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The Fab Five vs. Duke: A Critical Perspective

Jalen Rose’s (left) comments about Duke have provoked ire from Duke alum Grant Hill. But is this disguising the real debate?

Now, let me make it clear: I don’t really like Duke.

I’ll admit, though, that I used to – back in 1999, when I was a young pup with little to no knowledge or interest in college basketball, I was rooting for Duke when they lost the title game vs. Connecticut. They were stacked with players – Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Corey Maggette, Chris Carrawell. That ballclub could play, and shoot the rock at will.

Nowadays, though, I share the same attitude as a lot of people – I root against them. Not because of any animosity toward the school, itself – I think it has more to do with the team’s perceived aura, than anything else. While I respect Mike Kryzyewski and everything he has done with the program, I can’t help but feel like the team represents the kind of elitist ideologies people find easy to resent – white collar, more than blue collar.

Which is why, in a brilliantly done documentary by Jalen Rose, “The Fab Five”, I wasn’t surprised that four of its members – Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – expressed this shared hatred of Duke with relish. This isn’t surprising – after all, considering Duke ran them off the floor in the 1992 National Championship game, 71-51. They were brash, immature phenoms that were humbled by a more seasoned, more disciplined Blue Devils squad.

However, it was the reason the Fab Five’s resentment of Duke ran so deep that has received much negative reaction recently.

“I hated Duke,” Rose said in his documentary. “For me, Duke was personal … I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.” Rose further elaborated, saying that, comparing the Fab Five to Duke in the eyes of the American public, “they are who the world accepts; and we are who the world hates.”

Recently, Grant Hill led the charge in the backlash against Rose and his documentary, calling his views “pathetic.” Hill, a Duke alum who played on the teams that beat Michigan’s Fab Five, took issue with how Rose characterized, and generalized, Duke’s long line of outstanding black players. He responded with a statement, released March 16:

To hint that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not is beyond ridiculous … I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping me and others they do not know in much the same way so many people stereotyped them back then for their appearance and swagger.

While subsequent statements by former Duke players like Bobby Hurley have gone on in the same tone, it is important to see what is really going on here, on a number of fronts. For example, the genesis of the controversy came from the choice of words that Jalen Rose decided to use when describing the kinds of black players that went to Duke: “Uncle Toms”.

This is obviously a horrible term to use when describing African Americans – especially when other African Americans use it. It speaks to the “blackness” of certain African Americans, when compared to some arbitrary definition of what “being black” is. To imply that black players on Duke were somehow “subservient to whites” (the textbook definition of an Uncle Tom), is just plain ignorant.

However, this isn’t necessarily a slight on Jalen Rose – at least, not the intelligent and enlightened Jalen Rose who currently resides on ESPN as an NBA analyst. This is a slight on the 18-year-old Jalen Rose that held those narrow-minded beliefs. After all, this was how an 18-year-old saw Duke players – but who hasn’t had beliefs that they strongly held at age 18, that they couldn’t believe they had 20 years later? And, not to say that this is a defense, but people must understand, Jalen Rose grew up in near-poverty, and had a uninformed view of the African American players that went to Duke – affluent, with rich parents and a privileged life. Looking over from “the other side of the tracks,” it is easy to be bitter, and easier to resent those individuals.

But, essentially, this is where the problem lies. Somewhere in contemporary African American history, we have all come upon this long-held belief that an African American’s level of “blackness” was somehow rooted in the culture he or she participates in. Namely, if you were black and you grew up in an affluent setting, with two parents and a well-off family, you were not “genuinely” black. These have been the damaging roots of black stereotypes since the concept of modern American racism was founded. Yet, society has continued to perpetuate these stereotypes to the point where African Americans have turned on each other, in a useless fight to define what “being black” is.

Ultimately, the hatred the Fab Five held for Duke players – especially its black players – came out of a resentment based on perceived social standing. Furthermore, that perception is shaped by a twisted notion that African Americans should not be well-to-do, or affluent. If anything, the back-and-forth between Rose and Hill should not be limited to a random gripe between two individuals. It should open up the conversation about how society views African Americans, and how society defines them. The point is, all of us need to understand, not only why Hill was deeply offended by Rose’s comments; nor why Rose used those terms to begin with; but how we can get to a place where these derogatory stereotypes no longer control society’s view of African Americans, and how we can all move forward from it.

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