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, politicians, and rapists².

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,” which is akin to a high school principal giving a trust fund senior a citizenship award, even though the senior was just caught f*cking a freshman on the hood of his Maserati Quattroporte in the school parking lot.

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. Men wrongly accused of rape are still thought of and treated as rapists by those who only need an allegation for confirmation of guilt. “Uncle Tom” carries a similar permanent 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.
²Joking about the rapists part.
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