For the second season of our GQ podcast Airplane Mode, we’re tackling the idea of confidence: what it is, how we get it, and what to do when we lose it. How? By having conversations with people whose jobs require either a supreme level of confidence (think: professional athletes, musicians, cave divers) or a deep understanding of it (psychologists). Naturally, I wanted our first guest to be somebody who oozed self-assurance. So I called on Jalen Rose.
Rose has spent nearly 30 years in the public eye, first as a McDonald’s All-American high school basketball phenom headed to Michigan to join forces with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard as part of the Fab Five. (Still the coolest collection of players to grace a basketball floor.) He played in the NBA from 1994 to 2007, before settling into a post-NBA career of sports media ubiquity as co-host of Jalen & Jacoby and Get Up!, both on ESPN.
Through it all—whether he was a court-dominating high schooler, a solid pro, or a man making a massive career transition from the hardwood to the mic—Rose has remained forever sure of himself. I can tell you from personal experience that a half hour with him will give you a confidence contact high. Here, he sounds off on his first step towards overcoming self-doubt, how he maintains trust in himself, and where he found the nerve to wear one of the boldest draft suits of all-time.
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You've always had a sort of enterprising mentality. I mean, you were still in the league when you first started doing media jobs, right? So is that something you have always had going back to high school and childhood?
I always felt that I had irrational confidence. You couldn’t look in the mirror and tell me I didn't see Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. I saw those guys when I looked in the mirror. Just when I walked away from the mirror, I wasn't them anymore. I always felt that.
And when I knew that my career was about to end, I was fortunate enough, from 2002 to 2007, while I was still playing in the league, to work for initially BET Mad Sports. When the NBA Final was Nets-Lakers [in 2002], I pitched them an idea about working the finals. “You guys don't got to do nothing, I live in L.A., I got a spot, I'll get access, I'll have a credential, just send a camera.”
I was on the Bulls. They had nine wins in February. I'm like, "We're not going to the playoffs. It's not happening. Let me fall back on my mass communications work that I did at U of M.”
Did the irrational confidence carry over to media? Did you have the same confidence doing media that you had on the court?
Oh, absolutely. If you want to do this for a living, the one thing you have to do is be sure about what you say, who you are, and your belief system. While I was in the league, I got a chance to test this out because I was still a 20-plus point-scorer while also working in the media. Imagine playing against guys and/or being coached by guys that you're criticizing in the media.
I had so many guys like, "How you going to say that about me, dog? You selling out, you ain't keeping it real. You ain't seeing it the way you should as a player." I'm like, "Dog, you had six points and you had five turnovers."
I remember sending people box scores. That's how I started my first four or five years. Then I realized something: As long as people know that you're unbiased and you don't have an agenda and it's not personal, they'll be okay with it. That's how I approach it.
I want to go into the irrational confidence bit. Where does that come from? What's your first memory of having that irrational confidence?
My first memory of having irrational confidence was that I learned that sometimes your critics are accurate.
I'm from the inner city of Detroit, a single-parent home, there was times in my life where we didn't have lights. There was times where we didn't have heat. There was times where we scrambled for our next meal.
When people start to tease you about things that are true, you have to take it. When people are like, "Oh, you're really skinny. You got patches in your pants." I want to punch the person, I want to argue with the person. But it's like, “I am broke, I do have patches in my pants, I did pee in the bed until I was in third or fourth grade. I do have bad skin, I do have bad teeth.”
I'm like, "Yeah I got patches in my pants but you got two teeth in your mouth." I need to defend myself. “When the last time you looked at your report card? When's the last time you been to school?” I realized that even though I'm not the best or even though I'm not perfect, I'm not going to allow people to destroy my self esteem. I need to defend myself.
Confidence as radical self-acceptance.
Okay, but growing up, you were, I imagine, the best basketball player on the court all the way up until, and even probably still in a lot of games, at Michigan.
You ready for this? When we played organized [ball] where everybody had to be eligible, then one of if not the best. But in the backyard, the park, the YMCA, in the street? I wasn't the best.
“There were certain people that you knew you probably shouldn't talk trash to because they might pop the trunk on you.”
So how do you maintain the irrational confidence? Elite players all say, "If you don't think you're the best player on the court, what are you doing?” But they have to know, objectively, they're not the best. Does Dion Waiters really think he's the best player in the NBA?
But how? Walk me through that.
In the 13 years I was in the league, Hakeem Olajuwon won the first two championships. That was the mid-'90s. Then Jordan came back, won three championships. Tim Duncan ended up winning five. Shaq and Kobe won a few. These are all of the top players when I was in the league.
So, how am I going to sit in the locker room with a uniform on and some shoes laced up, chasing my dream, and don't feel like I'm about to go out here and score 30 on MJ? I might as well not suit up or not play the game. The rest of the world may feel like, "Yeah, you stink, you're not Scottie Pippen," but I'm like, "Tonight's going to be my night." I know Shaq is the most dominant big in his era, but what about this pick-and-roll up top, though? That is really what carries you.
The world may not believe in me, and clearly I'm not an all-time great. But in order for me to accomplish what I accomplished—when I was in middle school, I was considered one of the best in the country. When I was in high school, I was a McDonald's All-American. Being part of the Fab Five at the University of Michigan, going to the league. I got a chance to compete and play against the best on the highest level each time I was able to compete, so that also gives you some confidence.
