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Either You’re Slinging Crack Rock Or You Got A Wicked Jump Shot

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

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

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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.

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“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.” 

Rose. Crackhouse.

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.

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