On Sunday, ESPN aired a documentary on the Michigan Wolverines basketball team led by five first-year basketball players in 1991. The team, known as the Fab Five, took the nation by storm and made an unprecedented march through the NCAA tournament. In 1992 and 1993, Michigan lost in the national championship game to Duke and North Carolina, respectively.
On Wednesday, former Duke Blue Devil and current NBA star Grant Hill wrote a “response” to portions of the documentary. His response was carried by the New York Times where it generated a high volume of responses. The New York Times did not notify readers that they did not post the entire piece written by Hill. The edited version may be found here. The unedited version may be found here.
Our National Blind Spot
While much has been said, there is a great deal that has not been said. This issue is right in the national blind spot because it impacts the intersections of race, class, and culture.
Now, admittedly, not everyone in the nation is blind, but everyone has a blindspot. Some Americans may be blind, or oblivious, to the contradictions of railing against illegal immigration and its impact on the domestic economy, while ignoring the impact of white settlers on indigenous Americans. But they march on. So, here we are. In the midst of what has become a national conversation where some are far less oblivious than others. And that constitutes a national blindspot and a real barrier to understanding. The beginning of a better understanding sometimes requires a bit of going back to the beginning.
The college basketball world of the 1991 Michigan Wolverines and the Duke Blue Devils cannot be truly understood outside of a much larger context. There was a broader cultural context that included the nascent rise of West Coast hip-hop; a flowering of conscious rap emanating from eastern cities; race riots in California; a war in Iraq; and a great deal more. It was also a time of political conservatism. George Bush “the Elder” still sat upon the throne and would not be displaced by Sistah Souljah’s antagonist for another six months. By the time the duplicitous William Jefferson Clinton took his turn, the vocal minority of ultra-conservative Americans was in full roar over things like “values” and “tradition.” Against this conflicted backdrop, the Michigan Wolverines and the vaunted Fab Five leapt to center stage — but they were not the first team to do so. In point of fact, they were third.
Let’s take it from the top.
This is the team that Grant Hill idolized.
This is the team that preceded (and superseded) Michigan as the most reviled team in college sports, because in the immortal words of Malcolm X (and as remixed by Terminator X of Public Enemy), they were “too black, too strong.”
Georgetown Taps Into Black Gold
Georgetown also preceded Michigan as a marketing juggernaut.
- Did you know that the Hoyas changed their team jerseys FIFTEEN times since Patrick Ewing enrolled there? One of those uniforms even featured a kente cloth pattern down the side. Only Nike’s home school, the Oregon Ducks, have copied Georgetown’s particular path to merchandising success.
- Georgetown was the first college basketball team to drive the super marketing mania that drives college basketball. The UCLA Bruins, North Carolina Tar Heels, Indiana Hoosiers, Kentucky Wildcats, and Duke Blue Devils were not able to make the marketing impact that the Hoyas did on the heels of Patrick Ewing’s career.
- By 1989, before the Fab Five finished sophomore math (in high school), the Hoyas had the nation’s number one merchandising program – ahead of Notre Dame and Michigan. It was all driven by their basketball program.
A small Jesuit school in the nation’s capital had eclipsed traditional football powers in the Midwest and the South. The engine behind this strong charge was the youth of Black America. This phenomenon of Black youth driving sports apparel sales was so powerful that the Los Angeles Kings, a hockey franchise, changed their official jerseys from the purple and gold, shared with the Los Angeles Lakers, to the silver-and-black of the Raiders.
The money behind this story matters because the nation, then and now, sought to rally against Michigan because of their behavior – while ignoring their contribution to the bottom line. And it was a contribution that could not be made by any athletes at Duke University…because Duke never broached the cultural divide. How could they?
Sports Redemption for White Supremacists, Part I
There are at least two angles providing fuel to the fire of this story. One is the Maafa-era practice of divide and rule which posits Africans of modest resources (relatively speaking) against those with negligible resources. In this model, neither band of brothers has their own money or their own productive capacity or their own means to protect and extend their wealth. Both are marginalized by an other, but one to the extreme, and the other to a lesser extent. Malcolm X reduced this complex dynamic down to the juxtaposition of the House Negro (close to physically, if not biologically, the master and proximate to additional benefits and expectations (including sexual predations) and the Field Negro (away from physically, if not biologically, the master and distanced from additional benefits and expectations (excluding sexual predations). The dynamic can be understood in simplistic terms, but life is seldom so simple. It likely never was so simple on plantations or on work sites or on college campuses…and as such, it is too simplistic for my purposes here.
