As college basketball’s March Madness overwhelms the sports landscape, a war of words has escalated between the early 1990s alums of Michigan and Duke. In an ESPN documentary about the Fabulous Five Michigan freshmen who led the Wolverines to two title games, their point guard Jalen Rose invoked the phrase “Uncle Toms” to describe the Blue Devil’s African-American players of that era. One of those players, Duke All-American and current Phoenix Sun Grant Hill, went public with a stiletto-sharp response in the New York Times. Hill called upon his own family’s history, weaving black pride and Duke pride together calling Rose “pathetic” and writing, “My teammates at Duke—all of them, black and white—were a band of brothers who came together to play at the highest level for the best coach in basketball. I know most of the black players who preceded and followed me at Duke. They all contribute to our tradition of excellence.”
In the subsequent uproar, Rose has tried to explain that his statements reflect how he felt twenty years ago. He said it was born out of the envy he felt for the familial and financial security held by many of the Duke players and his resentment that Duke didn’t recruit him because he came from an impoverished single-parent home. That hasn’t been nearly enough to chill the rage of many commentators.
That rage and Hill’s scathing response miss the primary tension between the Fab Five and their Duke counterparts. It’s not race, it’s class. When Rose said that “schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me,” he was talking about African-American kids who were also poor. This is partially, as Rose asserts, about the recruitment strategy of Head Coach Mike Kryzyewski. It’s also very much about the culture of Duke—a walled university of wealth, privilege and arrogance ensconced in one of North Carolina’s poorest cities, Durham. The University of Michigan is hardly a trade school, but Duke—in pedigree and in attitude—is really in a “class” all its own.
When Duke star Elton Brand became the first Blue Devil player to leave school early for the NBA draft, he received a note from a Duke alum that read, “I graduated from Duke last May and just wanted to express my disgust for your decision to leave the Duke program after only two years.… We are first and foremost an academic school, and you clearly did not belong at Duke in the first place if this was the extent of your commitment to Duke and a college education in general.”
Brand’s response focused on this question of class writing, “Thank you for reminding me of the reason why I left Duke.… I’m sure daddy worked very hard to send your rich self to college. While real people struggle. I would also like to extend an invitation for you not to waste your or my time ever again. Never being considered a part of your posh group of yuppies really hurts me to the heart. Yeah, right…. I don’t care about you or your alumni.”
This was a much-reported exchange, but Hill doesn’t address it. He does, however, use his piece to make a staunch defense of the family values that he believes Rose is trying to disparage, saying, “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.” With that line, Hill was sending the equivalent of the bat signal up in the air to the self-appointed guardian of African-American family values, sportswriter and Fox Sports scold, Jason Whitlock.