DETROIT — The Jalen Rose Leadership Academy serves some 400 students and 600 alumni from a brick, two-story, former middle school on this city’s Northwest side. On Thursday afternoon, its namesake walked in.
The former local basketball star, Fab Five sensation and 13-year NBA veteran is a current ESPN broadcaster. First and foremost though, he is always quick to note, he is a Detroiter.
The charter high school Rose founded in 2012 is a bright light in a city that needs it. He’s a regular here, but his arrival on this day was about a different kind of education — convincing skeptical locals that they should get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Detroit, a city that is 78 percent African American, continues to lag behind much of the state of Michigan in vaccination rates.
“There is a level of fear that Black people have in America sometimes,” Rose said. “An apprehension in trusting medicine or government or law enforcement or things of that nature. You need to remind them how important it is to be vaccinated.”
Rose was speaking to a small gathering of local television cameras, but his work here wasn’t just for publicity’s sake. He spent much of his morning working on a granular level — stopping at local restaurants and corner stores to hand out flyers and talk directly to people.
“If it even helps one person come in, it matters,” Rose said.
“It’s the kind of leadership we need,” said Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist who was at the event. “We need to have conversations directly with people. He’s someone who has a lot of respect in the community because he earned it.”
Michigan’s Fab Five from left, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson. (AP)
‘Proud of my Fab Five brothers’
Rose has been famous in his hometown dating back to his days at Detroit Southwestern High School. He became nationally known at Michigan, where he teamed with four other highly recruited freshmen to form the Fab Five, which took the Wolverines to two national championship games in the early 1990s and swept in a new era of fashion and flair.
The Fab Five was both regaled and reviled, exposing a generational, and often a racial divide, in America. For some they were too brash, too bold, too Black. When NCAA rule violations eventually caused the two Final Four banners to be taken down, the critics felt they were proven right.
Yet here we are, nearly three decades since their arrival in Ann Arbor, and the story may not have turned out as the critics once expected. There is no greater example of that than Jalen Rose.
“We were young, reckless, irresponsible and undisciplined … but that is what all college kids are,” Rose said with a laugh.
“It’s just that we were good at basketball so everything we said or did got judged and criticized,” he continued. “We had our own style. We wanted to listen to rap music and wear long shorts and black socks and black shoes and cut our hair bald. And it was, ‘Oh my God, my kids in the suburbs are going to be looking like this.’ ”
Rose understands what much of America once thought and expected from him and his teammates — Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
And he knows that it wasn’t seeing Webber eventually become known as a thoughtful broadcaster, college professor and businessman. Or Howard taking over as the head coach at Michigan and going 42-17 in his first two seasons. Or King working as a high school coach, businessman and financial advisor. Or Jackson owning his own businesses while running a children’s charity.
“You look back on it 20 to 25 years later, it is our intellect, how much we loved our community, how much we loved the game, how much it meant for us to be first generation to go to college and to take our families out of poverty [that drove us and continues to drive us].”
Rose acknowledges it wasn’t always smooth. There were mistakes and missteps. Regrets. But isn’t that true of any group of five college friends? The highs vastly outnumber the lows. And the journey continues.
“That is one of the things we try to teach young people here,” Rose said. “If you are going to be in any profession you have to reinvent yourself constantly. The idea that you are just going to go to school, get a job and be there for 50 years … no, it doesn’t work like that.
“You are going to have multiple jobs, you are going to work for multiple companies. Technology changes, people change, opportunity changes, so you have to [change]. I am truly proud of my Fab Five brothers that we have been able to do that. We always understood that there was a score of the game, and there was the game of life.”
Always a Detroiter
For Rose, the work he was doing Thursday is beyond your typical athlete/charity deal. This was grassroots work, personal work, hard work. The man is rich and famous and plenty busy with his daily ESPN duties. He could easily live in New York or L.A. and cut checks back to his old hometown. He’d still be considered a hero.
He certainly doesn’t need to be tacking up flyers and standing in grocery stores begging people he’s never met before to come get vaccinated.
He wants to, though. He has to, even.
“I take pride in this city,” Rose said. “I take pride in uplifting this city and the people in this city. For me, failure isn’t an option.
“I never removed myself from the community, regardless of what was happening in my life,” Rose continued. “When I chose college, I chose Michigan, not far from home. Wherever I played in the NBA [for six different teams], I always maintained a home in Michigan. It was always on my drivers license. It kept me grounded.
“There are so many people who gave me confidence, put me in a position to be successful, who supported me. These are humbling things. This is the love that made you who you are. It makes me want to do anything I can to give back.”
Jalen Rose, right, was in Detroit Thursday in an effort to promote vaccination for COVID-19. (Yahoo Sports)
His relationship with Detroit has never faltered. He is of them and they are of him. Elsewhere, it gets more complicated, including out at Michigan, where the Fab Five still isn’t celebrated.
“Our banners are not up, our numbers aren’t retired yet,” he said. “But when I see Juwan on the sideline, none of that matters.”
There are no hard feelings, he said. He doesn’t have time for it. Even if Michigan turned its back on him, he never did on Michigan. Nearly 20 years ago, he endowed four scholarships at the university that continue to this day.
“Imagine this,” Rose said. “There was a period of time in my life where I was kind of banned from Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. … And I had four students going there. So I was getting the scholarship donor messages and emails welcoming me.”
He just laughs. Nothing personal. He hopes it all gets worked out soon and they can have a Fab Five celebration. It’s overdue, especially with Howard as coach. Rose isn’t saying anyone was perfect, but those teenage years were a lifetime ago.
“I’m almost 50,” Rose, 48, said, laughing. “Don’t tell nobody.”
Thursday his work was more serious, less glamorous and much more challenging. It’s hand-to-hand, or mind-to-mind combat trying to get vaccines into arms. He’s up for the challenge of course. He’s always been up for the challenge. His people need him to be.
“Detroit matters so much to me,” he said.
Once upon a time, he and his friends changed the world of basketball. Then they moved onto bigger things.
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