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Full Court Press: A (Long-Winded) Defense of Jalen Rose

If last week’s rather desultory and occasionally poorly rendered post on The Fab Five was any indication, my love for Jalen Rose and the rest of the Fab Five is immense and endures even today.  I appreciate many of the things they symbolized.  Just like back in ’91, many do not hold this cohort of young black men in the same esteem that I do.   Since its airing, the reaction to the Fab Five documentary has mostly centered on Rose’s comments about his views of the Duke Blue Devils and its black players, Grant Hill in particular.  In the documentary, Rose employed the term “Uncle Tom” to describe how his 18-year-old self understood black Duke players like Hill.  Here’s the clip: 

After the initial broadcast on ESPN last Sunday night, Grant Hill wrote a response to Rose–which appeared in The New York friggin’ Times, mind you (Duke alums stay elitist classy all day, everyday, I guess.), calling the moment a “sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events.”  Hill later refers to Rose’s comments as “garbled.”  The shout out to John Thompson’s awesomely black Georgetown Hoyas teams of the 1980s notwithstanding, Hill’s response reeks of that we often smell when Negroes go about defending the respectability that “made them who they are today.”  In this case, specifically, that which partly helped make Hill an attractive Duke recruit in the first place.  Further, Hill’s op-ed exacerbates the irritatingly misleading chorus of negative responses to Rose’s comments.  I understand the impulse to “defend” his family, but Hill’s rhetorical strategy merely further obscures that which spawned the comments in the first place: rejection.

Jalen Rose gave his detractors an out, or rather an attractive distraction, by employing the term “Uncle Tom” to characterize Duke’s black players.  Like other racially charged terms that I will resist the impulse to type here for fear that a reader might like to take that opportunity to diverge down paths that move us away from my core points, employing the term “Uncle Tom,” generally understood to describe a black person who is obsequious to Mister Charlie ‘n’em, almost always results in everything said before or after sounding like adults in Peanuts specials to those within listening range.  As such, one misses a few key points in Rose’s eloquent–and not hardly garbled–description of how his 19-year-old self felt about the Duke basketball program.  What has gotten muddled in the response to this very brief moment in the documentary was that Jalen Rose was hurt.  He was hurt by the absence of his father, and envied Hill’s relationship with his own.  By using the term “Uncle Tom,” Rose allowed the pundits to miss that point–or at least pretend that they did.  Not that they would have heard it if Rose had chosen a different phrase. After all, hearing a black man talk about his feelings sounds foreign to many of us.  Rose might as well have been speaking Martian.

What further upset Rose and the rest of the Fab Five was the way in which their socio-economic backgrounds–with the exception of Webber who, despite a modest upbringing attended the prestigious Detroit Country Day School–disqualified them from being recruited by Duke.  In an incredibly lucid comparison of his upbringing to Hill’s, Rose articulates a point about Duke basketball that is very obvious even to the most casual basketball observer: the most talented white and most respectable, palatable black basketball players are the ones who perpetually make up the Duke roster, and sports commentators revere the program partly for that reason although they’d never admit it.  The most visible of all of Duke athletic programs–despite the Duke lacrosse team’s brief moment in the sun–of the 13 players on the Duke basketball team, 5 are black, and all of them seem to come from the kinds of backgrounds conducive to the smug and elitist image Duke has conveyed.  In other words, through no fault of his own, Rose was not the kind of black player Duke would ever recruit.  And Rose realized that this rejection had nothing at all to do with his talent, but everything to do with the fact that his socioeconomic background could not ameliorate all that his melanin symbolizes.

