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Rochester gives Australia its Jordan

There were just two-and-a-half minutes remaining. Australia's 1992 National Basketball League championship was at stake. The South-East Melbourne Magic trailed the Melbourne Tigers by three before a demanding, delirious home crowd of 15,000.

            Rob Rose, a 1982 Cardinal Mooney graduate, helped lead the Magic. The 27-year-old, 6'5", 212-pound guard was an in-season Continental Basketball Association import, signed to replace a player whose knees were shot. The acquisition was an afterthought that became more significant each day.

            Rose scored 34 points during his first NBL game, without practicing much with the team. That type of performance made his coaches and teammates confident in him. So in the title game's last 150 seconds, the Magic decided to entrust him with their fate. It was on the newcomer's shoulders, the guy they barely knew existed until just a few months before.

            "The head coach asked me what we should do and I said, give the ball to Rob," recalls Magic assistant coach Ian Stacker. "We turned to Rob, and he said, 'Give me the fucking ball.'"

The brashness was unmistakable. But how would Rose react to the greatest pressure he had ever experienced during his limited time in the league? He didn't have a contract for next season and those crucial minutes would likely decide his future.

            Here was the pressure that can choke its victims and create Scott Norwood moments. Here was Rose embracing it. The arena was like an ascending airplane, with pressure mounting and the people inside hoping for something to make their ears pop.

            Rose knew there was no backing down.

            He wanted the ball, like Michael Jordan wants the ball, and he didn't care about much else.

            That intensity existed in Rose in high school. At Mooney, coach Ed Nietopski recalled his competitiveness in practice drills. "Some boys would just go through the motions," he says, "but for Rob it seemed like a championship game."

            Nietopski still marvels at how well Rose handled 6'9" Brockport center Felipe Farley in the 1982 Section V championship. Rose, 6'2" at the time, found a way to contain Farley and lead Mooney to a close win, earning Nietopski his first of seven Section V boys' basketball titles.

            It's among the fondest memories for the all-time winningest Section V boys' basketball coach. Nietopski has overseen hundreds of players during more than 40 years on the bench, and he rattles off an impressive list of boys he's coached. He says Rose is one of his best, citing his work ethic, unselfish play, and attitude. In November, Rose was elected into the Section V Basketball Hall of Fame.

      "I always bring his example up when I'm talking about how to be a great player," said Nietopski, who recently won sectionals with Bishop Kearney. "Rob's a gentle guy, but once he got on the floor, he never accepted defeat."

Rose, now 39, grew up on Warwick Street in Rochester's 19th Ward. He went to St. Augustine's before attending Mooney. His basketball garnered interest from Mercyhurst, Le Moyne, Columbia, and the local colleges, but he opted for George Mason University, a Div. I program in Fairfax, Virginia, where Texas head coach Rick Barnes was chief assistant.

            Barnes recruited Rose, and the two forged a close relationship that continues today. Barnes' Longhorns are a No. 3 seed in the NCAA men's basketball tournament beginning this week, and are among the favorites to win it all.

            "Rick knows every player is different, and he knows how far he can push you. He would push me basically until I was about to pass out," Rose says. "He told me that if I ever looked like I was tired, then he knew it was time to stop practice."

            Barnes' demanding style impacted Rose and the team.

            From 1982 through 1986, Rose led George Mason to a 74-42 record, culminating with an NIT bid his senior year. He's sixth on the Patriots' career-scoring list, second in career field goal percentage, sixth for career rebounds, third for career steals, and fourth for career blocked shots. He was an all-around player.

            After graduation, Rose focused on a basketball career. He went almost anywhere to carve one out. For the next six years, he played in the CBA, Belgium, and the Philippines. He played two National Basketball Association games in 1989 for the Los Angeles Clippers, but was cut shortly after. He received just three minutes of game time and collected two rebounds. He laughs about that, but takes pride that he's at least listed in the NBA's official registry.

            While playing for Quad City (Iowa) in 1992, coached by SUNY Brockport graduate Dan Panaggio, Rose got a call from South-East Melbourne. He declined the first offer, but when the Australian club matched his counteroffer, he accepted.

The Magic was 8-2, so Rose knew he was going to a good team with the chance to play. South-East finished 20-4 during the regular season, and made the three-game "Grand Final" series.

            Game 3 offered Rose his chance to impress a nation. Tight contest, pressure rising, he wanted the ball as often as possible during those closing minutes.

            "He took over the game. It was deadlocked. And he was just not going to let us lose," Stacker says.

            Rose hit pivotal shots; made clutch free throws; stole loose balls; collected important rebounds. When the game was over, South-East was Grand Final champion and he was a new hero. Fans called for him to re-sign during the wild post-game festivities. Rose's wife seemed less optimistic.

            "What are you gonna do now? We don't have a job," she asked him later.

            "I said, 'As long as I wanna play this game, my phone will ring.' And ever since that day she's never worried about that again."

            Today Rose plays for the Townsville (Queensland) Crocodiles, where Stacker is his head coach. It's Rose's fourth NBL club in 13 years, partly because he was labeled a "troublemaker." That's laughable by US standards, in which a troublemaking athlete is someone arrested for murder. In Australia, it's a player such as Rose, who says he decided to sit out because he hadn't received his paycheck.

            "I show up every day at practice, I play hard every day, and I'm on time, so I would like my money to be on time," Rose says. "It's important."

            Rose isn't making millions like his NBA counterparts. But he lives comfortably with his wife and two young boys in a Townsville house. He's recognized on the street, but doesn't get hounded for autographs as Shaquille O'Neal might. Basketball is Australia's fourth-most popular pro sport.

            Rose has played six seasons for the Crocs and was the league's Most Valuable Player for the second time in 2001. He hasn't won another Grand Title, but he's been a league all-star and/or all-league player 10 of 13 seasons. He's 10th all-time in scoring and seventh in steals.

            Former NBL coach Brett Brown, now the San Antonio Spurs' director of player development, has said Rose is Australia's Michael Jordan. Stacker and Nietopski agree, because Rose features a deadly mixture of clutch shooting and great defense.

            "I've never seen a player win so many games and have so many triple-doubles," Stacker says.

Australians certainly recognize Rose's greatness. In December, he was named the NBL's 10th greatest player of all-time, likely making him the most decorated former local player ever to play pro basketball. Kids list Rose as their idol. His autographed apparel is auctioned off next to framed autographed Jordan pictures.

            Rose plans to play a few more years. Stacker says if he still has the passion, there is no one better, though he acknowledges that Rose is slowing down and can't take on defenders like he used to. Last season was statistically one of his worst.

            But there's no disgrace. Time inevitably erodes skill until only memories of achievement remain. There are hundreds of achievements for Rose, a man driven to succeed in basketball if it took him to the ends of the earth.

            He just wanted the ball.