In honor of the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Christian Laettner, I am reposting here a piece I wrote back in 2011 – a response to criticisms by Grant Hill in the New York Times about the ESPN 30 for 30 Fab Five documentary when it first aired. I am biased, no doubt, but I thought the Fab Five documentary was one of the very best of a generally excellent series. Particularly compelling were the four former players who appeared on camera – Jalen Rose (the driving force behind the doc), Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson (Chris Webber refused to participate in the project).
The doc did an especially good job of elucidating the class and racial context of the extraordinary response – good and bad – to the hard-to-overstate media phenomenon that the Fab Five were.
Because, collectively, we have such a difficult time talking thoughtfully about those issues – race and class – the biggest controversies surrounding the film involved simple-minded misconstruals of what Rose et al said and believed about themselves, their place in college basketball and the larger culture and about some of their famous rivals, especially the Laettner-led Blue Devils who smoked Michigan in the 1992 title game, when the Fab Five were freshmen. Famously, Rose said he thought that the only black players who went to Duke were “Uncle Toms.” This prompted a firestorm, including the aforementioned response in the New York Times from Duke’s most famous black player in that era, Grant Hill.
Before I post my response to Hill (which actually got quite a bit of “run,” as they say, particularly since Jalen himself posted my article to his twitter account), one more quick comment. Rose was compelled to go on a kind of media tour after the documentary to explain himself. How dare he, after all, implicitly impugn the character of the great Coach K, after all. In the course of that tour, Jalen made among the most casually insightful comments about the race-class nexus that I have heard. When asked – I think it was by Bayless and Stephen A. – whether he stood by his comments that Coach K would never recruit a player like Jalen, Rose said, yes he did. But, Rose said, Coach K would recruit his son. One could teach a whole course on just the meaning of that one sentence, but that’s too complex, too true a statement about the nature of race and class in America for much of our sports media to grasp.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s the 2011 piece (original link here):
In the bizarro world of America, circa 2011, the privileged are the righteous aggrieved, while the lesser off are branded selfish and entitled. It’s a world in which the biggest financial institutions receive hundreds of billions in bailout money, while under-water homeowners are deemed “losers” who should sink or swim on their own. It’s a world in which the “angry rich,” to use Paul Krugman’s term, scream about their oppression as their riches grow, while their defenders describe public sector employees making $50,000 a year as “greedy” and “thuggish” even as those employees make wage and benefit concessions that the angry rich would never consent to.
In that world, I suppose it’s unsurprising that Jalen Rose, the son of some of the meanest streets in America, is being attacked far and wide for comments he made about Duke and Grant Hill in the Fab Five documentary that aired on ESPN on Sunday night, particularly Rose’s comment that he thought all Black players who went to Duke were “Uncle Toms.” And it’s also unsurprising that Grant HiIl, the son of privilege, is being praised for his response in yesterday’s New York Times to Rose’s comments.
Unsurprising, but no less distressing. In his response, Hill described Rose’s statements as “sad and somewhat pathetic.” Hill was upset that he was called a “bitch and worse” and pressed his attack against Rose: “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.” Hill also described the struggles and hard work of his ancestors, which allowed Hill to enjoy the great life he’s had and took umbrage at Rose’s apparent slight to that family legacy — Hill said that his family was “disparaged” for their education.
(One thing to clarify is that Jimmy King did say, after he called Laettner the b-word, that he thought Hill was too. Every other insulting comment in that segment was directed at Laettner, not Hill. Whatever the inappropriateness of such statements, they were clearly what the players felt before they played Duke for the first time. Rose made clear what they thought of Laettner once they took the court against him: “he had game.” And Rose himself used no negative terms to describe Hill. We’ll come back to that).
More substantially, what’s distressing both about Hill’s “open letter” and about the widespread praise for it is how badly it misfired, ignoring much of the context and substance of Rose’s remarks.
Before we get to that, here, in its entirety, is what Jalen said during the relevant segment of the documentary:
“For me, Duke was personal. I hated Duke and I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited players who were Uncle Toms..”
After some comments from other members of the Fab Five about Duke, Jalen continued:
“I was jealous of Grant Hill. He came from a great black family. Congratulations. Your mom went to college and was roommates with Hilary Clinton. Your dad played in the NFL, is a well-spoken and successful man. I was upset and bitter that my mom had to bust her hump for twenty-plus years. I was bitter that I had a professional athlete that was my father that I didn’t know. I resented that, more so than I resented him. I looked at it as ‘they are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates.”
Everyone may, of course, decide for themselves what Rose meant. But a few things are clear:
– at no time did Rose criticize Hill’s family. He specifically praised it.- “He came from a great Black family.” The meaning of that statement is indisputably clear. That Hill felt a need to spend much of his letter defending and describing his family circumstances is a “response” to something, but it’s not really germane to what Rose said. Hill did acknowledge in the letter that, based on statements Rose has made subsequently, he believes Rose has some admiration for Hill’s family. But this really didn’t require any clarification. Rose said it straight out in the documentary.
– despite the fact that Hill considers it a mystery as to what Rose believes today, there is really no way to misunderstand the meaning of Rose’s words in the documentary itself — he was describing how he felt as a freshman in college. Hence the repeated and consistent use of the past tense – “I hated…”, “I was bitter…”, “I resented.” Despite the efforts at equanimity in Hill’s letter, this insinuation seems intended to perpetuate controversy. That Rose still believes that Duke only recruits certain kinds of players or, more to the point, generally won’t recruit certain kinds of players, is certainly true. But is that really controversial? Isn’t Coach K usually praised for that very fact?
– the heart and soul of Rose’s reflections, for anyone who cared to understand at all what he had to say, was his self-described resentment about the very difficult circumstances of his childhood. As Rose has elaborated in subsequent days, his home was heated by Kerosene. His family bathed using boiled water. For a guy who is so insistent that people give full consideration to all of the dimensions of his his family background and circumstances, It’s noteworthy that Hill ignored what Rose actually said about his own family (Hill did add a line in the letter about how Jalen’s mother’s made sacrifices. But this still blows off the obvious source of Jalen’s feelings — his tough upbringing).
Despite being a UM and UNC alum, I have always liked Grant Hill and still do. And the letter itself is not vitriolic. But more than a cogent response to Rose’s words, Hill’s letter — and especially the nearly universal toasts to it — stands as another testament to the time in which we live, one in which the affluent manage to see themselves as put upon and put down. In today’s bizarro world, too many of the privileged — sensitive to the slightest slights — believe that they should never have to feel anything but pride and self-satisfaction about their station in life. And they can apparently expect to have their praises sung for expressing indignation when they are not afforded their due consideration. In spite of ceaseless attacks on so-called “political correctness” for supposedly stifling open and honest debate in this country, it’s worth noting that on Sunday night we were treated to a rare and refreshingly candid self-reflection on a major network from a man who came from nothing and still acknowledges that he carries some of the scars of his past. And the result was widespread condemnation from many quarters, in a society that has become perversely defensive of the prerogatives of the most well-off.
Update: While promoting his 30 for 30 doc this week, Laettner seems convinced that the point of the Fab Five film was to insult him personally. I guess things like past tense don’t mean what I think they mean. Silly me.