At the intersection of race, space, class and hoops Jalen Anthony Rose entered the national imagination in the twilight of the Crack Era. Depending on where you stood in the culture wars, Rose and his teammates—dubbed the Fab Five—were cultural icons or yet another sign of a culture in decline. Broadcasting personality Dick Vitale bemoaned the team’s aesthetic, blaming their “ugly black socks,” baggy shorts and shaved heads. From Vitale’s perspective people didn’t look at the young black boys as “that clean cut, that All-American sort of guys.” Basketball legend Bill Walton once known for his anti-establishment politics and counterculture leanings rankled that the team “epitomized what is wrong with a lot of basketball players.” Something was clearly different about this young team. Beat writer Brian Burwell assessed the situation best: “It was all generational and cultural. If you were young and black, you were like, ‘those are my boys.’ If you were old and white, you were going, ‘oh my god the criminals are taking over our sports and influencing our children. Get away from the TV.’”
Ice Cube, a cultural icon in his own right, referenced the teams “style, swagger and attitude.” In a “cultural sense” Ice Cube argued, “they represented the homeboys and the homegirls.” Of the five, no member of the team represented the brash defiance of the streets more than Jalen Rose. A proud graduate of Detroit’s Southwestern High School, Rose grew up poor, raised by a single mother. Rose and his father—NBA star Jimmy Walker—would never meet. Despite growing up around dope houses and shooting galleries, Rose stuck to the basketball courts at the recreation center of St. Cecilia’s. Regardless of his personal merit, Rose was still a kid from the hood. As such he nearly became prey in the broader War on Drugs.
October 4, 1992 was just another day in Southwest Detroit. Jalen and three friends, Lamont Wheeler, Garland Royall and Daman Holmes gathered on a Sunday morning at the house of their high school friend, Frederick Hogan. A conspiracy to play video games. With John Madden in the Sega Genesis, the boys were ready to relax. Unfortunately, October 4, 1992 was indeed just another day in Southwest Detroit. Police piled through the unlocked door yelling, “Police! Search Warrant!” This was a drug raid but this was not a crackhouse. Nonetheless, the house and their persons were searched. Rose, per usual, had no drugs or paraphernalia on him. Ditto for three of the other boys, including Frederick Hogan, the owner of the house he inherited from his recently deceased mother. The police were about to come up empty.
“We got rocks!” Four small packets of crack were found on Lamont Wheeler. Later a full search would also net a marijuana plant growing in the corner of the house. In an instructive moment, Rose and his three innocent buddies were also ensnared in the police dragnet. Regardless of their personal innocence, all four young men would be issued tickets and charged with “Loitering where drugs are kept or stored.” The misdemeanor offense carried a $500 dollar fine and up to 90 days in jail. In yet another instructive moment, Rose was the only boy to walk away from the scene. The others left in handcuffs. Because of his talents on the court, Rose was treated with discretion, something rarely afforded urban teens. His ticket never made it to the district courthouse. It would effectively disappear.
Months later, in the heat of his second basketball season at the University of Michigan, Rose’s purported transgression hit the press. Loitering in a crackhouse ran the headlines. Per Mitch Albom, “every media outlet in the country was screaming, ‘Jalen Rose arrested in a crackhouse!’” One local newspaper wrote: “Jalen Rose. Drugs. That’s the image.” An image folks on one pole of the culture wars were primed to believe because of a host of other cultural signifiers linking crack to poor urban districts and the youth that lived there. The overwhelming presumption of guilt seemed like inertia. Even an arresting officer commented, “It killed me. This kid is my son’s favorite basketball player, and here I am, popping him in a drug raid.”
The University responded swiftly with a press conference the same day. Rose apologized to his family, his teammates, his friends, and “everyone who’s on my side.” He reminded journalists of the obvious reality they seemed to ignore, “I did nothing wrong. I am not in trouble with the law.” His coach, Steve Fisher took a different approach. By the end of the Crack Era, drug users, particularly crack users were viewed by many as non-citizens, less than human. Jalen Rose was not a drug user. He was a citizen. Fisher opined: “Poor judgment? Yes. Drug User? Absolutely no.” Fisher finished with a reminder that Jalen was a “solid citizen” who “shouldn’t have been there.” Rose left the presser with his teammate Chris Webber ready to move forward. College students at the University of Illinois had other ideas.
The first time Jalen Rose touched the ball in his next game the opposing crowd burst out “CRACKHOUSE! CRACKHOUSE!” The taunts persisted each time Jalen touched the ball or went to the free throw line. Thankfully for the student section of the “Orange Crush,” police rarely if ever raided frat houses in Urbana-Champaign. Only students like Rose had to confront the Drug War as a suspected criminal and drug user. In a nod to Nancy Reagan, the crowd got more creative, repeatedly chanting, “Just Say No! Just Say No!”
Asked about his feelings over twenty years later, Rose reflected: “There was a part of me that was embarrassed. Part of me that was hurt.” Rather than let the crowd get the better of him, Rose did what he had done most of his life—he channeled his pain and embarrassment to quiet the naysayers and punish his opposition. In one of the better performances of his college career, Rose finished with a game-high 23 points and 8 rebounds. His team would win by one point in overtime. Rose repeatedly winked at the crowd, taunting back with his play.
Jalen Rose was not in a crackhouse. He was not a drug user or a drug dealer. The ticket did not even make it to district court. If Jalen Rose was guilty, it was in the court of public opinion. To borrow from Malcolm X, Rose was guilty of being “too black, too strong.” But, why did Rose’s ticket disappear and not the others? What about Frederick Hogan, Garland Royall and Daman Holmes? They didn’t have a wicked jumpshot. What about Lamont Wheeler, the teenager that took to using or slinging crack rock? What about all of the kids who were guilty by association? At the crossroads of race, space, and class, the only young men deemed innocent were exceptions to the rule.