Pop Culture, Race & Politics

All Sold Out: A couple thoughts about the “Fab Five,” Grant Hill, and the Uncle Tom stigma

Kyrie Irving put me in an extremely unusual and unsettling place earlier this fall. You see, Irving is the best 18 year old point guard I’ve ever seen¹. And, since I’m a mercenary when it comes to basketball fandom — I’m a fan of whichever team my favorite players happen to be on — it stands to reason that I’d become a fan of whichever school Irving happened to sign with.

But, Irving signed with f*cking Duke, and that changed everything.

You see, ever since they managed — in consecutive years, mind you — to beat my two favorite college teams ever (the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the 1992 Michigan Wolverines) in the NCAA tournament, my heart has reserved a special cabinet of hate for the Duke Blue Devils. Sh*t, even as a 12 year old I could sense that there was something inherently hateable about this unbearably preppy, unusually smarmy, and unapologetically arrogant collection of the spawn of astronauts, lawyers, and politicians.

To me, they stood for everything wrong about the way the world worked. There was no fairness in the fact that this agglomeration of rich assholes — people whose privilege meant they already won at life — should be allowed to be great at playing basketball too. To twist the knife in the gut even more, pundits, commentators, and columnists love to laud Duke for “playing the right way” and “respecting the game.”

With that being said, it should come as no surprise that a part of me could relate to the statements Jalen Rose and Jimmy King made about Duke and black Duke players in ESPN’s recent documentary “Fab Five.”

From Rose:

“For me Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

I too have always felt that Duke seems to prefer to recruit kids from more affluent backgrounds. And, although I wouldn’t go as far as call a black player who signed with Duke an “Uncle Tom,” I never got the feeling that black dukies were “down for the cause” (whatever the hell that means)

Of course, this — and “this” is a “general feeling about Duke shared by many African-Americans” — is all baseless bullshit. And, considering the fact that I too came from a middle class background with two married parents at home and went to a private middle school and a suburban high school, my bullshit was especially thick. Because I disliked the fact that they beat up on two of my favorite teams, I spun each possible positive characteristic into a negative.

They weren’t confident, they were arrogant. They weren’t team-oriented, they were masking the fact that they had no real talent. They weren’t talented, they were lucky. They weren’t hard-working winners, they we’re poseurs lifted to prominence by byzantine means. I allowed my disdain for their success and the attention given to them turn me into, well, a hater. And while Rose and King obviously were speaking about their past feelings, I don’t think either of them really stressed how wrong they were to feel that way, and that was very disappointing.

Oh, and about “Uncle Tom.

There are certain accusations that, true or untrue, forever stick with you. “Uncle Tom” carries this type of stigma, and I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for a black person who has done nothing but do things the way they’re supposed to be done to always have their racial identity questioned.

This frustration was clearly evident in Grant Hill’s tomeic response to Rose and King’s comments about black Duke players. You could almost sense that this missive had been festering inside of Hill for decades.

It was a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events, therefore, to see friends narrating this interesting documentary about their moment in time and calling me a bitch and worse, calling all black players at Duke “Uncle Toms” and, to some degree, disparaging my parents for their education, work ethic and commitment to each other and to me. I should have guessed there was something regrettable in the documentary when I received a Twitter apology from Jalen before its premiere. I am aware Jalen has gone to some length to explain his remarks about my family in numerous interviews, so I believe he has some admiration for them.

In his garbled but sweeping comment that Duke recruits only “black players that were ‘Uncle Toms,’ ” 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. He leaves us all guessing exactly what he believes today.

I am beyond fortunate to have two parents who are still working well into their 60s. They received great educations and use them every day. My parents taught me a personal ethic I try to live by and pass on to my children.

I come from a strong legacy of black Americans. My namesake, Henry Hill, my father’s father, was a day laborer in Baltimore. He could not read or write until he was taught to do so by my grandmother. His first present to my dad was a set of encyclopedias, which I now have. He wanted his only child, my father, to have a good education, so he made numerous sacrifices to see that he got an education, including attending Yale.

Hill ended his response with the type of pointed digs that only comes from people who’ve been deeply hurt.

I caution my fabulous five friends (Ha!) to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger. I wish for you the restoration of the bond that made you friends, brothers and icons.

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.

Yikes. If ever a #shotfired hash-tag was appropriate, it’s now.

