by his success. "I knew
it would happen," he says. "I would look at a lot of the stars in
this league--Grant Hill, Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd--and I'd see
guys I grew up playing against in camps and summer all-star
games. I could hang with them then, and I knew I could hang with
them now."

Some nights Rose energizes the Pacers with his defense, as he did
in holding Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter to four
first-half points in a 109-101 Indiana victory on Feb. 16. Other
nights he does it by distributing the ball, as he did in dishing
a season-high 11 assists in a 113-103 win over the Seattle
SuperSonics on Dec. 21. But most often he contributes more than a
little of everything, as he did when he had 20 points, seven
rebounds and six assists in a 109-84 win over the Philadelphia
76ers on Feb. 7. "I'm not a specialist," Rose says. "My job is to
make my presence felt in a lot of places."

Bird has provided the stability that has helped Rose flourish.
When he replaced Larry Brown as the Pacers' coach before the
1997-98 season, Bird quickly made Rose his most trusted reserve
and made it clear that he was counting on him for more than an
occasional strong performance. Bird told him that he'd been
following his career since Rose was in college. "When I was at
Michigan, we won a close game at Purdue, and he was there," Rose
says. "He told me he knew after watching me in that game that I
had what it took to be a great point guard, because he remembered
the last five minutes of the game and how I got the ball to the
right guy in the right situation every time."

There haven't been many more pep talks like that from Bird. "He's
not the kind of coach who seeks you out to give you a pat on the
back," Rose says. "If you approach him, he'll talk to you all you
want, but he shows you what he thinks of you by the situations he
puts you in and the things he asks you to do. He's given me more
and more responsibility, and I know that if I wasn't meeting the
challenge, he wouldn't keep doing it."

After the Pacers' lack of athleticism was exposed in a 4-2
Eastern Conference finals loss to the New York Knicks last
season, Bird didn't hesitate to start Rose at small forward this
season in place of Chris Mullin. Bird didn't, however, fulfill
Rose's fondest wish: to become a full-time point guard. Rose
grew up imagining himself as a lefthanded Magic Johnson,
studying Johnson on TV and rushing outside after Lakers games to
practice spin moves and no-look passes. Rose's three college
seasons were largely a Magic impersonation as he ran the
Wolverines' offense while peering over the heads of smaller
point guards. He hasn't given up on his NBA point-guard dream,
but one sign of Rose's maturation is that he's no longer in a
hurry to make it come true. His career doesn't have to be stuck
on fast-forward anymore.

"The idea of playing the point and leading a team to the NBA
championship is what drove me to get up every day and work on my
game as a kid," Rose says, "but I'm willing to wait for the right
situation. Right now the best way for the Pacers to win a title
is for me to be at small forward, and I have no problem with
that. After [what happened] my first couple of years in the
league, I realize how good a situation I have here."

That situation could change after this season, when his contract
expires. Rose, who is single, has no family ties in Indiana,
although he does value its proximity to Detroit, where he bought
his mother a home and where he often visits family and friends.
He could pursue his favorite outside interests, watching boxing
and playing video games, in any city, but after the tumult of
his first four seasons, the idea of continuity with the Pacers
appeals to him.

Instability was the only constant early in Rose's career,
beginning with the disarray of the Nuggets during his rookie
season, 1994-95. Dan Issel resigned as coach 34 games into the
season and was replaced by Gene Littles, who lasted only 16 games
before general manager Bernie Bickerstaff took his job. In the
midst of the upheaval Rose was trying to learn the nuances of
being a professional playmaker, and, not surprisingly, the
results were mixed. Issel and Littles wanted him to run a
patient, structured offense, unlike the one he had run at
Michigan, and Rose made turnovers and poor decisions, playing his
way out of the starting lineup. When Bickerstaff took over, he
reinstated Rose as a starter and loosened the reins. Rose
responded by helping the Nuggets rally to make the playoffs.

But the next season he was inconsistent again. After Denver lost
its first four games, Rose was benched, and he spent the rest of
the year showing only flashes of the controlled point-guard play
that Bickerstaff wanted. "When I first came in, I was viewed as
the point guard of the future," says Rose, "and for whatever
reason I wasn't given a full opportunity to [succeed]. I felt I
could have been the kind of player Denver needed, but there were
too many things going on with the team. Everything was constantly
changing."

A change of address was next for Rose. Before the '96-97 season
the Nuggets traded him to Indiana, where he continued to have
trouble finding his niche. His scoring average dropped from 10.0
points to 7.3 and his assists from 6.2 to 2.3 as he played only
18 minutes per game. Part of the problem was that Rose still saw
himself as a point guard--the Pacers already had an established
starter in Mark Jackson--and Brown thought Rose was better
suited to shooting guard or small forward. The biggest blow to
Rose's ego came in the fourth game of the season, when the
Pacers played the Washington Bullets, who started two of his
former Fab Five teammates, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard.
Although Indiana won in overtime, Rose played only four minutes,
while his two friends combined for 39 points. He went home and
spent the next day with his phone off the hook, knowing that all
of his buddies in Detroit would be calling to ask why he'd been
nailed to the bench.

Rose and Brown clashed quietly during their year together. Rose
never ranted in public or made play-me-or-trade-me demands, but
he was confused and frustrated over his erratic playing time
under Brown, who was only occasionally satisfied with Rose's
defensive efforts and didn't share Rose's belief that he was
ready to be Indiana's full-time point guard.

That position might be available to Rose if he returns next
season to a Pacers team that may bear no resemblance to this
year's club. Sam Perkins is considering retirement, while
Jackson, Miller, Smits and forward Austin Croshere will be free
agents this summer. Rose is uncertain whether he will return,
but no matter what he decides, it's almost certain that he will
have to adjust to yet another new coach, since Bird plans to
step aside at the end of the year.

Indiana fans who hope Rose will stay would have been encouraged
to read his body language after a recent practice. His work for
the day was done, but he relaxed in front of his locker, still
in uniform, while other Pacers showered and dressed. He was
where he wanted to be, and he had no reason to hurry.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSEPH PLUCHINO COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO/NBA PHOTOS RESILIENT Rose played his way out of Denver's starting lineup, but as a starter with Indiana this year he has been indispensable. COLOR PHOTO: JESSE GARRABRANT/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above]

"I think he's the Pacers' best player," says George Karl. "He
was a huge contributor last year, and he's only gotten better."

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