If its depth you want, look here and take your time:
And this leads to the second angle driving this conversation. If there was ever a mythical conversation between a House Negro and a Field Negro, the one observer with the single greatest vested interest in a degraded dialogue turning into an irreconcilable difference would be a “white” person. No one could have a higher stake than whites in brewing turmoil, fomenting distrust, sowing angst and harboring resentment in both camps. No one stood to lose more materially. No one had so high a psychic investment in their own delusional grandeur.
Just how large was that psychic and capital investment?
Before there was a Federal Bureau of Investigation, there was the Bureau of Investigation and it was headed by a young, reactionary man named J. Edgar Hoover. The video begins with a discussion about the high hopes of loyal Black American soldiers who fought in World War I. It concludes with a sketch of Hoover’s duplicity in undermining the Black Star Line of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. American academics who study this era tend to act as though Hoover had no role in Garvey’s demise…they act as though Garvey was a mere charlatan, a hustler. They ignore the investment of the founders of the NAACP and their espionage against Garvey’s UNIA. It is precisely this method of historical amnesia that defines Black history in America.
The Wolverines were a part of a fuller history. This team and these freshmen did not exist in a historical vacuum, and this recent “issue” has roots.
Garvey’s chilly reception in the United States was not without precedent. It was so in the time of Jack Johnson — the quintessential (post-Nat Turner) Bad Nigger.
Jack Johnson scored a singular victory for Black America with his pugilistic prowess. Jack Johnson was so bad, that he was effectively exiled for his “transgressions.” He was “pimpified” by law. Today’s youth can scarcely believe there was a time when American whites would believe (let alone state publicly) that they could fight better than black folk. The notion, so laughable today, was born at a time when many of this nation’s most precious fables were crafted. In a generation, Blacks went from being indispensable slave labor to being lazy, inefficient workers who sullied the reputation and professional vitality of immigrant European workers. Myths have a funny, enduring way of being tied to money.
And when that money accrues to the coffers of white folks, “good Negroes” or “House Negroes” can be created as if from thin air…but when that money accrues directly (or with fewer middle men than typically required by those who make myths), then “bad Negroes” or “Field Negroes” can be created from the same thin air.
Juxtaposition in Our Money and Their Money
How did it come to this? Johnson was a bad nigger because he fought for himself. Joe Louis was a good nigger because he fought for his country. Jackie Robinson was a good nigger because he fought for his country. Satchel Paige was a bad nigger because he pitched for himself (and the Negro Leagues). Jesse Owens was a good nigger because he ran for his country. Cassius Clay was a bad nigger because he fought for himself. Sonny Liston was a good nigger because “we” had our hands in his pockets and he worked as muscle for “us.” Grant Hill is a good nigger because he went to one of “our” schools for four years and went through our system and we got paid every step of the way. Jalen Rose is a bad nigger because….wait for it…not unlike Miami’s BIG THREE, he collaborated with four other high school stars and redefined college basketball in a way that he could not predict and could only marginally capitalize on because he jumped to the NBA after two years.
And all of the Georgetown niggers are bad niggers because they were wholly, completely, and undeniably unconcerned with “us” and our media games and “our” bullshit and they still won.
Sports Redemption for White Supremacists, Part II
This story is getting circulation because it is attractive to white people because it rekindles a bit of the righteous indignation and self-serving pride when Michigan lost in 1992 and 1993. Bill Walton felt it. Billy Packer felt it. And it was same feeling when Georgetown lost to the Villanova (aka Vanilla-nova) Wildcats in 1985. Villanova’s team was led by a good nigger who snorted cocaine the way Christian Laettner smoked weed…but it mattered not the national media. Situational ethics are for situations just like this. When independent, powerful, successful Black entities, individuals or collectives flourish, they call forth a challenge in the hearts and minds of white supremacists.
And some of these people would not consider themselves as such a thing. Perish the thought. Perhaps they were simply the purse-clutching type who were intimidated by the Hoyas. Maybe they were accosted on the streets of Anacostia while peddling bibles to people with a greater need for revenue than resurrection. However the masses of white America came to their contempt of Georgetown, the end result was the same…jubilation at the sight of their loss in 1985.
