HEATHER MAYFIELD WAS five months pregnant when she went to Mercy Health Saint Mary’s hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband, Brian, accompanying her for an ultrasound appointment on a chilly January day in 2000.
Upon the revelation that their first child would be a boy, the couple quickly began considering names. As an homage to Brian’s grandfather, the middle name Walker was locked in. But the first name was not so settled.
“I was torn between Marcus and Spencer,” Heather told ESPN.
Eventually the discussion turned to Michigan basketball, and the famed Fab Five.
“It kind of made sense because the Fab Five was so big when we were in college, and we watched every game when we were at school,” Heather said. “Chris [Webber] was too common of a name, and then Ray [Jackson] was kind of an old man name, then you got Jimmy [King], so we didn’t go with Jimmy. So I was like Jalen [Rose] … Jalen wasn’t too obscure, but it wasn’t too common.”
“I liked Juwan [Howard] too,” Brian Mayfield added.
But Jalen it was, so on May 23, 2000, Jalen Walker Mayfield was born.
Twenty-one years later, after playing football at Michigan, Jalen Mayfield is a top prospect who will hear his name called in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. So will Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle, who is projected to go No. 12 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles in Mel Kiper Jr.’s and Todd McShay’s three-round mock draft. Miami DE Jaelan Phillips is projected 21st to the Indianapolis Colts. Mayfield is slotted at No. 32 with the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Forty-eight years ago, Jeanne Rose named her son Jalen — and with a few dozen variants in pro sports and more on their way — the “Jalen Generation” is in full effect.
“I always say that the name Jalen’s a superpower,” Jalen Rose said. “Because, if you’re seeing this level of Jalens when you’re watching college basketball and football, pro basketball and football, that’s a small percentage of the society that actually carry the name.”
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IT’S BITTERSWEET FOR Rose. His mother died of lung cancer in February, two months before her 80th birthday on April 28, and the months since have been emotional. But it has also helped Rose come to an important realization.
“If she would’ve named me James or Jason, that wouldn’t have hit the same. So she’s the creator, and I’m the vessel that gets to carry it out,” Rose said. “Names and words are extremely powerful. If people don’t rock with you or they don’t like you, you know the last thing they’re gonna do is name their kid after you. That ain’t got nothing to do with your rings. That ain’t got nothing to do with where you went to college. Like, if I’m gonna name my son or daughter after you, I rock with you.”
Rose was tasked with going through his mother’s personal belongings after her death. Searching through one of her drawers, he discovered a handwritten list on a white sheet of paper. Jeanne Rose didn’t just follow the career of her son Jalen; she followed every Jalen.
“I knew it was something that she realized had become bigger than her — and clearly way larger than me,” Rose said. “It’s something now that really is gonna be what defines her legacy and mine. Something that has zero to do with the score of any game that I ever played.”
Among the dozens of names on Jeanne Rose’s list were Jalen Richard (Las Vegas Raiders), Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles), Jalen Mayfield (Michigan Wolverines), Jalen Brunson (Dallas Mavericks) and Jalen Ramsey (L.A. Rams). She also kept track of the players who spelled their name differently, like Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, there are currently 32 players with some variation of the name Jalen on rosters across the NBA, NFL and other major North American professional sports. Nearly 80 Jalens played men’s college basketball this past season.
While there was at least one Jalen born in the United States before Jan. 30, 1973, when Jeanne gave her son the name that was a combination of his father’s (James) and his uncle’s (Leonard), there’s no doubt the popularity of the name can be tied directly to Rose’s fame.
“When a name jumps fast, that means that there’s something going on, that something is influencing it,” said Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO of BabyNames.com. “Why wasn’t it anywhere on the charts before 1992? Well, of course, because it must have been influenced by Jalen Rose.”
Rose debuted as part of Michigan’s Fab Five in 1991. The very next year, Jalen cracked the top 1,000 most popular names, according to the U.S. Social Security Office of the Actuary for U.S. Births. The name debuted at No. 378. The next year, when Rose was helping the Wolverines reach a second consecutive national title game, it jumped to 216.
There are now nearly a dozen variant spellings of the name.
“[At] Starbucks, whenever I place an order and tell them my name, I’ve gotten like 50 different spellings,” Suggs said. “They’ll put a ‘Y.’ They’ll put ‘L-I-N.’ There’s so many different variations that I’ve seen over the years from that.
