Q. & A.
Jalen Rose on the N.B.A. Playoffs
The sports commentator and former pro basketball player discusses a difficult season and the state of the game.
By Isaac Chotiner
July 1, 2021
The N.B.A.’s shortened season, which may have led to an increased number of injuries, was “a necessary evil,” Jalen Rose says.Source photograph by Carlos Osorio / AP
Jalen Rose is one of America’s most prolific and outspoken sports commentators. A member of the University of Michigan’s legendary Fab Five team in the early nineties, Rose went on to the N.B.A., where he played for the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls. Since retiring as a player, in 2007, he has been a fixture on ESPN, in recent years co-hosting “Jalen & Jacoby,” a national sports-radio show, with the commentator David Jacoby. Rose is also a writer and podcast host for the New York Post, and the co-founder of a charter school, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in his home town of Detroit.
I spoke by phone with Rose on June 28th, while he was in Phoenix covering the conference finals. We talked about the problems facing the N.B.A., as it finishes a season that was delayed by the pandemic, leaving players with less time off between games and pushing the N.B.A. Finals into July. Many of the league’s all-star players have been injured, raising questions about whether the shortened schedule is to blame. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also considered why the N.B.A. hasn’t had more Black coaches, whether the league actually cares about social justice, and why so few pro athletes have come out of the closet.
What have you made of these playoffs so far? Do you think that the number of injuries suggests that the league needs to do something different?
Not at all. These have been a couple of unique seasons in N.B.A. history, based on the pandemic. Last season ended with the teams playing in the bubble. It culminated in the Lakers winning the championship without fans in the stands. This season, you start later, and in order to complete the season, you have got to jump some big hurdles, and have some challenges to overcome. The more you play, obviously it exposes you to injury, and I can’t act like playing a compressed schedule doesn’t affect players’ health. But, at the same time, I don’t think it’s the main contributing factor to a lot of the injuries that we saw.
LeBron James tweeted that the league needed to be more aware of what the shortened schedule meant for players and their health. But, at the same time, the players agreed to this schedule, right?
Correct, and this was a necessary evil. The N.B.A. has done a terrific job over the decades of trying to make sure that there’s a legitimate champion. So seventy-two games [the number the league committed to playing] gets you more teams that are in contention now. If you look at the landscape of the current playoffs, of each of the teams, none of them have won a championship since the merger [of the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, in 1976], and a couple of them haven’t won it in the history of their franchises. That’s great for the game.
Three of the four coaches of the conference finals teams are Black, which has never happened before. We’ve already seen some teams like the Blazers and the Mavericks hire Black coaches for next season. Why did this take so long?
To drill down a little bit further, each of them are former players. People for so very long dismissed the on-job experience of the former player and, when they went for the job, spoke about them like they were inexperienced. There isn’t more experience than playing.
What has happened is that ownership and general managers have now realized, with guys on the back half of the roster, you’re coaching those players, you’re trying to get those players to improve, you’re trying to get them to fit into a role. But your superstars—those are your partners. When I see Aaron Rodgers not seeing eye to eye with the Green Bay Packers, the first thing that comes to my mind is: that’s your partner. You should find a way to make it work with him. So that’s the same thing I now see in the N.B.A. Look at what Deandre Ayton is saying about [the Suns coach and former player] Monty Williams. He’s talking about a guy that challenges him in a different way. That’s something that you get from just being a player, because we understand the difference between a pat on the back and a kick in the butt.
This idea that a player isn’t necessarily best equipped to be a coach—do you think that was just an excuse not to hire Black coaches?
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It’s an opportunity to dilute the talent pool, and take a former player and just dismiss the fact that he’s been a player and say, “Well, he has no coaching experience.” Now, all playing experiences aren’t created equal. If you’ve ever played basketball, and the team chose you to be a captain, that’s a leadership position.
Is there something that makes a former player a good coach? I would assume that really smart players, like Chris Paul or LeBron or Steve Nash, would be best.
So here’s what’s different about the N.B.A., and I love this so very much. It’s always been a league that understood that players drive the league. Look at the logos for the National Hockey League, for football. Football is a shield, and basketball is a player, Jerry West. Jerry West not only is Mr. Clutch but he’s probably one of the greatest executives of all time. So the players you just mentioned—what do they have in common? They’re all great communicators, each of them has shown leadership qualities, each of them has been able to reinvent themselves. Lastly, every time they’ve been a part of a team, they have either been one of the best guys or the spokesperson.