The media didn’t want to have a discussion about how Georgetown was the epitome of a team that played the game the right way…Team first, defense first, unselfish offense. Hell, they didn’t want to have that discussion about Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas Razorbacks, either. But they were all ears if the conversation shifted to Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers and their mercurial good nigger (rescued from the streets of Chicago) Isiah Lord Thomas (who became a bad nigger with his own money). The media was all ears when the conversation shifted to Knight’s protege at Duke, and their propensity for drawing charges (even while standing directly under the basket). Kansas? Sure. Duke? Sure. North Carolina? Of course.
If you discuss the singular impact of Georgetown on college basketball with the media or white folks (generally speaking), it’s all crickets, all the time. It’s taboo. It’s a clumsy conversation with folks fumbling to explain away their contempt for Georgetown with an indefensible and purely perplexing embrace of guys like Walter Berry and Derrick Coleman – two supremely-talented but flawed lefty power forwards who could have redefined the game. Berry and Coleman would come to represent everything that white America professed to detest in college basketball, but they were the last line of defense against the rampaging Hoyas.
But if you raise the spectre of Michigan, everyone is a Chatty Kathy and it’s all about the Fab Five’s BEHAVIOR. Chest stomps anyone?
Nonsense. It was always nonsense. But in the world of sportscasters like Billy Packer, Jim Nance, Bill Walton, and others it was real. And if you’re old school, you remember Al McGuire calling Billy Packer out for broadcasting as if he were the juvenile version of Rush Limbaugh. In Packer’s world, white players were “heady,” “smart,” and “gritty.” Black players were cut from a primal African athletic cloth — even the good niggers who played for traditional powers.
Beisbol, Organized Labor, and Negroes Who Have Walked Your Path
Duke is only a peripheral part of this issue. Hill was right to defend himself from what he perceived as a personal attack. More power to him. Rose was right to outline the contours of what he saw as an institutional practice much like GARY SHEFFIELD did in criticizing baseball.
“I called it years ago. What I called is that you’re going to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English going to be coming out. … [It's about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do — being able to control them,” he told the magazine.
“Where I’m from, you can’t control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that’s a person that you’re going to talk to with respect, you’re going to talk to like a man.
“These are the things my race demands. So, if you’re equally good as this Latin player, guess who’s going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.”
According to a 2005 report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 8.5 percent of major leaguers were African-American — the lowest percentage since the report was initiated in the mid-1980s. By contrast, whites comprised 59.5 percent of the majors’ player pool, Latinos 28.7 percent and Asians 2.5.
When Sheffield went off, everyone had their panties in a bunch — until they realized he was right on the mark. Until scholars of economics and international labor affirmed his position…
The national sports media, as large a self-aggrandizing body of high school dropouts as one can find outside of a burger joint, simply didn’t get it. Sheffield wasn’t trying to make wine out of sour grapes. He was exposing the gritty underside of a business model that the media had neither the courage nor the intelligence to expose.
So, too, it is with Rose. The substance of his PRESENT critique isn’t about HILL, it’s about the recruiting practices of Duke (or the labor practices, if you prefer)– so very Brooklyn Dodgers…so very “We want Jackie, not Satchel.”
Cherry Picking Black Fruit
What’s old is what’s new. The Brooklyn Dodgers did not sign Jackie Robinson because he was the best player in the Negro Leagues. They signed him because they believed he was the best player to integrate the virulently racist, violent and white supremacist known as Major League Baseball. He was the person with the training, background and temperament that could win hearts and minds who had been actively poisoned for generations. This poisoning on the question of “Negro inferiority” was pushed, in many respects, by the same persons who argued for white supremacy in boxing, football, in labor, and in the academy. Just as Robinson proved them wrong on the diamond, some one always came along to prove them wrong — wherever they sought to build exclusionary enclaves based on myths.
Jackie Robinson knew he wasn’t Satchel Paige. And, that’s the real deal here. On many levels, the equivalent of Satchel Paige was actually the Georgetown Hoyas.
