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'Uncle Tom' remark exposes pain in black community

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 18 2011 4:42 p.m. MDT

In this Monday, April 2, 1991 file picture, Duke's Brian Davis (23) leads the Blue Devils in celebration at the trophy presentation after winning their first-ever NCAA Final Four championship in Indianapolis. At left is Grant Hill (33) and at right is Christian Laettner (32).

The Associated Press

Jalen Rose grew up poor in Detroit, the son of single mom and an NBA player he never met. He helped transform basketball culture as a member of Michigan's iconic Fab Five team, then earned more than $100 million as a pro baller.

Grant Hill came up wealthy in the D.C. suburbs, the child of an NFL running back married to a corporate consultant. He helped establish Duke University as a paragon of success and virtue in college basketball, then overcame terrible injuries to enjoy a long NBA career.

So which one is the "authentic" black man?

The question may seem irrelevant. But when Rose said that he considered black Duke players like Hill "Uncle Toms" when he was a teenager, he exposed a sensitive and longstanding issue for many African-Americans: If blacks succeed in a white man's world, and do not conform to certain assumptions of how blacks should act, are they less black?

Rose's comment — aired Tuesday in an ESPN documentary Rose produced on the five black Michigan freshmen who rode their wave of talent, hip-hop style and trash talk to the 1992 championship game — inspired to a response from Hill on The New York Times website. Hill's riposte spent several days atop the Times' most-emailed list, and more than 96,000 people shared it on Facebook, stoking a free-wheeling debate on the Web and in print over which basketball star had the better point.

"I hated everything I felt Duke stood for," Rose said in the documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler. "Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms."

Hill responded that "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. ... 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."

Chandra Guinn, director of Duke's Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, said the argument went far beyond sniping between college hoops stars from decades ago.

"There are bigger issues here," she said. Among them: the denigration of children from single-parent homes, and adults damaging the self-esteem of black boys. Guinn also senses "a moment of revelation about black men's hurt. There's often a feeling of being 'less than.' It seemed to me that both of these men, for different reasons, have felt that way."

Duke junior Julius Jones resents suggestions that "success somehow challenges your blackness. That if you go to school, get good grades, matriculate to an elite institution, that somehow makes you less black."

Jones grew up in Portland, the son of an electrician and an accountant, and attended a majority white elementary school. In middle school, black kids saw Jones with white friends and told him, "You're an Uncle Tom, you don't want to be black, you talk white, you act white," Jones remembers.

When Michigan met Hill's Duke team for the 1992 championship, the Blue Devils were the clean-cut defending champs, and started three white players. Duke crushed the Fab Five by 20 points. ("I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five," Hill concluded his blog post, with a gentlemanly flourish of trash talk.)

Two decades later, Duke is still known as the rare school that mixes high academic standards and graduation rates — for both black and white players — and powerhouse basketball.

"The bottom line is this: (Duke does) recruit a certain type of player ... a lot of players from private schools," Rose observed while explaining his comments in an ESPN interview.

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