But then you have guys like Nate McMillan and Tyronn Lue, who are coaching in the semifinals now but who were not the stars of their team.
I fall into their category. Because the first guys that you just talked about, those are superstars, and you see them coming. But who the world doesn’t see coming, people within the league see coming. One thing about playing for multiple teams is that you get to meet more people, you get familiar with more cities, you get to play for more coaches, you get to learn from a lot more people. So if you look at Tyronn Lue’s playing career, you’ll say he played for these teams, averaged this amount of points or whatever. But then you probably would ignore that, wow, he played for Phil Jackson. Oh, he coached with Doc Rivers. You start looking back at the lineage of who he’s been around.
Last week, Damian Lillard, the Blazers All-Star guard, got into arguments on Twitter with people who were upset that the Blazers were hiring Chauncey Billups, who had been accused of sexual assault twenty-four years ago, as head coach. Some people were also upset that Jason Kidd was hired to coach the Mavericks, because Kidd pleaded guilty to charges of domestic abuse, in 2001. The N.B.A. has said that it was going to try and have different standards around social issues than other leagues. How do you think they should be thinking about issues like this?
So each situation, obviously, is different, and all of the circumstances are extremely important. I don’t treat them lightly, as none of us will or should. This has happened since the beginning of time. What Isaac did five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago—when is it O.K. for him to move on with his life? That’s always a juggle that we’re going to have as a society, because there are no perfect human beings. So each of us can have somebody come out and say, “Hey, Isaac said this in high school. He did this in college,” or whatever. Obviously, it’s not to the severity of the things that those guys got themselves involved in. But the point still stands that they’ve done their best, from what I see, of trying to pick up the pieces in their lives to still be functioning members of society. Being an inner-city kid, I saw family members go in and out of jail a lot. I remember wondering, man, that’s messed up, because you went to jail or whatever and you can’t vote. Or, when you’re out of jail, you can’t get a job.
Again, I want to make sure that I acknowledge the severity of what they are accused of, and not dismiss the pain, or anything that anybody who was involved with those circumstances has gone through, or their families. But I think the N.B.A., those guys, and those teams, probably look at each situation and say that these two guys have found a way to reinvent themselves, make amends in their own ways for transgressions in their past, and have tried to pull themselves back up. Chauncey worked at ESPN—he’s been an assistant coach. It wasn’t just that circumstance happened and then Portland hired him the next day. Respectfully, that was almost twenty-five years ago.
But I also think those accusations should be important to the N.B.A., if they’re going to take the stance that they’re a league that cares about things beyond what happens on the court.
That’s fair. I’m not here to speak for Adam Silver, but I will guarantee you this: the N.B.A. does take it seriously. The N.B.A. takes it the most seriously, by the way. I saw the Greg Hardy transcripts when he was a member of the Carolina Panthers. A couple of weeks later, he got signed by the Dallas Cowboys. [Hardy was convicted of domestic assault in 2014 and then, after the victim failed to appear in court, had the case dismissed and the charges expunged. The Panthers cut ties with Hardy, but he signed with the Cowboys the following year. Around the same time, leaked transcripts and photos revealed the severity of the assault.]
The Raiders’ Carl Nassib just became the first active N.F.L. player to come out as gay. There have still been very few athletes to come out as gay, given where society is in 2021. Are you surprised that there aren’t more? If so, why do you think that is?
I’m definitely not surprised that there have not been more. Sadly, I don’t believe him coming out will cause more people to do so. Here’s why: we’ve become a public that is really judgmental, that’s unforgiving, as we’re discussing, in a lot of ways. I’m not even just speaking about sexuality. I mean, if you post a picture with your wife and your kid, there’s going to be somebody that wants to comment about your kid’s hair, or to body-shame your wife, or whatever. In a lot of cases, I’ve learned that you have to insulate yourself.
Let me give you a perfect example. For Father’s Day, I wore a blond streak in my hair on Game One of the playoffs. Actually, the reason why I did it is because I grew up in a single-parent home. We celebrated Father’s Day for my mother, whom I lost in February. That’s how she wore her hair. So I basically did it as a tribute to her. But, as a human being, I don’t feel the need all of the time to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I don’t want to make myself vulnerable to the public. I’m somebody whose father played in the league, and I never met him. You can look back at when I played—I never talked about him. Never. Because of exactly what I’m saying to you. I needed to protect my personal feelings, and/or whatever makes me tick, from the audience that’s going to judge me. So people see me go on TV with a blond streak in my hair—that’s a chance to assassinate my character, or like it, or not like it, or say I look crazy, or say I look foolish, or I’m trying to be whatever. And all I’m doing is trying to pay homage to my mom.