Hill has received a bit of criticism for the length, tone, and, since this was basically a response to quotes about feelings Rose and King had 20 years ago, timing of this statement. But, there’s no script or statute of limitations on expressing the type of pain that comes from having to undergo a racial identity interrogation, and I can’t fault Hill for basically saying “Ya’ll analog niggas can kiss my f*cking Dukie ass” in the most verbose way possible.

Whew. There’s a lot to digest here. Race, racial identity, how racial identity affects how we see the world, and whether there’s a “right” way to be black seem to be questions we’ll never fully answer, baggage we’ll always carry.

On a more positive note, this past season allowed me to release one of my burdens. Sticking true to my basketball fandom principles — and not wanting to miss out on watching a guy who had the potential to be one of my favorite college players ever — I did the unthinkable: I finally rooted for Duke.³

¹Yes. Better than Derrick Rose, John Wall, Chris Paul, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Mike Bibby, Jason Kidd, Ricky Rubio, Jay Williams, Baron Davis, and any other highly-touted 18 year old point guard you or I can name. This doesn’t mean that he’ll be as great of an NBA player as some of the guys I just mentioned — even though I’m pretty certain he will — but, he’s better at this stage than all of them were.
³Of course, Irving got injured 8 games into the season, and hasn’t played since. I haven’t been this disappointed since the last episode of Seinfeld

—The Champ

Filed Under:
Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Wow. Good post.

    Was just writing the other day about me having to defend my blackness to other blacks and to Hispanics. “being black” means different things to different people but I don’t understand why people insist some of us are not “black enough”. Yes I speak spanish …but my ancestors were also enslaved Africans – just in the Dominican republic not the U.S.

  • like you i’ve never liked duke ever. the only two players i’ve ever respected that played for duke were grant hill and steve wojohowski. i can’t stand christian laettner. after his racial comments when he got the nba that just confirmed why i hated him.

    elton brand- hate him
    jason williams- hate him
    dante jones- hate him
    corey maggette- hate him
    chris duhon- hate him (x2)
    sheldon williams- hate him (x infinity)

    i’m with jalen rose. duke doesn’t recruit from the inner cities. they would never come to a city like i lived in a look at players seriously. perhaps that’s why i’m surprised they signed kyrie irving out of east orange, jersey (is that inner city?). i have two words that back up jalen rose’s claim about duke’s recruiting. trajan langdon. duke found quite possibly the only black high school player in the state of alaska. smh

    oh yeah. grant hill’s response was eloquent and typical. (in the words or jalen) he’s still a b*tch though.

  • Tes

    *rereads post a third time*

    …yeah, so I’m thinking all of this is out of my league or over my head in some way. O.O I’m tired, somebody tell me how to feel about all this.

  • @milesfan79

    “You see, ever since they managed — in consecutive years, mind you — to beat my two favorite college teams ever (the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the 1992 Michigan Wolverines) in the NCAA tournament, my heart has reserved a special cabinet of hate for the Duke Blue Devils.”

    I feel you pain, my HATRED for dook started when they beat UNLV, i’ll admit it might be petty and even racially charged but i HATE them! I get somewhat appalled anytime i meet a black man thats not a dook alum or durham native that will admit he is a dook fan. The root of my hate does stem from those game, i viewed as the “black team” vs the “white team w/the uncle tom black guys”, yea i’ll own up to it 100%. Im pulling my “i;m black so i hate dook” pass(shoutout to yday’s post).

    Grant hill response just further proved he what jalen was saying IMO. He chose to boast about blk dook players accomplishments and take cheap shot at end with “i never lost to fab five”. It was almost 20yrs ago!! His letter reminds me of a the nerd or fat chick from HS everyone picked on, that made it big/lose weight and comes back to HS reunion to show-off and tell everyone off. I really think he could hv contacted jalen offline/in private like grown man if it really pissed him off that bad.

    SB: check out the email elton brand recieved from dook slum when he chose to leave dook early, this reminds me of why i HATE dook:


  • WayUPThere

    Yeah I think the biggest issue that people have with it now is the fact that Jalen never specified that he has come to think otherwise currently. Given Jalen’s new level of income and steady work with ESPN, I’m sure that his child is going to grow up in an affluent background and so his kid may be, by extension, one of the kids that he railed about as a 17-18 yr old.

    Secondly, I actually scoff at people who make anyone defend their blackness for merely being educated or trying to better my situation. It’s this systematic reinforcement (by black people no less) of the idea (created by the majority) that we are not supposed to be educated or successful that creates a lot of the problems that we currently face. We can’t unite and achieve much of anything when we’re too busy challenging each other’s authenticity and trying to “stay black” by doing things that will by and large keep us in the same tax bracket, on the same economic level, in the same neighborhoods, and retard progress across the board.

    Yes, that sounds harsh up there when I say that “I scoff,” but the icons that most of these people look up to (rappers, athletes, entertainers) are telling them (and everyone) MOVE OUT OF THE HOOD AND BETTER YOURSELF SOMEHOW. Lil Wayne, TI, and Jay Z and countless athletes are not shy about where they come from, but have said in interviews that where they came from was so bad they told themselves that they had to get out and then encourage others in those setting to do the same. Some even up initiatives and foundations to give back to those in impoverished communities, so that they can make something of themselves and get out of the cycle of poverty, violence, and sub-standard living.

    I never understand how one black person challenges another person’s blackness merely on the basis of education. How are you challenging my blackness when I’m trying to do a small part to elevate the perception of the race by being someone that refutes prevalent negative white notions of black people?

  • ac dubois

    i totally get jalen’s sentiments, he just did not communicate them in the best way. had the whole “uncle tom” thing not been part of the discussion do you think people would still have a problem with how jalen felt? his feelings are real and I can honestly say I deeply understand how it hurts to feel like you are part of a losing game. i mean, black folks always want to talk about how we want equal opportunities and a fair chance and he was vocalizing his struggle to deal with the fact that he was not given on and lowkey envied those who were. this kind of reminds me of the shirley sherrod situation, except he didn’t lose his job.

    all of that aside,they were definitely taking shots at those players and it was more than trash talk. they used words like “soft” “b*tch” “pretty boy” “overrated p*ssy” to describe their peers. how did they think people would receive that? is that usual talk for ball players?

  • I don’t hate Duke players, I hate their self absorbed, corny, nerd ass Camron Crazy fans. Never have I seen a wacker assortment of lames, goofs and cornballs.

    Agreed with Champ’s point re: Grant Hill pent up frustration with being called an Uncle Tom. and Jalen Rose’s explanations notwithstanding, what did we really expect Grant to do? Jalen may have had a nuanced point, but the black blogoshpere/twitter seems to be all about defending Jalen and saying that we all “really” know the truth about Duke. I even agree with much of it. But Grant Hill got called out by name. He reacted appropriately, and got in that ass.

  • Naomi

    I cannot stand the Duke for a myriad of reasons, but uncle tom was the wrong term to use. JUST WRONG. how about siditty (or however the hell that’s spelled lol), stuck up, snobby…but an uncle tom…cmon son!

    I like both Grant and Jalen, and from what I heard they are friends, so yea Jalen could have and should have made it very clear that that was how he felt at 18/19 but not anyone, or he should have just used other words. Again I say, cmon son!

    (Longhorns all the way!)

  • Ron

    The way this story has blown up in the media has just bothered me. The fact that Grant Hill felt the need to stoke the media fire really annoys me, but I suspect he was being pressured to give some kind of high minded response. Hence why he went to the NY Times, where the people who have no business chiming in on this topic will take him statement. In that sense, he’s basically demonstrated EXACTLY what Jalen was saying, even if it was ignorant in a sense.

    Grant should’ve been man enough to be call him up, bury the hatchet and the two of them go out and do some inner city outreach. That would’ve been a response that would’ve done Malcolm, Martin and whoever else proud. Instead? We get two millionaires duking it out in the mainstream media over what it means to be black, essentially.

    It’s frustrating and counter-productive.

  • CaribbeanQueen

    I think that this is sad, especially for the black community. we should be just as happy when we see the success of a black person from a good home as when we learn of another black’s rags-to-riches story. In my opinion, if they didn’t cheat and cut corners to gain their success, then I am happy for people in both situations. It’s not like Hill got things handed to him because of how he grew up. He still had to work hard to get to where he is. He still had to go to practice, do drills, lift weights, and do all that basketball stuff just like they did. And lets say they did recruit him because of his background? Thats Duke’s issue, not his. He had talent to go with his background. Why pass up an opportunity to play with one of the best college teams especially if you have dreams of making it to the NBA.

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