As a person whose recollection of various members of the Fab Five dates back to when these men were in high school, I more than welcomed the opportunity to embark on the trip down memory lane proposed by ESPN via their airing of the Fab Five documentary on Sunday night. And as a scholar of African American studies it was fascinating to get a glimpse of how black culture in the 90s is going to be historicized moving forward. For example, even though the players referenced rappers such as Das Efx and EPMD, the only hip hop icons on camera were Ice Cube and Chuck D. Just like you can’t have a Civil Rights documentary without quotes by John Lewis, I fear Ice Cube and Chuck D may come to serve similar roles for hip hop history. Don’t get me wrong, neither of these men are bad choices, but they’re choices nonetheless.
But I digress….
Since its airing, which apparently was the highest rated in ESPN history, the documentary has come under fire for comments made by Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard (the only members of the Fab Five to appear in the film) about their rivals at Duke. Along with declaring that they considered the boys at Duke b*&%#@s, Rose in particular acknowledges that he considered Grant Hill an “Uncle Tom,” was jealous that Grant’s professional athlete father stuck around to raise him and that Duke never recruited players like him. Had he left his comments at b*&%#@s people might’ve easily written Rose’s comments off as standard male bravado, the stuff that any collegiate rival might say about another (for Chrissakes someone in Alabama just killed off a set of century old trees on Auburn’s campus). But his candid admission that he was jealous of Hill opened a pandora’s box that has led to Grant Hill publishing this op-ed for the NY Times. In the column Hill stands up for his upbringing and rails against being called an “Uncle Tom.” However, as noted in a number of the comments on Hill’s piece, he appears to have taken Rose’s comments out of context, and seemingly disregards a rather sensitive admission on Rose’s part that he essentially wished he had what Grant Hill had.
The fact that all this is playing out on two major news outlets, ESPN & NYT, is rather troubling. No, this is not about to turn into an “airing our dirty laundry in public” rant, because I don’t subscribe to that line of thought. Rather, what I find troubling is that all of this is playing out during the very week that ESPN and the NY Times kick off their NCAA tournament coverage.
What has garnered far less attention is the discontent felt by Michigan players when they realized they had become pawns in a Nike/University of Michigan marketing locomotive. Former Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom tells a story about walking in front of a store in Ann Arbor with Chris Webber that is selling Webber’s jersey for $70 while Webber doesn’t have two dimes in his pockets to rub together. Similarly Rose describes his awakening to his role in this machine during an exhibition tour of Europe where the Michigan team scrimmages against Euro-pro teams in front of a paying audience, yet the players are still amateurs and therefore ineligible to benefit from the proceeds from this game.
Since the advent of the Fab Five and the Christian Laetner led Duke teams (both of which were reviled by many, albeit for different reasons) college basketball has become an even more lucrative enterprise. There’s more cable revenue, top coaches have lucrative sneaker contracts on top of whatever arrangement the university has with a particular brand, video games have provided another revenue stream, and the NCAA tournament remains one of the most bet on and watched sporting events in the country. The only people still not getting any revenue from this are the “amateur” athletes who will be suiting up for their various schools over the next weeks.
Hence, by responding to Rose’s comments Hill is not taking any grand-stand for affluent two-parent black families. What he’s done is rekindle a twenty-year old rivalry–that while it’s a formidable one–is no match for the real game that’s being played.