Paige’s charisma benefited African-American ballplayers in another, much more public way, during the 1930s, when white fans and reporters discovered the Negro leagues. “There started to be a series of stories—in the New York Times, the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Magazine— on the Negro Leagues, and every one of those stories was not just about the Negro Leagues in the abstract, it was about Satchel Paige’s Negro league, because he was the most sensational player,” Tye says. “I suggest to you that it was because of Satchel Paige that white America learned there was a great Negro league.”
According to Tye, Paige was partially responsible for Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 and reintegrating major league baseball. “Rickey knew about this great team called the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black team,” he says. “They were Satchel Paige’s Monarchs, and it was because of Satchel Paige that Branch Rickey knew about a guy who started that season in 1945 as a second-string second baseman by the name of Jackie Robinson. An old Negro League ballplayer said it much more eloquently than I could, ‘It was Jackie Robinson who opened the door to the new racial realities of baseball, but it was Satchel Paige who inserted the key.’”
What were the implications of Jackie Robinson’s success as a player? He opened the door, particularly in the National League for Black and African Latino players. In the 60 years since Robinson’s MVP award in 1949, 34 National League MVP awards have been won by Black and Latino players whose entry to the game would have been barred in 1946.
Then there’s the case of Josh Gibson.
Gibson was the most prolific hitter of his era. The Wikipedia entry on Gibson offers this:
In early 1943, Josh Gibson fell into a coma and was diagnosed with a brain tumor (cancer). Apparently coming out of his coma, he refused the option of surgical removal, and lived the next four years with recurring headaches. Gibson died of a stroke in 1947 at age 35, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just three months before Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league history. The stroke is believed by a few to be linked to drug problems that plagued his later years. He was buried at the Allegheny Cemetery in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville, where he lay in an unmarked grave until a small plaque was placed in 1975. In 1972, Gibson’s accomplishments were recognized, along with Buck Leonard’s, and they became the second and third players, behind Satchel Paige, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for their performance in the Negro leagues.
His on-and-off field exploits were probably more akin to those of another great college basketball team which dominated headlines during the era of the Fab Five: UNLV’s Running Rebels.
In 1990, one of coach Jerry Tarkanian’s best teams squared off against Duke. The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels beat Duke upside the head by 30 points. The next season, they lost to Duke by 2 points in a game that was widely believed to have been determined by external “players.” Tarkanian had long drawn the ire of the national media for his signing of players that schools like North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, UCLA, and Kansas would never recruit. There was Richie Adams and Lloyd Daniels and so many others. Tarkanian was also embroiled in a never-ending contest with the NCAA over the operations of his program. There was the infamous “hot tub” photo featuring UNLV players and a man with a reputation for impacting outcomes. The NCAA and the media were relentless. And his Rebels were arguably as hated as the Hoyas before them, or the Wolverines that followed.
UNLV had swagger. They played above the rim. They were intimidating. UNLV played a smothering brand of defense that reminded fans of Georgetown and Arkansas. Of course, Jerry Tarkanian wasn’t a 6-foot Black man, either. He was a short, towel-chopping “kinda white” Armenian guy whose people were subject to genocide back in the old country. People didn’t quite know what to make of Tarkanian. Still, in the world of college basketball, he was an outsider. He was no Knight in shining armor, nor was he a cuddly Carnesseca.
And until 1990, Tarkanian made it easy for the national media because his teams could never get over the top. Losses by teams led by Armon Gilliam, Jarvis Basnight, Gerald Paddio and Freddie Banks were tough to take in Las Vegas.
The 1990 demolition of Duke was as complete and decisive a national championship game as has been played in more than 40 years. No aspect of the game was competitive. It resembled a Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks bout more than the culmination of a six-game tournament to cull a champion from a field of elite contenders. The next year, it was as if UNLV lost their identity in a Hollywood shuffle.
UNLV never did hit the merchandising bullseye like Georgetown or Michigan. Perhaps it was their unwillingness to part with their Mississippi-esque logo. Perhaps it was that Larry Johnson’s tenure was so brief.
Through it all, these facts remain:
According to Brad Rothermel, the UNLV athletic director from 1981 to 1990 and a special consultant to the current athletic director, 10 of the 14 players on the 1990 team possess UNLV diplomas. To this day, Rothermel marvels at Tarkanian’s ability to turn the tide of negativity into something positive.
