Spurs forward Malik Rose is a man of many talents, one of which is an ability to make the best of things. When he was cut by the high school basketball team his freshman year, he joined the bowling team. When he couldn't afford to go to the 76ers' summer camp as a teenager, he worked in the camp kitchen to pay his way. And when he was anchored to the San Antonio bench early in his NBA career, he tried to squeeze a full-game performance into his few moments of playing time—and earned an unfortunate nickname in the process. "Basically, I'd try to score 20 points in two minutes," Rose recalls. "Will Perdue was my buddy, so he'd feed me the ball. But Will thought he was Magic Johnson, throwing these crazy behind-the-back passes. So the guys called us the Domalik and Tragic Show. Domalik Wilkins and Tragic Johnson."
These days the 6'7", 250-pound Rose no longer draws comparisons to Dominique Wilkins, the former Hawks star, recovering shotaholic and passophobe. Instead, after spending last summer working on his outside shot, Rose, 26, has emerged as a contender for the Sixth Man Award. With his physical defense, rugged rebounding and manic hustle, he provides a spark—and the occasional double double—off the bench. Through Sunday, Rose was averaging career highs of 9.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in 23-2 minutes. "Malik's letting the game come to him now," says coach Gregg Popovich. "He has an opportunity to be what [Charles] Barkley was. He's got the huge hands, that big butt and the same desire."
Growing up in Philadelphia as the second of four children in a one-parent household, Rose was forced to mature early. When he was 13, his older brother, Michael, was killed in the crossfire when a gunfight broke out at a party. Intent on keeping Malik off the streets, his mother, Janet, pushed him to stay busy at school as well. The result: Rose became a college counselor's dream, the extracurricular king of Overbrook High. He joined the debate club, pitched and played first on the baseball team, was third board in chess and even earned all-state honors two years in a row—not in basketball but in the tuba.
Despite being an effective if undersized center at Overbrook, where he made the team his sophomore year, Rose was recruited by only four colleges. He chose Drexel, where he finished second in the nation in rebounding his junior and senior seasons and graduated with a dual degree in teacher preparation and computer information systems. Drafted in the second round by the Hornets in 1996, he lasted a season before Charlotte renounced his rights, and he signed with San Antonio.
By 1998-99 he'd become an integral part of the Spurs, not only on the court, where he draws regular Shaq duty when San Antonio plays the Lakers, but off it as well. "Malik's a great person to be around," says forward Tim Duncan, "and he's incredibly smart." Indeed, Rose is one of the few players in the league who does logic puzzles and dabbles in computer programming during his free time. He also hopes to pick up an MBA from Drexel (through online courses) before he's 30 and has plans to open Philly's Phamous, a San Antonio sandwich shop that will specialize in his hometown's cuisine, including cheese steaks and water ice.
As for monikers, he has yet to earn one to replace Domalik, but the truth is, this Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.