When did you realize trash talk could be a weapon on the court?
From the beginning. When you're a youngster, the older kids got to let you play. I was a ball boy and, for the people in the stands, I was a hustler. I used to go to the store, go get cigarettes, get beer, start up cars, knock snow off cars during the winter. I was doing all of that as the young fellow in the gym until I got a chance to play. Once I got a chance to play, then I got to try to do my best so they'll let me play again. That's really what it was all about.
And you started talking trash at a young age.
The entire time.
Can you tell when you've gotten into someone's head?
As a sports fan, here's a distinction. There's a difference between prize fighting and boxing. Right? Prize fighting, yeah, you're going to get paid to go into the ring, but at some point, if you lose your discipline, you're not doing the sweet science. Actual boxing is, I'm going to keep my discipline. If I'm here to jab, if I'm here to throw body blows, if I'm here to protect myself against whatever big shot he might throw, then I'll be able to pace myself. It was the exact same thing. There were certain people that you knew you probably shouldn't talk trash to because they might pop the trunk on you.
You went straight from playing ball into media. How scared would you say you are of retirement?
The first thing that you realize: I'm not about to be making what I made in the league probably ever again. That's a scary proposition because usually as an athlete, you have your most notoriety and success, and are able to make the most money the younger you are. In most professions, it happens in reverse. I was 34 when it was time for me to hang them up. I was ready for the transition but I wasn't ready to give up them checks.
How does that shake your confidence at all? Does it? I imagine a lot of guys, that transition is difficult because they probably, for obvious reasons, tie a lot of their self-worth to basketball.
I never did that. Because—I probably shouldn't say this, but it'll probably encourage somebody else—in my head, I never lived up to my personal expectations. So what other people thought never mattered to me. To me, you gotta be Magic Johnson.
He was from Michigan like I was. He was a tall point guard. When I looked in the mirror, if I didn't see Magic Johnson, [then] it didn't matter what everybody else said, I didn't make my goals happen. That kept me humble. “Dude, you all right—but you ain't Magic,” I would say that to myself 15 times a day. Even when I get confused, when fans would come up and ask for a picture or ask for an autograph or an interview or whatever: "You ain't Magic." I used to always tell that to myself.
How hard is that to live with?
Well, he's only one of the five greatest players ever. Going back to the irrational confidence thing, if you set a goal and you work towards that goal and you own it but you fall short? The person you disappoint is yourself. I never felt pressure from the public. Never.
"I shouldn't have come back for my junior year. I should've went to the league. We should've won and I should've went to the league."
But you don't strike me as a guy who feels very disappointed.
No. I wasn't disappointed at all because you can Google it: they paid me a lot of money to play basketball. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute, I get a max deal? Is max short for maximum? So, that's the most you can pay me and you're going to give it to me? Oh, you fax it over at 12:01, we got a deal. I ain't going to talk to no other teams, I ain't taking no other visits. I’ll put myself in a mental hyperbaric chamber. I’ll be there at 9:00 AM to sign it. You ain't even got to look at me, you ain't got to talk to me, you ain't got to be there. Let the paper be there.”
Of course, I would love to say, "Hey, I'm Bill Russell. I got 11 championships in 13 years," or “I'm a first-ballot Hall of Famer.” But that's only reserved for 50 people ever.
Last question we ask on this podcast is for a favorite fuck-up.
I should've won a championship in college. We should've won our sophomore year [against UNC]. A lot of people look back at that game and they look back towards C-Webb’s timeout at the end of the game and, yeah, that was a blunder that you don't want an All-American to make. But when you're in the locker room as a teammate, everybody feels like, "What could I have done better?"
For me, I felt like I had my worst game ever. [Ed note: Rose had 12 points, 4 assists, and 6 turnovers.] I'll never forget sitting in the locker room like, "Have I ever played this bad?" I said that to myself and that's why I came back for my junior year. I shouldn't have come back for my junior year. I should've went to the league. We should've won and I should've went to the league.
How often do you think about that game?
Not as often as people try to troll me. I don't. This is 25 years ago.
I thought maybe you'd go with the draft day suit.
No! No! Never! No!
Scale of one to ten, how confident were you when you wore that suit?
100! I'm from Detroit. You heard Biggie say, "Pink gators, my Detroit players." We don't get dressed. We wear outfits, okay? Just so everybody knows, I had two suits. It wasn't like these guys now that have budgets. I had cubic zirconias. I had fake diamonds. I had a red and white suit. The second suit that I had was lime green with green gators. That morning, I was going to decide which one I was going to wear.
Here's what swayed the choice: The Clippers were drafting seventh. Their colors are red and white. The Sonics were drafting eleventh. I was hearing that I was probably going to one of those teams. The next morning, I convinced myself I was going to wear the suit of the team that was drafting highest. So, I wore the red-and-white one because I felt like I was going to get drafted by the Clippers, and I wore the lime green one to my draft party. I sure did. And I got drafted by the Nuggets and it didn't match.
My outfit the next day [at the press conference] was even worse. I'd never been to Denver. I'm like, "Yeah, you know, it's the Rocky Mountains. I'm going to wear this little lumberjack shirt." I put my jersey over the top. I look back at those pictures like, "You're such a country bumpkin." But you know, it was all worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
GQ's podcast is coming back, with 10 episodes all about confidence: how to get it, how to keep it, and what to do if you lose it.
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Originally Appeared on GQ