Rothermel remembered a typical Tarkanian speech this way: “Now this is more evidence that the NCAA is against us. They don’t want us to win it. We’re the only ones that want to do it.”
And, these perceptions remain:
“It takes a different type of coach to coach the team we had,” (Larry) Johnson said. “Coach K at Duke can’t coach the team we had. The type of young black males we had on our team were real boastful, they were real bold and they needed someone who was going to show them some love.”
As well as this historical reflection from none other than Chris Webber, during a conversation with The Starting Five’s Michael Tillery:
“KG and I were basically the same person…our emotions…they way we scream when we talk on the floor. I know that Barkley had that influence on me. I know Larry Johnson had that influence on the Fab Five. I know UNLV had that influence on us.
We couldn’t front like we were the first ones to do it. It was UNLV. I remember when UNLV lost the second year and Duke won, I didn’t go to school. I remember crying after the game because that’s how much I was part of them. That respect we got from everybody was mad appreciated because I knew where it was coming from.”
Say what you will about Jerry Tarkanian, but like Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Dale Brown at LSU, and Jimmy Valvano at North Carolina State, his players perceived him as a father figure. I am sure that the same was true of Coach K for players who enrolled at Duke, but the perception didn’t travel beyond Durham. Like tobacco-farming blue bloods, Duke has always been about pedigree…always.
Duke Basketball in Historical Context: C.B. Claiborne
The first black basketball player at Duke University was C.B. Claiborne. Claiborne was an academic superstar.
Claiborne earned an engineering degree from Duke. He had a postgraduate offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters, but with a wife and young child chose to enter the business world instead. Later he received two master’s degrees (from Washington University and Dartmouth College) and a doctorate from Virginia Tech. His academic career, a cross-country journey that spans more than a quarter-century, led Claiborne to Texas Southern, where he is a professor in the business school.
And, he was engaged in the political life of Black folk while enrolled at Duke:
Sit-ins and boycotts were employed to combat segregation. The white power structure remained unresponsive. Local government was slow to incorporate African-Americans in its work force or on its advisory boards despite the fact the city was 40 percent black. When it came time to build a freeway, the chosen downtown route destroyed Hayti, a thriving business district dubbed “the black Baltimore.” Some 500 acres were cleared; the area has yet to recover.
Duke succumbed to unrest when, following the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds of students, black and white, engaged in a “Silent Vigil” on the main quad. They peacefully protested the university’s discriminatory policies, particularly working conditions for non-academic personnel. Also at issue was President Douglas Knight’s continued membership in the segregated Hope Valley Country Club, where Claiborne was excluded when the basketball team held its annual banquet in 1966.
Claiborne appeared in 22 games on a 1969 team that dropped to 15-13 in what proved Bubas’ finale as a head coach. The senior enjoyed consecutive strong showings in the late-December Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and on the year contributed 6.5 points per game, double his scoring average from ’68. Yet his playing time diminished as the season progressed.
With little word, Claiborne missed practice and a mid-February trip to West Virginia to face Waters’ Mountaineers. Instead he joined other African-American students in occupying Allen Building, Duke’s administrative headquarters, a popular form of campus protest at the time.
The occupiers, who did virtually no damage, used the tactic to publicize demands such as the need for meaningful numbers of black faculty, courses in African-American studies, an end to harassment by campus police, and the availability of a barber who would cut their hair.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone to refute Jalen Rose’s position on Duke’s recruiting with solid numbers. C.B. Claiborne’s family was well-educated in the 1950’s. It would hardly have mattered in Durham. Blacks were barred from attending Duke University until 1961. There is a reason that institutions like Duke tend to recruit Black students with a particular background. These institutions are seeking to maintain their cultural traditions, even while yielding to the demands of their time. Claiborne’s ascent was not a surprise to his relatives…he comes from a long line of teachers. Claiborne could have earned access to Duke academically — were it not for the exclusionary practices of that institution, and the political structure of North Carolina which underfunded Black schools.
“When I went in to my first math class, the teacher walked in and started off the class by holding up a book and saying, ‘How many of you used this in high school?’” Claiborne recalled. “And I looked around, and everybody had their hand up except me. It was a big book, it was the calculus book that had derivative and integral calculus in it. The first part was derivatives, the second part was integrals. He then said, ‘Since all of you had this, we’re going to skip the first part and let’s start with the second part of the book.’”
