- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS Jalen Rose once despised Larry Bird. Now the man he hated has turned the Indiana Pacers' blossoming star into one of the better small forwards in the NBA.

As a child in Detroit, Rose worshipped Magic Johnson. He would watch Johnson's games on television, then go outside, scrawl Magic's No. 32 on his undershirt and try to emulate his moves. When the brutal Michigan winters didn't allow that, Rose would droop a clothes hanger over a door in the basement and play inside. He dreamed of being a 6-foot-8 point guard in the Johnson mold, and his happiest moments as a fan came when Johnson triumphed over the hated Bird.

"I grew up rooting against him my entire life," Rose said about Bird.

Years later the script has been flipped. Rose plays for Bird, who is trying to lead the Pacers to their first NBA title. Johnson, on the other hand, sits courtside at Staples Center and cheers against Rose and the Pacers, who trail the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 in the best-of-7 NBA Finals. Rose could never imagine this scenario years ago, but now it's fine with him.

"It is ironic how things happen," said Rose, who's averaging just under 21 points a game in the finals. "I call my situation with Larry Bird poetic justice. I hated him growing up. Now I'm playing for Larry, and Magic is rooting against me."

Had it not been for Bird who says he will retire from coaching at the end of this season Rose might not even be in the NBA anymore. When Rose was traded by the Denver Nuggets to the Pacers in 1996, he still envisioned himself as a point guard in the NBA. But his minutes dipped from 26.7 to 18 under coach Larry Brown. Rose spent much of his time languishing on the bench and accepting public criticism from Brown, who called Rose "selfish" and said he "wants to be Magic Johnson."

"It felt like I was in jail," Rose said.

To this day, Rose thinks Brown, now the coach of the 76ers, made it personal.

"He didn't hit it off with me from Day One," Rose recalled. "There isn't a situation or an instance that I can point to and say, 'This is what happened to make him not like me.' That didn't happen. So what I did was just keep working on my game. I used practice like it was a game. The way I was busting those guys in practice I knew I could play. So if it wasn't here I knew I was going to get the opportunity somewhere."

Rose's patience was rewarded May 8, 1997, when he got what he calls a "godsend." Bird replaced Brown as coach. Rose despised Bird, too, but that was as a fan. It wasn't personal.

"I figured I'd give him a chance," Rose said. "I was just looking for an opportunity. Now this man that I had no love for was going to be responsible for letting me get an opportunity to revitalize my career. My career wasn't going anywhere. Bird changed all of that, and for that I will always be grateful."

Bird made it clear Mark Jackson and Travis Best would be the Pacers' point guards. He told Rose he would get as much playing time as he wanted at small forward. And even though it wasn't exactly what he envisioned, Rose jumped at the opportunity.

"The thing about being a great ballplayer is you always have to challenge yourself," said Rose, who this season became the first Indiana player other than Reggie Miller to lead the team in scoring. "You have to always see what you're made of and if you can push it to the next level. And I'm not beyond trying. It's not that I backed off of [wanting to play point guard]. It's just that I've been put into another situation that I had to thrive in. It's either you go out and play the three and have success or you wait to play the one and you sit and watch."

Rose talks about becoming a great player. In this series he clearly is outplaying Lakers small forward Glen Rice, a former All-Star. However, Bird said Rose will become great only when he improves his practice habits.

"Jalen is close to becoming a franchise player," Bird said. "But some days Jalen's just not there in practice. He won't work on his game as hard as I would like him to. But I have a lot of respect for Jalen. What I like about him is that I can be critical of his game and he'll react in a positive way. But he'll be great when somebody doesn't have to be in his face."

Rose believes Bird will not reconsider his decision to retire from coaching after the playoffs. Rose also will face a decision: whether he wants to return to the Pacers next season. Rose is one of six free agents on the team.

"I'll miss [him] a lot," Rose said about Bird's retiring. "If it was up to me he'd coach or be a part of the organization until I retire, to be honest. But I understand that when he took this job he was going to coach the tenure of his contract and I respect that.

"But if he came back it would be a lot easier for me to come back here."

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