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Hoop dreams, class distinctions

Daren Graves

As the NCAA tournament marched on to the Final Four, the battle between two former NBA superstars — Jalen Rose and Grant Hill —  still reigned as the most intriguing contest this season.

The war of words began with the recent airing of ESPN’s “The Fab Five,” a documentary about five talented (and hugely popular) first-year college basketball players at the University of Michigan during the early 1990s. The players were deliberate in their unorthodox presentation: bald, long shorts, black sneakers and quick- witted — styles that have all been duplicated in the years since.

In the documentary, Rose, one of the players and now a successful basketball analyst, commented that as an 18-year-old then, he felt that Michigan’s heated rival, Duke University, only recruited black players he described as “Uncle Toms.” He specifically mentioned that he was envious of the privileged lifestyle of Hill, a Duke star and upper class African American who hailed from a two-parent household. Rose, on the contrary, had no relationship with his NBA All-Star father and lived in an impoverished community in Detroit.

Rose’s remarks set off a furor in the media and backlash against him in recent weeks. His comments impacted Hill enough to prompt him to write an op-ed in The New York Times in which he politely scolded Rose for questioning his racial allegiance.

Unfortunately, Hill’s response was ill-conceived. First, why scold Rose in the first place?  Rose apologized to Hill before the documentary aired, and expressed in subsequent media appearances that he no longer feels that way. At the time, Rose was jealous of the resources that people like Hill had access to. Rose was merely describing how he felt as a young college athlete.  

The second issue is Hill’s decision to publish his op-ed in The New York Times. Rose’s chosen venue of ESPN to air his feelings as a young man gave him easy access to the poor and working class youth of color that he seems most interested in reaching out to. The New York Times, on the other hand, tends to speak to a middle and upper class audience who are, predominately, white.  Perhaps this is the audience Hill was trying to reach, but it seems a missed opportunity to not talk directly to Rose’s audience.

Finally, Hill missed an opportunity to speak to the fact that there are still too many children of color who are growing up like Rose did, and to question why so few had an upbringing like his. As a result, Hill looks like he is chastising Rose, the man who grew up with little or none of the privileges that he grew up with, while garnering praise from those privileged enough to read his New York Times op-ed.

And here’s the teachable moment.  I don’t think Rose was apologizing for his childhood jealousy. I think he was apologetic for engaging in ugly and divisive racial politics when he expressed his frustration for the lack of structured opportunities that exist for the people in his community to succeed.  

The ways in which communities of all colors are systematically and perpetually impeded from being afforded all the rights and privileges this country has to offer is the real story here. There’s no shame in being frustrated with that. These were five young black men from poor and working class backgrounds coming to the Sports Ivory Tower and boldly representing who they were and where they came from. Each of their stories is a story of amazing individual, family and community resilience. Unfortunately, at the time, they were framed as irreverent, brash, undisciplined boys who needed to be controlled.  

While it’s sad to see that 20 years after the Fab Five entered our consciousness, the public still gets some joy out of seeing one of them being put in his place, I find much more hope in the continued growth and resilience of men like Rose, who also is an executive producer of the documentary. Rose earned his bachelor’s degree and began his broadcasting career while he was playing professionally. And today, he is investing his NBA and broadcasting earnings to build new schools in the Detroit communities he grew up in.

Surely, an honest perspective should not be cause for scorn in the public by Hill. Rather, it should serve as a reference point to examine the complex intersections of race and class in our society. In short, this was a real opportunity to understand the diverse black experience and set the record straight. Too bad Hill missed the easy lay-up.

Daren Graves Ed.D. is an assistant professor at Simmons College and director of the school’s Urban Education Program.