Claiborne laughed heartily as he told the story; coming from an intentionally underfunded, underequipped school system, where African-American students received leftovers from whites like youngsters wearing hand-me-downs from older siblings, he was immediately at a competitive disadvantage. He coped.
Interestingly enough, Duke could have admitted Claiborne on an academic scholarship and extended the athletic scholarship to another Black student. Of course, that might have pushed their quota. Quotas were used by franchises like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and others to limit the number of Black and Latino players in the American League for decades after Larry Doby signed to play with the Cleveland Indians.
Similarly, don’t expect young black folk to turn a blind eye to privilege — even when everyone in the conversation is black. Money matters.
Rose and Hill, in Generational Context
A good friend sent something to me pertaining to the nerve that Jalen Rose may have struck in assailing Grant Hill as a youth. Sometimes, playground taunts during our formative years are the most painful because they strike a chord…sometimes, the resonance is like the harmonious crack of a baseball bat making “sweet spot” contact with a wicked, insulting curve ball. He wrote:
“Just touching base with you on the “Uncle Tom” comments by Rose and
the Hill reaction. Even as a notorious trash-talker in his youth, it’s
clear that Rose did his homework while trying to get inside of the
heads of his opponents.
Grant Hill had to live with the “Uncle Tom” label basically his entire
As you know, Calvin Hill, his father played for the Dallas Cowboys in
the early 70’s. His pops graduated from Yale and his wife Janet, was Hillary Rodham
Clinton (close friend) at Wellesley College. A true Jack-n-Jill Negro couple!
As a Cowboy he played under Tom Landry, who had an iron clad straight-
laced hold on his Cowboy players. Landry’s structured and strict style
was right up Hills mental alley, and he was a huge Landry supporter on
and off the field in what some viewed in “Uncle Tom” fashion following
some tough civil rights times of the ’60s and early ’70’s.
However, Duane Thomas, his “brash” running back mate, was the the
“Malcom X” Cowboy player of that day. He fought Landry and Cowboy
management at every turn while still being one of the most explosive
running backs in the NFL. He refused to talk to fellow players or the
press and was even accused of plotting to kidnap Tex Schramm with a
Muslim group. Thomas, a media “untouchable” was also robbed of the
Super Bowl MVP award in the Cowboy’s victory over Miami.
I know that this might not be any news to you…but the book “Duane
Thomas and the Fall of America’s Team” is still viewed as outstanding
and relevant reading material on black history in the NFL today.
Bottom Line: Calvin Hill was always portrayed as an “Uncle Tom Slave”
vs Thomas the “Field Negro/Militant Slave” in the media and in Cowboy
Nation. Grant Hill had to feel some of the brunt of that shit as a
child growing up.
Then, following his Pop’s high-end collegiate DNA…Grant Hill goes to
Duke and then faces Rose at Michigan who was raised by a single mom in
As a teenager, Rose was not far off from his perception of Duke Negro
Slave players. As an adult, I hope he can see that his Fab Five Slave
counterparts at Michigan, were both “lost” in the same perpetual
identity abyss called Black America.”
And that’s the bottom line. Calvin Hill established a sense of grounding in the abyss. As a father, he created a safe harbor for his wife and children. Fathers make sacrifices that young warriors do not often have to make. Fathers must plan and be strategic. They must provide and protect. When families are part of your political calculus, your options are different.
Calvin Hill does not need to apologize to anyone for his decisions. He need not apologize because the perpetual identity abyss called Black America operates at a collective level, and at a painfully disruptive individual level.
After his team loses, Rose leads the squad downstairs for a postgame pep talk. As the team disbands, Rose opens a side door, which opens to a darkened, cluttered office. “This is the place where I really learned who I was,” he says.
He learned this particular lesson 22 years ago from the late Sam Washington, who was the director of St. Cecilia. Tired of Rose’s constant goofing off in a sixth-grade class, Washington led him to the basement office. Clicking off the lights, he fed a reel into a projector and played highlights of Walker — a solidly built shooting guard who reminded many of Oscar Robertson — on the wall.
“That’s your father,” he told Rose, who sat mesmerized by the footage. “You have the same potential to be very special.”
