Grant Hill Misses Chance to Slam-Dunk on 'Uncle Tom'

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Grant Hill (Getty Images)
Grant Hill (Getty Images)

If you haven't watched ESPN's The Fab Five, a documentary on the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 seasons of the University of Michigan Wolverines men's basketball team, you should. 

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The film takes a look back at how the team garnered attention for starting-five freshmen, who became famous for their charisma, uncompromising style and attitude. Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber wore baggy pants and walked around with headphones blaring Ice Cube and Naughty by Nature.

In other words, they were like me. At age 13, I identified heavily with their bravado, trash talk and loose-fitting clothes. I'd emulate Rose during marathon sessions of basketball on backyard courts or during practice for my junior high school team.

But some of the film's better qualities have been overshadowed by a racially charged sound bite, during which Rose explains the negative feelings he had as an 18-year-old about Duke University and its star player, Grant Hill. The resulting media chatter, along with Hill's impassioned response, has put a spotlight on the rarely discussed class rift within the black community. And Hill, instead of furthering the discussion, missed the point.

When I watched The Fab Five, I found it refreshing to see Rose, who executive-produced the film, and King describe my 13-year-old self's feelings about the Duke Blue Devils' basketball team with pitch-perfect accuracy.

"I hated Duke and I hate everything I felt Duke stood for," Rose says in the film. "Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms."

Rose goes on to say he was jealous of Duke superstar Grant Hill because he came from a strong black family with educated parents who were still married. Rose says he was bitter that he grew up poor and didn't know his own father, who was a professional athlete.

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"I resented that, more so than I resent him," Rose says of Hill. "I looked at it as they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates."

Hill retorted Wednesday with a blistering column on the New York Times blog the Quad.

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"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," Hill wrote.

Hill, who rightfully takes issue with Rose equating having a nuclear family to being an Uncle Tom, uses his column to lay out his family's history, including his father's degree from Yale University, and he identifies several black Duke players who are respected professionals today.

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Rose's mistake in the film was failing to explicitly put his and King's comments in context by telling viewers where he stands today on whether or not Hill is an Uncle Tom or a bitch, although he has since spoken to several media outlets and explained that those comments purely reflected his thoughts as a teenager.

Hill also errs in his New York Times piece by living up to my childhood perceptions of Duke haughtiness — name-dropping an iconic black professor for credibility and unnecessarily using Latin to prove a point.

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But all of this is white noise — no pun intended — and obscures the real issue. Hill took personal exception to Rose's and King's comments, and I would have, too, had I been called a "bitch" and an "Uncle Tom." But Hill fails to use his New York Times platform to really address the substantive issue. In fact, he completely misses both the point and his opportunity to expand this important conversation.

Whether Hill likes it or not, Rose correctly summed up a perception of the Duke Blue Devils basketball program held by many African Americans, especially those living in neighborhoods where there aren't any Yale graduates or many fathers.

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African Americans wrestle with the question of class more than any other race, because for an extended period of time in this country's history, becoming a successful African American meant you had to willingly subjugate yourself to white people to the point of muteness. And in very small degrees, some black folks still have to make those kinds of choices today.

As a result, many of us inherently began to think of the successful among us as individuals who diminished themselves in some way to earn that success. Even if that's not the case, truth doesn't matter when we're talking beliefs and feelings, especially those of teenagers.

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Two fundamental questions need to be answered to bridge this divide. How do underprivileged black folks accept and celebrate those who have succeeded? And how do those who have succeeded both identify and fellowship with the underprivileged? While we still haven't come up with good answers for those questions, young people know a good thing when they see it. And Hill had a good thing.

Young people also don't know how to articulate the kind of jealousy that results in this awareness. It comes out as calling someone an Uncle Tom, bitch, punk, white boy or sellout — all of which I called the Blue Devils team and their African-American players as I grew up. I was wrong, and as an adult I recognize that. But how I felt about it then was very real. And that is what Hill fails to see or acknowledge.

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Does having a supportive father and mother make Hill less black than Rose? Of course it doesn't. But does not having those things make you wish you did? It absolutely does. And what Hill doesn't seem to understand is that this youthful jealousy will continue as long as the economic disparities in this country continue for many African Americans. That's what Hill should really take issue with — not, as he put it, the "garbled" expressions of a couple of teenagers. 

Topher Sanders is a newspaper reporter who is shopping his first novel. You can follow his musings on life, sports and music on Twitter. He and his wife live in Jacksonville, Fla.

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