By DeWayne Wickham
I wish Jalen Rose hadn’t said that. I wish he’d “man up” and take back the ugly thing he said about Grant Hill.
An ESPN Sports analyst and former NBA star, Rose is an executive producer of the “Fab Five,” the controversial ESPN documentary that has tongues wagging throughout the world of sports. Meant to tell the story of the five freshmen who took the University of Michigan’s basketball team to two consecutive NCAA title games, the documentary takes an ugly turn when Rose is seen on screen suggesting the black players on the Duke University team that defeated Michigan in the 1992 title game were “Uncle Toms.”
“For me, Duke was a person," Rose says in the documentary. “I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke don't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
Hill, whose response to the documentary was published in The New York Times, said Rose seemed to be saying black athletes from two-parent families who went to Duke were lackeys for whites – which is what the term “Uncle Tom” has come to mean. The documentary’s characterization of Duke’s players was “a sad and somewhat pathetic turn of events,” Hill wrote.
Even worse than that, it is a message to young blacks that Rose needs to not just take back, but denounce.
I say this as someone who has a lot more in common with the childhood that drove Rose to utter that opinion, than the early life Hill lived. Rose was one of four kids raised in poverty by a single mother. He grew up poor in Detroit and never met his father. I was in the third grader in Baltimore when my parents died. I have precious few memories of either of them.
Their deaths split up me and my siblings. Members of my mother’s family divided us up among them based on how much of that burden they could afford to shoulder. One of my brothers and I were sent to live with an aunt who had six children of her own. Soon after we arrived her husband left the two-bedroom public housing unit we crowded into. I spend the next 20 of my life in subsidized housing.
Grant Hill grew up well off in a Virginia home with two successful parents. His father, Calvin Hill, was an NFL star running back. His mother was a lawyer. He lived a comfortable, upper middle-class life that led him to Duke University. Rose emerged from his impoverished childhood to attend the University of Michigan, which is hardly a third-rate degree mill.
Since the first airing of his documentary, Rose has offered a tepid explanation of the “Uncle Tom” label he brandishes in the documentary. He says that’s what he thought of the black Duke players in the 1990s, not what he thinks of them now. That’s not good enough.
He needs to say he was wrong at age 18 to have thought that of the Duke players. He ought to say that toxic label should be reserved for people who truly sellout the race, not those whose success opens real doors of opportunity for other blacks.
In the college basketball teams they played for, there is little real difference between Rose and Hill. Each belonged to a prestigious, mostly-white higher education institution. What Rose really needs say about the blacks who played alongside him at Michigan and against him at Duke – as I’ve learned in my life – is that the road to success has many on-ramps.