Fatherhood is serious business. It is the most serious business in which men engage. Jimmy Walker passed away in 2007. Presumably, by all accounts, he and his made peace with one another. As these two young men are concerned, that’s probably all that really matters. Everything else is just schoolyard bravado — even if it gets played out in front of 30,000 screaming fans in 1991 and 300,000 television viewers in 2011.
Paradoxes and Symmetry
In 1991, Duke rebounded from that 30-point debacle of the previous year amid allegations that Vegas threw the game. In 1992, Duke then beat a Michigan team who would be subject to the very same allegation a year later in an odd title game loss to North Carolina.
From my perspective, this “issue” is only marginally about Hill and Rose. It’s really a story of big-time college athletics, stock-piling athletes, political recruiting, gambling, marginalized urban economies, merchandising, the NCAA, institutional racism, media and fan racism, and the writing and re-writing of history.
Did Vegas throw the game vs. Duke in 1991?
Did Michigan throw the game vs. North Carolina in 1993?
If so, who did it and to what end does it matter?
Perhaps it doesn’t one bit, but it is an interesting back drop for the use of the disparaging term “sell out.” Grant Hill took offense to being labeled the equivalent of such by people whom he considers friends. And conspicuous by his absence is Chris Webber, a man who shares Hill’s love of African-American art and history, and who shares ignominious aspersions on his character with men like UNLV’s Anderson Hunt.
For me, I am less concerned with the merit of these allegations than I am with the futility of black folk engaging in heated rhetoric over things beyond their control…and to little effect. The persons with the greatest vested interest in sowing discord can observe quietly and beyond reproach as chaos ensues.
And that is the painful paradox of injecting innuendo into conversation when conclusions are not within reach.
In a final twist, Duke has supplanted all other national programs as the most hated. Duke has become like the Yankees. They are the new standard by which all others are measured. And, as of 2008, Duke ranked 5th on Forbes’ list of most profitable college basketball programs. Georgetown, Michigan and UNLV were off the radar.
The Fab Five and the Hoyas in Context
Michigan’s place in history is undeniable, but I believe it has been overstated. It is overstated precisely because the prototype laid down by John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas in unassailable. Does anyone believe that Jalen Rose’s bald head was more menacing than that of Michael Graham? Remember Reggie Williams’ post-game interview after rocking Olajuwon’s Cougars? Remember those games vs. St. John’s and Syracuse and Villanova? Remember the weekly reminders of Perry McDonald’s boxing prowess as a former Gold Gloves champion? Remember McDonald giving Coleman and Seikaly fits? Back them, Jim Boeheim was a Fisher-like sympathetic figure in the national media eye…like Massimino and Carnesseca and Pitino.
Patrick Ewing was like truth serum for white America. Remember the signs that said: “Ewing can’t read dis.” The vitriol was so widespread and so deep that it was named Hoya Paranoia. If people feared Michigan, it was because they were young, brash, sexy, and “wild.” Georgetown was tough, rugged, powerful and they were led by a 6’10” black man who didn’t take shit from anyone. That’s the difference.
Patrick Ewing’s contributed the T-shirt under the jersey just as Michigan contributed baggy shorts. But, even that contribution to college ball has been overstated. The Michigan Wolverines of 1991 were definitely the first team to wear overly baggy shorts, but the 1989 Illinois Fighting Illini were the first team that I recall wearing longer shorts that were “cool.” The shift from Kenny Smith’s “Soprano Makers” to Jalen’s saggin’ shorts was more gradual than abrupt.
A low point in the progression to socially acceptable “man shorts”:
Stacey Augmon from 1990:
Take a look:
Nick Anderson and Lowell Hamilton are rocking their shorts just an inch or two above the knee…but their squad lacked the unity and coordination of the Wolverines just three years later. Steve Bardo was old-school with the mid-thigh look. Marcus Liberty and Kenny Battle didn’t come all the way down either. Kendall Gill used to rock long shorts. He’s missed the game in the linked posted above. Still, he, Anderson and Hamilton were onto something.
Georgetown also recruited successfully in Africa, without the powerful base of Nigerians residing in Houston which led to Akeem Olajuwon’s matriculation. They brought in Dikembe Mutombo whose contributions to the game and the continent continue to manifest and multiply.
Remember Boubacar Aw? Joseph Touomo?