Grant Hill not only ignores Rose’s hurt, but like others who have responded to The Fab Five, pretends that the image Rose described was merely a figment of his imagination.  Instead of taking up or even acknowledging some of the key issues Rose’s commentary brought to the fore, Hill opted for the typically conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative one comes to expect in such instances.  Hill attempts to obscure by justifying and defending rather than engaging.  Hill asserts that by using the term “Uncle Tom,” Rose “hint[ed] that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not,” a point that Hill deems “beyond ridiculous.”  Oh, the problem of using the term “Uncle Tom.”  From my vantage, Rose isn’t suggesting that Hill and other Duke players are less black, but that they were acceptable despite being black.  They are black, but: they are middle class…and they know their fathers…and they don’t scare white people all that much…and they didn’t go to public school in the inner city.  Hill’s familial background is a Moynihanian wet dream.  Duke basketball is comprised of seemingly respectable Negroes, and that was the point Rose was trying to make.  It is not a matter of being more or less black from Rose’s point of view, but rather from the perspective of (southern?) whiteness.  Grant Hill seemed less black not to Jalen Rose, but to Coach K and everyone else who determines the structure of the program.  Yes, you can recruit black ballplayers here, but they better not be thugs.  Yet in his op-ed, Hill doesn’t choose to entertain that possibility:

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.

This is part of our great tradition as black Americans. We aspire for the best or better for our children and work hard to make that happen for them. Jalen’s mother is part of our great black tradition and made the same sacrifices for him.

Understandably, Hill glowingly remarks upon the education and work ethic that he feels benefited his family without taking account of the kind of crap shoot such “success” seems to be.  If “Jalen’s mother is part of our great black tradition and made the same sacrifices for him,” why, then did her son not reap similar benefits?  If hard work is imperative to the process and Jalen’s mother worked hard, why didn’t her life look more like Janet Hill’s?  Was the set of encyclopedias the difference?  Why weren’t her sacrifices sufficient enough to ensure that Rose had the option of receiving a good education at a place like Duke?  Because hard work and sacrifice, no matter how often we repeat that mantra to ourselves, are never the only parts of the formula. In his response, Hill fails to mention that.

Jalen Rose was saying: if I am talented at basketball, then the best programs, including Duke, should want to recruit me to their school.  Why, then, did they ignore me? Refusing to speak ill of his alma mater, Hill responds to Rose with a narrative that attempts to further obscure the glaring truth that can be found in Rose’s statement, instead of using his standing as a Duke alum to interrogate the claims constructively, therein amplifying the class tension inherent to this conflict.  Hill goes as far as erroneously suggesting that current Duke player, Nolan Smith, because he was raised by his mother, undermines Rose’s argument.  Hill conveniently leaves out that Smith’s father was a professional basketball player and NBA assistant coach before he died tragically, and that his mother has a law degree.  Such facts are not an indictment of Smith’s (authentic) blackness, but of why he’s so attractive to the Duke program in the first place.

What I like about the Fab Five was that they took that rejection and didn’t internalize it into self-hatred, but rather allowed it to fuel them; they took that Scarlet Letter and embraced it, showed it off, flaunted it, and made it so fashionable that it had to be commodified and sold to the masses.  What I don’t like about Hill’s response is his refusal to acknowledge Duke’s recruiting practices and engage Rose’s hurt feelings.  Instead, Hill chose to defend his college and his family, perhaps because his masculinity had been called into question (not entirely by Rose).  Indeed, the subtext also at work in this story is being called a bitch in a documentary, and the implicit asexuality of Uncle Tom.  The non-threatening appearance of the likes of Hill and other Duke alum is rooted in a long discourse of black male sexuality.  And the unbridled and cocky way in which the Fab Five played basketball inevitably conjures such images, especially when home games are played on Tobacco Road.  Yet all of that got muddied by our insistence on castigating Rose for his word choice.

We should be similarly critical of Hill and the argument he chose to forward.  As a student of an elite institution–so elite that it left the Big Ten many moons ago for nerdier pastures–I understand my role not to justify my existence here, but to question it.  I am not here simply because I worked harder than others.  I know that a set of circumstances beyond my control were also in play way before I got here.  I seek not to use the knowledge I’ve acquired to defend why I deserve my situation.  Rather, I choose to question the situation entirely, especially its desireability.  It’s prime time we stop defending our respectable Negroeness at every opportunity.  It’s not only annoying, but marginalizes and categorically denies the experience of others whose lives don’t neatly fit into a system that none of us should want to be a part or a shining example of in the first place.  After all, is resistance not the most attractive feature of that mythical black tradition we revere so much?


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