Everything came so quickly to Jalen Rose—not always easily, but quickly. It was that way from the very beginning, from that frigid January night in 1973 when Jeanne Rose's labor pains intensified. She had given birth three times before, but this felt different, and as her brother Leonard drove her to the hospital, she could tell they didn't have much time. When they arrived, nurses raced to the car to rush her into a delivery room, but Jalen was too fast. He was born beneath the glow of streetlights, right there in the parking lot.
Life always seemed to come at him at breakneck speed, and most of the time Jalen loved the pace. He became streetwise almost overnight, the way kids with loving mothers but absent fathers often do. By the time he reached seventh grade, he was one of the best schoolboy players in Detroit, a smiling, charismatic leader even in games with much older players. He eventually moved on to Michigan, where he became a member of the Fab Five, the precocious group of freshmen who high-fived and trash-talked their way to the 1992 NCAA title game while most other first-year students were still trying to find their dorm rooms. Rose would spend two more seasons in Ann Arbor (the Wolverines would also make it to the NCAA final in '93), but it seemed that in the blink of an eye he was gone, headed for the NBA—a year early, of course.
That was when things started moving so fast that even Rose had a hard time keeping up. He played for three coaches during his rookie season, with the Denver Nuggets, and was traded to the Indiana Pacers after his second season. The instability reminded him of growing up without his father, former NBA player Jimmy Walker, with whom Rose has never had much contact. "It seemed like every time I turned around, there was a new person or a new system to get used to," he says. "Everything was changing all the time, and it was happening so fast."
Lately, though, the action in Rose's life has finally slowed, and it's no coincidence that his career has picked up speed. After shuttling between the bench and the starting lineup his first four years in the league, Rose turned into one of the NBAs top sixth men last season, and this year he has become a starter again. He also has been the key to the success of the Pacers, whose 38-17 record through Sunday was the best in the Eastern Conference. Three Indiana starters—guard Reggie Miller, center Rik Smits and forward Dale Davis—have been All-Stars, but none of them has contributed more than Rose has this season.
"I think he's their best player," Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl says of Rose. "It's pretty obvious that he's their first option. I thought he was a huge contributor last year, and he's only gotten better."
Miller remains the player the Pacers most often turn to when a game is on the line, but Rose is usually instrumental in getting them to crunch time with a chance to win. For the past seven seasons Miller has led the Pacers in field goal attempts, but at week's end Rose was shooting more often than Miller—and more accurately (475% to 45.2%). Rose's scoring average has jumped from 11.1 points last season to 16.9, and he has been particularly productive the past few weeks. When he dropped 29 points on the Golden State Warriors in a 104-88 win last Saturday, it was the 11th time in 12 games in which he had scored at least 20 points. The Pacers went 10-2 in that stretch.
A slender 6'8" lefthander, Rose does not have a classic style. He's a capable outside shooter, but many of his points come on awkward-looking little tosses around the basket as he shoots over smaller defenders or slithers around bulkier ones. Although he is nominally a small forward, he plays point guard or shooting guard when needed. "He does a little bit of everything," says Indiana coach Larry Bird. "The combination of his size, passing ability and ball handling makes him a tough matchup for almost any team."
The ultraconfident Rose isn't surprised by his success. "I knew it would happen," he says. "I would look at a lot of the stars in this league—Grant Hill, Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd—and I'd see guys I grew up playing against in camps and summer all-star games. I could hang with them then, and I knew I could hang with them now."
Some nights Rose energizes the Pacers with his defense, as he did in holding Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter to four first-half points in a 109-101 Indiana victory on Feb. 16. Other nights he does it by distributing the ball, as he did in dishing a season-high 11 assists in a 113-103 win over the Seattle SuperSonics on Dec. 21. But most often he contributes more than a little of everything, as he did when he had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a 109-84 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Feb. 7 "I'm not a specialist," Rose says. "My job is to make my presence felt in a lot of places."
Bird has provided the stability that has helped Rose flourish. When he replaced Larry Brown as the Pacers' coach before the 1997-98 season, Bird quickly made Rose his most trusted reserve and made it clear that he was counting on him for more than an occasional strong performance. Bird told him that he'd been following his career since Rose was in college. "When I was at Michigan, we won a close game at Purdue, and he was there," Rose says. "He told me he knew after watching me in that game that I had what it took to be a great point guard, because he remembered the last five minutes of the game and how I got the ball to the right guy in the right situation every time."