For Mayfield, there’s only one spelling that matters.
“If you have a ‘Y’ in your name, you’re spelling it totally the wrong way,” he said. “I think the only way you could go is ‘J-A-L-E-N.’ I’ve seen it spelled so many ways, but any way else I think is wrong.”
The original Jalen spelling has been a mainstay on the top 1,000 list since debuting, peaking at No. 106 in 2000, when Rose helped the Indiana Pacers reach the NBA Finals.
That same year, an alternate spelling appeared among the top 1,000 most popular names.
“J-A-Y-L-I-N, which is used for girls, popped onto the U.S. charts in the year 2000 and stayed there until 2015,” Moss said. “What parents will do is because they want their own unique spelling, or maybe they want to feminize the name a little bit. They might put extra letters in there, or just change the spelling.”
That was the case for Jaylyn Agnew, who became the WNBA’s first Jalen when she played 12 games for the Atlanta Dream last season.
“Jalen has become a unisex name, an international name,” Rose said. “I started to take pride in the fact that [I’m] ‘the first Jalen.’ There’s a sense of responsibility that came with it.”
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LARRY SUGGS AND his girlfriend, Molly Manley, were both big fans of the Fab Five. The name Jalen was an easy choice for their son — though they weren’t prepared for how many other parents would turn to the hardwood for inspiration.
“I think everybody had the same idea back when Jalen Rose was rocking in the playoffs and stuff for the Pacers,” said Larry, who was also his son’s first basketball and football coach.
“When we named him, obviously we knew he was going to play basketball because we’re a basketball family, and when we were in there we were like ‘He’s going to be Mr. Basketball,'” Larry added.
Jalen Suggs was around 7 years old when he began to take sports more seriously, and though Jalen Rose had already retired from the NBA, Suggs took pride in the name.
“[My parents] told me that I was named after him; of course I went to go look at some of the highlights and old stuff on him, and it was super cool,” Jalen Suggs said. “That’s something that I always would tell people when they ask, ‘What’s your name?’ I would say, ‘My name is Jalen like Jalen Rose.’ So it was something as a kid that was special. I was always excited to talk about it.”
“I just liked Jalen Rose,” Manley recalled, laughing.
In 2020, Jalen Suggs became the first athlete in Minnesota history to win Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football honors in the same season. A year later he led the Gonzaga Bulldogs to an undefeated regular season before his team lost to Baylor in the national championship game. His buzzer-beating overtime 3-pointer in Gonzaga’s Final Four win over UCLA almost immediately became one of the most iconic shots in NCAA history, and he’s now expected to be a top-five pick in July’s NBA draft.
Throughout his journey, he’s kept an eye on his peers who carry the same name, and over the years, they’ve found ways to differentiate themselves.
“I’ve kind of gotten a couple nicknames out of it, just because it’s always one or two Jalens in the building,” he said. “It’s something we just kind of bond over.”
Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson, born Aug. 31, 1996, is among the first generation of players who were named after Rose to reach the pro ranks. His father, Rick, played nine seasons in the NBA, including two as Rose’s teammate with the Chicago Bulls. Jalen Brunson still remembers being introduced to the player who inspired his name as a kid visiting the former Bulls training facility, the Berto Center.
“I remember exactly where we were because my dad coached there years later when I was in high school,” Jalen Brunson said. “I remember that building. Like I knew that building.”
Jalen Brunson didn’t recall meeting many other people who shared his name until reaching high school, but started hearing it more in college. No matter how many other Jalens hit the scene, though, Rick Brunson wouldn’t let his son forget about his eponymous teammate, who has gone on to inspire a younger generation not only through his name and basketball career, but also through philanthropic work as well.
“It’s pretty cool to see someone like that with the impact on and off the court and the things he’s doing in his community back home,” Brunson said. “It’s pretty special so I’ve definitely got a sense of pride.”
For Rose, that means everything — especially with his mother now gone.
“I definitely root for all Jalens. There will not be any Jalen slander in any way, shape or form in my presence,” Rose said. “I knew that I started to be an official old man on Twitter one time when I realized that somebody that was trolling me didn’t necessarily realize that they were named after me.”