DETROIT — Jalen Rose built his career on smack talk more than anything else.
Sure, he had everything — the raw skill of a baller, the basketball IQ to become an elite point guard, the winning drive to make back-to-back NCAA Championship appearances. Rose had all the traditional tools for success on the hardwood, and those assets made him one of the most highly-coveted backcourt recruits of his day.
But to Rose, smack was at the forefront of his game. It wasn’t because he was a thug with a bad attitude from the Detroit projects (though, that’s exactly where Rose learned to talk trash). It wasn’t about proving anything to people off the court. And it certainly wasn’t just to get in the opponent’s face.
It was about getting in the opponent’s head. Knowing his competition was afraid of what he’d say next gave Rose the mental advantage he needed to unlock all those other tools he possessed.
Nowadays, in life after basketball, Rose’s attitude hasn’t changed much — he confronts controversial issues face-to-face, always with blatant candor. So it was no surprise how ESPN Films’ upcoming documentary “The Fab Five,” which Rose helped to produce, started.
Jimmy King, Rose’s teammate on the Michigan basketball team from 1991-94, describes the devastation of the University’s Athletic Department taking down the banners that once hung proudly in the Crisler Arena rafters.
Now collecting dust in the basement of Bentley Library, the banners represent the achievements of five former Wolverines — Rose, King, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Chris Webber — who were affectionately dubbed The Fab Five in their freshmen season.
There’s something that really hits home in that opening image of the banners, rolled up neatly on a shelf next to hundreds of file boxes that contain God knows what. The Michigan basketball program has reached just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past 13 years, and the glory days are not only forgotten, but locked away in a basement under dim, flickering light bulbs.
ESPN aired “The Fab Five” documentary on Sunday night on a mission to show the world everything there is to know about the most highly-touted recruiting class in the history of college basketball. The film details everything that’s been under wraps since the early 1990s, from the individuals — how they got from the inner-city to Ann Arbor — to their revolutionizing hip-hop swag, to the massive payment scandal involving Webber that ultimately led to their deletion from the record books.
“First and foremost, (we want to show) that we were college kids,” Rose said after a private screening on Friday. “So there were things that we did that were responsible, there were things we did that were stupid. There were times when we were able to articulate ourselves, there were times when we were ignorant and immature. That was part of the college experience.”
And within, the movie presents a poignant critique of amateurism in a sport where the NCAA and athletic departments take millions to the bank on the successes of unpaid athletes.
The only significant figure notably absent from the film, however, is Webber himself, and for fairly obvious reasons. Not only did his relationship with University booster Ed Martin and subsequent dishonesty with a grand jury tarnish the Michigan basketball program, but his infamous timeout call when there were no timeouts left at the end of the 1993 National Championship game against North Carolina is still a sore subject.
Both events were discussed extensively in the film.
“The elephant in the room, as you saw in the film, is that Chris chose not to give a 2011 interview,” Rose said after the screening. “But hopefully he’ll find that salvation in this life, like he could bring some sort of closure to it. Like I told him, I wish all I had to say is that I called a timeout. You think I want to be sitting there with my grandmother or son talking about me being in the crack house? No I don’t want to talk about that, man. That’s what I told him.”
Rose was referring to a point in his sophomore year, when he was caught playing video games at his friend’s house during a drug bust. But in addressing the issue, he mentions that he was not in a crack house — because he knows from home what a real dope house is.
Indeed, Friday’s screening at the Detroit Science Center in front of mostly just Rose’s friends and family was personal for him. Through every moment of his career, he’s brought a piece of the Motor City with him.
And now, he’s giving back.
The end of the movie briefly mentions his plans to open the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter high school that will find its home in the heart of the city.
“For some of these kids, it’s like Beirut to finally get to school,” Rose said after the screening. “Your uncle’s on crack, you’ve never met your dad, trying to help your mom feed the family, your brother or sister is sick. Finally you get to school and it’s like, ‘You expect me to learn?’ ”
In addition to the core curriculum, Rose wants students to graduate from his school with the life skills and financial literacy to find success, whether it’s on the court or off it.
But either way, he’ll urge the students to confront life issues the same way he and the rest of the Fab Five did it — face-to-face, talking smack along the way.