O.K., but do you think it’s more about that than homophobia within sports?
I really do. Because we know what makes our teammates tick in a lot of ways. Your teammates are your family, and while they’re not in your bedroom, there are family outings, there are team dinners. You get a chance to meet the significant others of the people that you play with.
So you’re saying the players know that other people on their team might have different sexual preferences?
Absolutely. One million per cent. It’s just not for us to say. It’s not our business.
You were talking about the way people criticize athletes. Kevin Durant, for people who don’t know, engages with people on Twitter all the time, and goes after them, and argues with them. There are very few people with nineteen million Twitter followers who do this all the time. What do you make of it?
So what happens is each of us use social media differently. Normally, when I’m posting something, it’s either me posting something about work, or it’s me posting something that’s all the way not about work. But also social media can be therapeutic. So I did my therapy—and I joke about this—lying on the “Jalen & Jacoby” couch, I call it. I’ve been doing that show for ten years. My mom died on February 2nd, around 8:15 to 8:20 a.m. With tears in my eyes, and pain in my heart, two hours later, I was doing “Jalen & Jacoby.” Because I know that’s what she would have wanted me to do, because she watched the show, but also it was therapeutic for me. So K.D. says, “Wait a minute. O.K., you feel like you want to have an opinion about me, but I’m not too big to respond.” So he’ll respond to an egg account that has thirty followers, or he’ll respond to Scottie Pippen, who’s one of the top fifty players of all time. What I see from the outside looking in is him defending his name, and using social media as therapy in a good way.
Because, let’s remember, at first he had a burner account. You remember that the things he was saying on that burner account aren’t things that you can tell your nineteen million followers. So what ended up happening, I believe, when his burner account got exposed—he’s, like, “You know what? I’m going to just be myself.” His handle is “IM ME, I DO ME, AND I CHILL.”
Yeah, I don’t know how much he’s chilling.
Very well said. When each of us wakes up today, nobody’s going to care more about your health, your well-being, everything, than yourself. He’s embracing that, to me, and I like it.
You recently said that the Cavs forward Kevin Love was chosen for Team U.S.A. because there was a desire for a team that wasn’t all Black. You then said you misspoke. What do you think now about the way the team is chosen?
So being a multimedia personality, it’s like being a referee. When I blow the whistle, the team that gets the call, they go to the free-throw line and they are happy that they got the whistle in their favor. The team that the call went against, they want to challenge the call.
For me, there’s two different styles of media. There’s the news-style media, for example, that I do on “N.B.A. Countdown.” That’s where you have the stats, right, you have the facts, right, and want to make sure that you’re delivering and you’re sticking the landing. A show like “Jalen & Jacoby,” that’s a variety show. It’s an opinion show. So what you do, as you know, is to try to entertain your audience in a provocative way. You do it, in this case, through sports. So as somebody that has covered and followed the N.B.A. for as long as I have, when I first saw Team U.S.A.’s roster, the first thing that came to mind to me was that Kevin Love, based on his play this year, didn’t deserve to be on that team.
I really hate that it kind of became what it became, because everybody that we speak on—this will be my nineteenth consecutive year covering the N.B.A. on television—each of the players that I cover or talk about, or coaches, I’m one text away from that person at all times. So my first overarching point was if we had to pick twelve players to go represent Team USA, I didn’t think he should have been one of those twelve players. So then it’s, like, O.K., what is the reason that he’s on the team? My conclusion about tokenism was just an opinion; it wasn’t personal. Me saying that in 2020, that it’s O.K. to have an all-Black team, it didn’t mean that I didn’t know that we didn’t have an all-Black team in the past. I clearly do know that. But, also, when you’ve been doing this for so very long, you assess yourself. One of the reasons that I feel that I went wrong is because I’m integrated in the N.B.A. family. If that’s going to be somebody’s opinion, which is a valid opinion that a lot of people are going to have when they see that roster—if that’s going to be said, I deduced that it shouldn’t be said by me.
Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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