Jalen Rose grew up poor in Detroit, the son of single mom and an NBA player he never met. He helped transform basketball culture as a member of Michigan’s iconic Fab Five team, then earned more than $100 million as a pro baller.
Grant Hill came up wealthy in the D.C. suburbs, the child of an NFL running back married to a corporate consultant. He helped establish Duke University as a paragon of success and virtue in college basketball, then overcame terrible injuries to enjoy a long NBA career.
So which one is the “authentic” black man?
The question may seem irrelevant. But when Rose said that he considered black Duke players like Hill “Uncle Toms” when he was a teenager, he exposed a sensitive and longstanding issue for many African-Americans: If blacks succeed in a white man’s world, and do not conform to certain assumptions of how blacks should act, are they less black?
Rose’s comment – aired Tuesday in an ESPN documentary Rose produced on the five black Michigan freshmen who rode their wave of talent, hip-hop style and trash talk to the 1992 championship game – inspired to a response from Hill on The New York Times website. Hill’s riposte spent several days atop the Times’ most-emailed list, and more than 96,000 people shared it on Facebook, stoking a free-wheeling debate on the Web and in print over which basketball star had the better point.
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“I hated everything I felt Duke stood for,” Rose said in the documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler. “Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
Hill responded that “Jalen seems to change the usual meaning of those very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families. … To hint that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not is beyond ridiculous.”
Chandra Guinn, director of Duke’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, said the argument went far beyond sniping between college hoops stars from decades ago.
“There are bigger issues here,” she said. Among them: the denigration of children from single-parent homes, and adults damaging the self-esteem of black boys. Guinn also senses “a moment of revelation about black men’s hurt. There’s often a feeling of being ‘less than.’ It seemed to me that both of these men, for different reasons, have felt that way.”
Duke junior Julius Jones resents suggestions that “success somehow challenges your blackness. That if you go to school, get good grades, matriculate to an elite institution, that somehow makes you less black.”
Jones grew up in Portland, the son of an electrician and an accountant, and attended a majority white elementary school. In middle school, black kids saw Jones with white friends and told him, “You’re an Uncle Tom, you don’t want to be black, you talk white, you act white,” Jones remembers.
When Michigan met Hill’s Duke team for the 1992 championship, the Blue Devils were the clean-cut defending champs, and started three white players. Duke crushed the Fab Five by 20 points. (“I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five,” Hill concluded his blog post, with a gentlemanly flourish of trash talk.)
Two decades later, Duke is still known as the rare school that mixes high academic standards and graduation rates – for both black and white players – and powerhouse basketball.
“The bottom line is this: (Duke does) recruit a certain type of player … a lot of players from private schools,” Rose observed while explaining his comments in an ESPN interview.
Kenny Osakwe, a black Duke student, did not disagree, but suggested Duke players should not be tarred merely because they are fortunate. “I’m friendly with a lot of the team, and it’s true, most of them do come from relatively affluent families,” he said. “That’s the culture here at Duke. And you never hear of any recruiting scandals, everything is done the right way.
“Duke didn’t have their Final Fours reneged,” Osakwe said – an allusion to the games Michigan forfeited after it was revealed that some players, including Fab Five center Chris Webber, had accepted money from a Michigan booster.
But by operating in that fashion, the school is open to claims that it is elitist – and that the players it recruits are merely black genetically.
“Why doesn’t it seem like Duke ever takes a chance on a guy from a background like Jalen’s, instead of giving an opportunity to someone who was born on third base?” asked Reginald C. Dennis, a black journalist and basketball fan.
He remembers being angered by sports columns in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when hip-hop was merging with sports culture, that disparaged swashbuckling players like Rose.
“Grant was the one they liked,” said Dennis, who was raised by married parents in a New York City housing project. “They always want to separate the good negro from the bad negro. Grant was used as the example.”
Dennis once owned dozens of hats featuring the names of various college teams. “I didn’t have a Duke hat,” he said. “I never even saw a black person with Duke anything. I wore my Michigan hat until the M fell off.”
“Black people have been saying for 20 years what Jalen Rose said. This is just the first time it was done so publicly,” said Dennis. “It shocked white people who didn’t know the conversation was happening.”
“That’s what this is all about,” agrees Ron Miller, author of “SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch.” “There’s an ongoing discussion in the black community about what constitutes authentic blackness.”
Miller, a black conservative, describes the meaning of the term Uncle Tom as “a boot-licking apologist for white people, someone used by white people who is subservient to their whims and desires.”
He notes that although the term originated with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the book’s character was a heroic figure who refused to divulge the location of escaped slaves. White minstrel shows then changed him into a lackey often played by whites in blackface, Miller said.
He said he does not know any real-life Uncle Toms. “Most of the people I know who have had that label cast upon them are simply trying to play by the rules,” Miller said.
“Rather than trying to force an entire race to conform to a single model, we should celebrate the variety and energy that comes from people across the spectrum.”