CHICAGO – There’s some irony in Jalen Rose being chosen by the National Basketball Retired Players Association to be its guy in bridging a gap between current NBA players and the league’s older alumni who have shown the most interest in that group.
Rose, after all, is the son of the late Jimmy Walker, the No. 1 draft pick out of Providence in 1967. Yet the two never met.
As heartrending as that (lack of) relationship must have been, Rose always knew who his father was. He studied Walker’s professional history – two All-Star appearances and 16.7 ppg in nine seasons – off the backs of bubble-gum cards. Well into his own 13-year NBA career, Rose spoke and corresponded with the man. But they drifted apart again without a face-to-face and Walker died in July 2007, 10 weeks after Rose played his final NBA game.
So here’s the son now, reaching out with both arms, one to yesterday, one to today, as the NBRPA’s newly appointed “ambassador.” The role, to be announced Tuesday, will enable Rose to shape programs for former players while recruiting and enlisting the help of the younger guys. His goal: seamlessness.
“It’s a family,” Rose told NBA.com last week in a phone interview. “I really don’t see a disconnect between the two. Now there’s always going to be the mentality that, the older you get, the longer the walk looks.
“But for the most part, I think there’s a healthy respect in the current players for the retired players and what they’ve done. Hopefully we can create some awareness, some planning, a decision-making mechanism from top to bottom – whether it’s social, emotional or financial – so you’re prepared for that next step.”
Rose, 41, is being counted on to raise the NBRPA’s profile through his visibility as an NBA analyst and studio host for ESPN/ABC. He’s been famous since he was a teenager as one of Michigan’s “Fab Five” freshmen who brashly took on NCAA basketball protocols. And he remains a familiar face and presence through his TV work with many active and recently retired players.
The veteran of five NBA teams began preparing for his post-playing days while still active, completing a communications degree and getting on-air work with the Fox Sports’ “Best Damn Sports Show” five years before he retired. So he can speak with authority to active players who might not see Father Time lurking down the road.
“Of course your current job, first, second and third, is to play basketball,” Rose said. “But life-planning is something we all have to do. Basketball is going to be a terrific sprint in your life, but you also want to be around for the marathon.”
The NBRPA, which represents former players from the NBA, ABA, Harlem Globetrotters and WNBA, is excited about Rose’s appointment. But it hasn’t always been ready for its close-up. Founded in 1992 by Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens and Oscar Robertson, the group suffered from years of in-fighting, competing agendas and mismanagement.
Former Knicks forward Charles Smith had been relieved of his duties as executive director, members of the board – all former players – were disenchanted or estranged and the association’s two primary sources of funding, the NBA and the players union (NBPA), were wavering in their support.
Only after a search firm was enlisted, with former New Orleans Saints executive Arnie Fielkow hired as president and CEO, did the NBRPA begin to turn things around. A strong board of directors, including chairman Otis Birdsong and vice chairman Thurl Bailey among others, shored things up from within.
Membership now is at a high of nearly 700 former players, working both inside (programs for ex-players) and outside (serving their communities). And last month, Birdsong and Fielkow were in Washington, standing alongside NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA president Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers and President Obama to announce a five-year commitment to the My Brothers Keeper mentoring program.
“I’ve been around it for a long time and seen it go through its trials and tribulations,” said Hall of Famer Rick Barry, a member of the board who had once disassociated himself from the NBRPA. “But it’s never been in better position than it’s in right now. The leadership, with Arnie and the guys on the board, we have some first-rate, quality individuals, guys who really care about trying to do the right things. And now we’re trying to reach out to the younger players.
“The bottom line is, these younger guys – they make so much money – it would be easy for them to walk away and say, ‘Forget it.’ Probably the biggest disappointment that I have is that more of the big-name star players, I don’t think, have involved themselves in ways that could take this organization to greater heights.”
Too often, the gap between current or newly retired NBA players and NBRPA member was a wide one. Many former players only came to the alumni group in need, years removed from the league. Then again, the NBRPA only recently has been in position to assist younger members with their transitions into new opportunities and lives.
“When you’re playing and you’re making good money, you don’t think about retirement,” said Bailey, who played from 1983 to 1999 for Utah, Minnesota and several European teams. “You think about playing a lot of years, but there are only a few who can get up in double digits.
“We’ve needed to show the younger guys what we can do for them. And even more important, we need them to help us. It’s about membership, it’s about the basketball family. Once you leave the court, that transition into the basketball family surprises a lot of guys. … One thing we’ll all have in common is, one day is, we’ll all be retired basketball players.”
Longer, in most cases, than they were active players. That’s part of the perspective Rose brings with his sobering but effective view – recruiting pitch? – of what it means to be a former NBA “legend.”
“The public will truly only be concerned with the elite of the elite who sit in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “Michael and Russell and Bird – those 10 notable guys. From that, for public consumption on a day-to-day basis, everybody else can almost be viewed as equal as a retired player. When you’re walking up the street, the person next to you doesn’t know if you scored 26,000 points or 2,600 points. And if they do know, they don’t care.
“So people are going to judge you on what you’re doing right now, unless you’re one of those 10 guys.”
Jalen Rose is doing a lot, and taking on more.