And Georgetown continued to recruit students who faced challenges with the explicit goal of forming them into men of character. Foremost among those was Allen Iverson, who deserves his own chapter, but that discussion will have to wait. There was Charles Smith. That didn’t work out too well. Even Alonzo Mourning went through challenges while in school…and look at his legacy now.
Georgetown opened the door. Michigan knocked the hinges off. And knocking the hinges off an open door isn’t the same as opening a closed door…but it does matter. The Wolverines were the right team at the right time. They weren’t the first Black team to make a mark, nor for that matter was Georgetown. They weren’t the first team with swagger to make a mark. They were the first group of “kids” to do it all.
Michigan could not have done what Georgetown did because Steve Fisher was not John Thompson. Fisher was not John Brown either. Or even Dale Brown. There was no incendiary rhetoric railing against the exploitative prerogatives of the NCAA. There was nothing of the sort. Fisher was on too short of a leash. Some even questioned the extent to which Fisher coached the team. For all intents and purposes, many people in Detroit thought the Wolverines were “coached” by Jalen Rose and his former high school coach Perry Watson.
Universities like Michigan, Kansas (Danny Manning and his father Ed Manning (R.I.P.)) and others often hired elite Black head coaches from dominating urban high school programs as a means to recruit elite players. Black coaches became assistants who served as long as the elite player was enrolled, as were subsequently replaced. Watson’s career in Ann Arbor was concurrent with that of Jalen Rose, running from 1991 to 1993.
Whereas John Thompson could be cast in the role of African sage leading insurrections by leaps and bounds, Fisher was a mild-mannered accountant type…the type who needed to inquire about his wife’s whereabouts. Thompson, by contrast, was a giant. He played with Bill Russell. He was possessed of a powerful command of timing in his speech. He didn’t waste words. He didn’t mince words. He was cast in the same mold as Temple’s John Chaney, who let the world know that he would “kick your [bleeping] [bleep].” But Big John had size, he didn’t need volume. The towering prospect of an independent Black man like John Thompson molding young men was simply too much for America to handle.
Here is how Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick characterized Ewing, Thompson and Georgetown heading into a “Game-of-the-Century” matchup vs. the Virginia Cavaliers and Ralph Sampson back in 1982:
On occasion Virginia has displayed a kind of laid-back attitude that would seem to make it easy prey for the fearsome alley-clearing pressure defenses and stick-your-nose-in-it physical grinding of quicker Georgetown. That, of course, was last year, but the teams still seem to be made in the images of their coaches. Thompson, he of the intimidating size (6′ 10″, 300 pounds) and sometimes abrasive, confrontational manner, was often criticized last season for permitting his team’s, and especially his center’s, emotions to run rampant. This behavior was characterized by Ewing’s flying elbows and culminated when he put his hands in a stranglehold around the neck of a Columbia player. At the same time Virginia Coach Terry Holland, a lean, Ivy League-tailored 6′ 7″ (big games demand big coaches), was accused of letting his gentle nature influence the play of his team, creating a conservative, button-down team that too often lacked a killer instinct.
By that same measure, Georgetown needed to precede Michigan because they galvanized the viewing college basketball audience in ways that no one else could have. And, Michigan was not universally reviled like Georgetown. Fisher made sure of that, by simply being Steve Fisher — “a Michigan man” (in the words of Bo Schembechler).
If Michigan was a mix of N.W.A. and Public Enemy, Georgetown was Miles Davis – with their backs turned to the audience…insular and unconcerned. If Michigan was about the “show,” Georgetown was about the “time.” Yet, both earned chilly receptions from the national media, from “purists,” and from the regulators of the game. Both teams impacted rules, regulations and the administration of the game. Both teams drove ratings through the roof. Both teams pushed Nike to the center of the sports world before and coincident with the championship ascent of Michael Jordan.
Both meant something to Black America. Both still do.
These two teams fit one another like a hand and glove. Hill drew the connection between the two. Re-read his piece for the genuine nuggets of gold inside.
At Michigan, they represented a cultural phenomenon that impacted the country in a permanent and positive way. The very idea of the Fab Five elicited pride and promise in much the same way the Georgetown teams did in the mid-80s when I was in high school and idolized them.
And, don’t forget…don’t ever forget: