1993, December 6: Flashback… The Sporting News – The Different One
March 10, 2009
December 6, 1993 – By Mitch Albom… Jalen Rose would outcool Elvis. He would outcool James Dean, James Brown, James Earl Jones. He would stare them down from atop his stretched, bony body, then sneer and go, "You aint nuthin'." This is Jalen's strength, or at least it always was. He had seen so much. He had endured so much. There was nothing that would throw him, nothing that would knock him off the perch of his own basketball hipness.
For two years at Michigan, Jalen Rose led the Wolverines and their legendary Fab Five with this kind of swagger. People think it was Chris Webber, but it was not. Jalen could yank Chris around by the nose. Born on the hard side of Detroit, Jalen seemed to wear his past on his sleeve. "When you come from where I come from…," he would begin sentences. The other players fell in line behind his boasting. Besides, he backed it up on the court. If you challenged him, he burned you. If you taunted him, he'd slam on you, then yell, "I just buried you. How'd it feel?" He would swoop from behind and holler, "BLOCK PARTY!" as he slapped away your shot. He would race to the 3-point line, launch a bomb – in those flapping yellow shorts – and yell, "FLURRIES!" as if his shots would fall like snow. He was the best trash-talker on the team. He was in control.
And now he is (gulp) an upperclassman. And he finds himself without the two biggest buffers of his life.. Webber, who had been his best friend and basketball shadow since they were 11 years old, and Perry Watson, his high school coach, assistant Michigan coach and surrogate father since Jalen's early days in Detroit. Webber, of course, went to the NBA. Watson left Steve Fisher's staff to become head coach at the University of Detroit.
And things are suddenly quiet for Rose. Whenever he would get too mischievous, too troublesome, too wild, he could hide behind Webber or Watson. They would explain him, and free him, once again, to be his impetuous self.
Now they are gone, and Rose finds himself on a team that has four star players and little else. The bench is gone. The big man is gone. They actually held open tryouts a few weeks back for the U-M basketball team, and they took some of what they found. This, a school that two years ago boasted The Greatest Class Ever Recruited.
And Jalen? He has to grow up. He has to lead Michigan is still one of the best teams in the nation, but the Wolverines can no longer just show up in other people's gyms with their black socks, bald heads and long shorts and expect to blow the opponent away.
Jalen is 20 years old, and the world is looking different.
And yet, he claims he's got it under control – "I'm straight," he says – and those who know him believe him. He was always the most remarkable, charismatic, perplexing and frustrating member of the Fab Five. He did what he said he would do.
In writing the book, "Fab Five," I discovered at the core of Jalen's rambunctious soul was his relationship with his absent father, Jimmy Walker, the former NBA All-Star. Jalen never met him. He rarely spoke about him. And yet the parallels between the two were undeniable.
It took more than a year, but I finally tracked down Jimmy Walker. He proved as mysterious and elusive as his son, but you saw where the walk, the talk and the hidden but obvious vulnerability came from.
It was in the genes.
Not much Jalen Rose did was normal, [like the time he almost drowned trying to jump across a swimming pool]. Of all the Fab Five, he was at once the most puzzling, disturbing, fascinating, and charming, whether dressing like a rap star, mouthing off to opponents, or hugging a teammate and almost choking him with those long stringy arms. Like the magician Merlin in British mythology, Jalen could become almost anything he wanted, a dazzler, a screamer, a liar, a child, a friend, an enemy.
But much of who he was seemed to come directly from the genes of a man he does not know and has never met.
Jimmy Walker was a college All-American at Providence, and a flashy, lean first-round draft pick for the Detroit Pistons in 1967. He was a great player, known for confidence in his ballhandling. His signature move was "the spin," in which he came at you full force, then swung the other direction, 180 degrees, leaving you in his fumes. He was also a dead-eye shooter. And, like the son he would father, he was a talker. One time, during a game, he was hitting baskets with such accuracy he ran up to the ref and said, "Hey, you better do something, there's something wrong with this ball."
"What?" the ref said.
"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 for a while, they made a popular couple. But, true to form, he was gone by the time the baby came.
And Jeanne never mentioned him again.
"Jalen" is a hybrid, partially for Jimmy – the "Ja" part – with the "len" for Len, his uncle. So the kid's very name suggests a tug between what he had and what he missed. Jalen never met his father. To this day, he has never spoken to him.
Still, genes are genes, and the father lived inside the son. 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 movements with a basketball. One day, when Jalen was 11, he was playing at St. Cecilia's gym in Detroit, mouthing off to the other kids, heaving shots, mouthing off again. Sam Washington, the smiling, heavyset legend who ran the leagues there seemingly forever, had been watching Jalen. He remembered Walker. He remembered when Walker used to play in this same gym, how he yelled, "Just in time!" when someone would try to block his shot, meaning, just in time to watch it go in.
Sam went into his office, set up a movie projector, found a film, 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. The man shot long-range jumpers. He threw wonderful passes.
"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." He would see that figure on the office wall, hear the projector clicking softly.
Although he never told his mother about the card – she never spoke about Walker, and he respected her silence – he took it with him everywhere, and would flash it sometimes like a badge, to gain entrance to the playground when the older kids had the court.
"Go on home, you too small."
"I ain't small. Check this out."
"That's my father."
"You Jimmy Walker's boy?"
"Well, come on then, let's see if you can play like him."
And in he went. Jalen never ran from competition, and playing better players made him better. 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.
You had to understand this about Jalen in order to fully grasp the way he acted at Michigan. He simply saw himself inside the game. He saw his destiny, he saw his past and his future, he saw his father making moves on that wall in the St. Cecilia gym office. There was never any fear in Jalen Rose once he crossed the court line. He could make mistakes, he could miss shots, he could throw bad passes, he could embarrass his coaches – it didn't matter. He would laugh, point at his chest, whisper to the defender, "I just did that to keep you in the game," then come back and do something spectacular. He knew, he just knew, that he would eventually get it right, that basketball was his calling in life, and this not only let him rise to the occasion – to answer the Iowa benching, for example, with those 34 points – but it also earned him the private awe of every other player in that uniform, even the older ones, even those who didn't like him, because they couldn't do what he could do. Like soldiers on the eve of a battle, they knew this crazy bastard might be the difference between them coming home alive or dead.
And so – begrudgingly in some cases – they awarded him admiration, respect, and fear.
And he became their leader.
While Michigan was beating Cincinnati in the 1992 NCAA semifinal in Minneapolis, a few men in suburban Atlanta were watching the game on a health club TV set. One of them, a tall black man with a gap-toothed smile and a full head of hair, seemed more interested than the others. When the game was over, the others asked him about Jalen Rose.
"That really your son?" they said.
Yes, the man said.
"He's got some smooth moves."
He does, the man said.
"He plays a little like you played."
I know, the man said.
Jimmy Walker, who had disappeared from his NBA life nearly two decades ago, had never met his son Jalen, and – until these televised games – had never even seen his son's face. But he marveled now at their similarities on the court. That easy gait. The spinning moves. The confidence when he dribbled. "He's got a lot of me inside him," Walker thought. And, even if he didn't have a right to do it, he took a certain pride.
When the game was over, and the Fab Five were celebrating, someone in the health club turned off the set. Jimmy Walker got up to go.
"You gonna go see the championship game?" the others asked him.
"No," Walker said. But he thought about meeting his son one day, because it was obvious, quite obvious, the boy was going to be a star. What would they say to each other, he wondered?
A two-hour plane trip from Ann Arbor and a twenty-minute rent-a-car drive down I-284 brings you to the Sugar Creek Golf and Tennis Center in suburban Atlanta. You can leave after breakfast and be there before lunch. The weather on this particular day was stunning, 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 2 in the afternoon, a beige Mitsubishi Diamante rolled down the long entrance road. It pulled carefully into a parking spot, and the driver's door opened. 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 and had the same lifted tilt of his head. 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 seemed cautious, and suggested a picnic table up near the clubhouse as a place to sit. "I play here regularly," he mentioned. When informed that finding him was extremely difficult, that most people who used to know him or played in the NBA with him had, over the years, lost complete track of him, so much so that they now called him "a mystery," he grinned and said, "I'm no mystery."
Jimmy Walker, once the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, had indeed disappeared from the stage 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 called JW's in Kansas City, with former teammate Sam Lacey. It faded and quickly closed. There were reports of him in Virginia and even back in Boston.
And then nothing. He seemed to drop out. Phones were disconnected. Addresses were no longer valid. Friends like Dave Bing, who used to room with him on the road with the Pistons, tried to get in touch with him but had no idea where he was. Bing did get a Christmas card every year that was signed "Jimmy Walker," but it never had a return address. That, he believed, was intentional.
"I've done this and that," Walker said now, when asked about the last dozen years. "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. They had never met. Never spoken. Walker bolted when Jeanne Rose got pregnant, same as he bolted on a number of other women in his life when the children came: no personal involvement, no financial involvement. Only 15 years later did he hear, through the grapevine, that the son he'd left behind in Detroit was turning into a pretty good basketball player. Soon he started seeing Jalen Rose on television, playing for Michigan. Walker watched with interest. He followed the games, he studied the boy's moves and saw many of his own instincts. People who knew Walker in Atlanta remarked, "If he's your son, he's got it all backwards. The father is supposed to be the one who's bald. The son is supposed to have the hair. "
One time, Walker said, he thought he passed Jalen in an airport. There was a group of tall young men, carrying bags, moving through the terminal the way sports teams do, and Walker saw a face, the eyes, the expression, that he was almost sure was his child.
He said nothing.
What would he say anyhow?
"I'm sure Jalen is apprehensive about meeting me, " Walker said. "And I understand that. I consider myself to be a pretty well-balanced person, but during the time that Jalen was born, I really do think that |acting silly' was putting it mildly.
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.'Or |No, you're not.' You know, I was married at the time I met Jeanne, and my former wife is putting me under all this pressure….
"I remember Jeanne being angry. . . . We didn't communicate right, and now Jalen has gone 20 years without meeting his father…."
By the time Jimmy reached college, at Providence, he was as talented and as cocky as, well, as another freshman would be 20 years later. Freshmen weren't allowed to play with the varsity back then, so Walker led the Providence freshmen to an undefeated season. When the team was 16-0, Walker and the others presented their coach, Dave Gavitt, with an inscribed watch. It said, "From your undefeated 21-0 freshmen."
They hadn't even played the last five games.
"Don't worry," Walker had said. "We'll win 'em."
So the confidence – and even the trash talking – that Jalen practiced today was prefaced by his biological father. "Next time!" Walker used to yell when someone tried to block his shot, and "That's two right there!" when it swished. Walker made the NBA All-Star team three times and was once paired with Jerry West in the backcourt when West won the MVP award. Jimmy finished second in the voting. "Jerry," Walker said as they came off , "don't you think I should have shot more?"
He drummed his fingers now on the picnic table. A breeze blew. Jimmy had made a lot of money and had broken a lot of hearts, and 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? Like, how much is this conversation worth to you?"
He talked about meeting his son, maybe even making a trip to see him during the 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, and now I wanna be seen with him. 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. I would have found out what I could do as a person, you know, like, if you need me, I'm here, I'm a telephone call away."
He walked toward the courts, then stopped, took a pen, and wrote something on a piece of paper.
"You know," he said, "I don't have any regrets or apologies about Jalen. That's just the way things happen sometimes."
He handed over the paper.
"You can give him my number. Ted him to call me, if he wants."
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.
He didn't take the number.
Jalen asked for his father's phone number.
A sudden request, on the day of the game.
When asked why, he said, "I changed my mind."
When asked about talking on the telephone, instead of in person, Jalen said, "You gotta start somewhere."
He took the number and said, "That's in Atlanta, right? He's in Atlanta?" Then he took the number back to his room. It was written in pen, on a ripped piece of paper, and he felt a little like the kid he once was, with the baseball card he used to carry around. A paper father. Always a paper father.
Walker was home in Atlanta, this was the time of day to get him, and had Jalen gone through with the call, he would have heard his father on the other end. He would have at least heard his father say "Hello? Who is this?"
Several times, Jalen picked up the phone, then put it down.
What if he tells me something that gets me geeked for tonight? he thought. He liked the idea. He envisioned scoring 30 points.
Then he thought again.
What if he says something that gets me upset? Puts me off my game? What if he's… an asshole?
He put the phone down, picked it up, put it down. He looked at paper, sighed, and finally stuffed it in his pocket and left the room.
There's a story about the '93 NCAA Final – the one Michigan lost to North Carolina when Chris Webber called a timeout he didn't have – that most people don't know. When the final buzzer sounded, and Fisher had to swallow his emotion yet again and make that short walk to congratulate Dean Smith, one Michigan player waited for him to finish. Jalen Rose. He stood on the far end of the court, watching, even though his teammates had already gone down the tunnel, and even though the North Carolina fans mocked him by pointing and singing their fight song. Jalen waited until Fisher came back, and he put his bony arm around Fisher's shoulder.
"Don't worry, Coach," Jalen said. "We'll be back here next year."
Fisher looked at him – Jalen, of all people! – and, choking up, he said, "We damn sure better be."
Now, back home, his breakfast finished, Jalen closed the foam carton and leaned back in the couch.
He never did call his father. He mentioned it to his mother, and she took offense. "We've been looking for him for 20 years, now he wants you to come see him? He wants to see you, let him come up here."
Jalen figured nothing was worth upsetting his mother. After all, she'd done the work on him, not Jimmy Walker. "I'll meet him eventually," he said. "I lived this long without a father.
"Anyhow, he knows how to find me."