During the same summer in which he pled guilty to a drunken-driving charge and spent 16 days in a city jail, Jalen Rose also celebrated the opening of his much anticipated, now critically acclaimed leadership academy in his hometown of Detroit, all but proving when the former NBA star preaches to the school’s initial class of 120 students that “life is really not what necessarily happens to you, but what you do about” he really takes the message to heart.
But then, what would you expect from someone who grew up on the unsavory, unforgiving streets of Detroit, a product of one of the worse—at least statistically speaking— public school systems in all the land to matriculate to such heights as the University of Michigan, the NBA and now ESPN as one of the network’s most prized analyst?
“When you have failures, a measure of a person is how you respond,” said Rose. “I’m no different… being a testimony means a lot more than talking about something that you’ve never really been through.”
With that, the doors to the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tuition-free, public charter school, were opened this past September. According to Rose, the founding class was selected by lottery and the former Fab Five star now has plans of raising as much as $10 million over the next several months in hopes of soon increasing maximum enrollment to 480 students.
It’s all part of Rose’s lifelong game plan, highlighted by his 2011 testimony before a Michigan Senate Education Committee, where he spoke “of creating a situation where our students can succeed, and not only graduate from high school but also college.”
Added Rose, who ranks eighth on UM’s all-time scoring list, “I care a way more about their GPAs then their points per a game. Detroit is really in a crisis right now.”
Ultimately Rose hopes to right things by transforming JRLA into an institution where students are groomed to compete in a global economy, yet have the forethought of mind to always keep their Detroit inner-city roots on the brain.
“You may have noticed, there aren’t any Ritz Carltons around here or five-star restaurants,” he says of the Eight Mile strip on which the school borders. Rose even sold his classic 1969 Dodge Charger, a remnant of the “General Lee” version used in old “The Dukes of Hazards” television series as a way of raising money for the school.
“When you cross that blue line here, you have to leave all your troubles behind for the next eight hours,” he said. “This is a sanctuary.”
A typical JRLA school day commences before 8 a.m. and is spliced throughout with heavy doses of science and math tutoring. Each student has been given a free laptop and teacher-to-student classroom ratios will be kept to a minimum. Students are required to attend classes at least one Saturday every month or a total of nine times per year.
“Eighty-five percent of our students are reading below ninth grade level,” Rose bellowed before a transfixed senate panel. “Ninety percent of our students are not in 9th grade math, there’s a lot of catching up to do.”
So much so, Rose has enlisted the aid of some of his former NBA brethren— friends and foes.
“I think what Jalen is doing is great, so I’m trying to help him get the project off the ground with some of my resources,” said NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, whom Rose grew up watching and admiring and still counts as one of his mentors. “The more athletes can re-connect with the communities the better off we’ll all be,” added Thomas. “Some of us do a lot, and some of us don’t do enough.”
So crucially important is the cause to Rose that he’s even reached out to former Pistons and Duke star Grant Hill, with whom he recently feuded with after Rose described one-time black Blue Devils players such as Hill as ‘Uncle Toms’ during the airing of the ESPN documentary “The Fab Five.”
Rose says he has since spoken with both Hill and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, explaining to each of them those words were merely the thoughts of a then ill-informed, somewhat inarticulate teenager and not the views he now holds. In the wake of their discussion, Hill has also agreed to lend his support to school.
“Anytime you have a critically acclaimed piece like the Fab Five documentary has been you’re going to have 99 percent of the people that love it, but when you have the brutal honesty, you’re going to have that 1 percent on the other side of the coin.”
And as for those sweltering, soul-searing summer days of 2011, Rose has also crafted a food-for-thought retort he now readily shares with his students that may very well qualify as one of their greatest life lessons: “Perfect people are not real, real people are not perfect,” he preaches. “I’ve owned up to the poor decision I made.”