Editor's note: This column contains language some readers might find offensive.
I've known Grant Hill his entire basketball career, even before he went to Duke University, all the way back to when he was a high school kid in suburban Washington, D.C. I've worked with him at ABC and over 25 years come to admire not only his athletic achievements but also his intellect and sober good sense. If somebody ever finds good reason to one day compare my son to Grant Hill, I'd be thrilled out of my mind.
I've known Jalen Rose most of his basketball career, back to when he played at the University of Michigan, right up through his time with the Pacers and Suns, and I work with him now covering the NBA for ESPN. Over the past 12-15 years, I've come to admire not only his athletic success but also his remarkable ability to see beyond the extreme difficulty of his childhood and plot a life that will leave him and his children, should they choose, independent of sports. If somebody ever finds good reason to one day compare my son to Jalen Rose, I'd be ecstatic at him being a resourceful and persevering kid.
Trust me, Grant Hill and Jalen Rose ain't all that different. They're a lot more alike than they are dissimilar, even if they did come from different sides of the tracks. And right now, way too much is being made of the fact they did. Calvin Hill, Grant's father, was no more an "Uncle Tom" for providing every opportunity and advantage for his kid than Rose would be now for providing every opportunity and advantage for his. It's called achieving the American Dream, and the only real difference here is the Hills grabbed hold of it a generation before the Roses.
ESPN's documentary "The Fab Five" has received a ton of praise but was met with rebuttal Wednesday when Grant Hill, a member of the Duke team the Michigan players so despised, responded pointedly in a New York Times op-ed piece. Hill wrote, "I caution my fabulous five friends to avoid stereotyping" him and other black children from proud and high-achieving, two-parent households as others had stereotyped them. It's not only a reasonable request, it's the right one ... and let me go no further before identifying myself as very much like Hill, a product of a Huxtable-like two-parent home, private education and, relative to Rose's upbringing, privilege. And like Hill, I'm damn proud of it, just as proud as Rose is of the circumstances that produced him.
I understand why Grant Hill would feel upset that no attempt was made in the actual documentary, of which Rose was the executive producer, by Rose and Jimmy King specifically to distance themselves from what they thought when they were 18 years old and full of hatred for Duke. This is the heart of what Hill was getting at in his op-ed piece. Now, it turns out Rose has explained himself in subsequent comments, in tweets and in interviews, and he has said he no longer feels that way. Still, it should have been in the documentary, which was seen by many hundreds of thousands more people than saw posts on Twitter or other interviews on ESPN.
Still, except for the part where Calvin and Janet Hill were left hanging out there, depicted as anything other than the model parents that they are, the documentary and Grant Hill's response is part of a very necessary conversation, one which plays out in what I like to call Black World every hour of every single day in this country and has for the past 400 years. It sure as hell didn't start with basketball players; it started with the resentment that field niggas had for house niggas, and there will be no sanitizing of the term here because the feelings were even more raw than the language. It's a conversation most, though not all, white folks are unfamiliar with, one Spike Lee captured with both insight and humor in his movie "School Daze" including the differences between "good" and "bad" hair, and "talking" white. These are the primary elements of emotional and at times painful discussions that take place, sometimes between members of the same family, one set of children whose father bailed and the other set whose dad stayed and provided a life that in time led to an entirely different reality.
If you get a chance to see "The Fab Five," you'll notice what I think was an eloquent and passionate recognition of the jealousy Rose felt for Hill. Rose who very carefully says he resented not having what Hill had, as opposed to resenting Hill. It's a powerful moment. And perhaps in that expression Rose felt he had explained that he no longer holds the "Uncle Tom" feelings he did when he was 18. Regardless, "The Fab Five" is worth watching. And Hill's op-ed piece for The Times is well worth reading ... and since The Times did not publish the entire thing, you can read the uncut version right here.
Anyway, I'm not going to get into an in-depth examination of the "The Fab Five" here because I believe their contribution to modern-day basketball has been somewhat overstated, especially because Georgetown's cultural impact in the previous decade lasted longer and was 100 times greater. The important yield of the "Fab Five" for my tastes were Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose, in large part because they came from such deprivation and have, through work and ingenuity, made so much of their lives. (I purposely didn't include Chris Webber because he did NOT come from any kind of deprivation and to say he did does a great disservice to his father and mother, who worked productive careers and made good money by any standard of black life in America ... and anything you hear to the contrary is just junk. And it does not reduce Webber's considerable intellect and career successes one iota. It's just that Webber, like me, was a lot closer to Theo Huxtable than J.J. Evans in "Good Times.") Rose is one of the most well-respected and liked people at ESPN precisely because he works so diligently and has such a tolerance about him.
See, I know what Rose believes in now because that's a big chunk of what we talk about on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday and Friday nights in Bristol or at dinner after NBA games or at the cafeteria during lunch. Whatever Rose believed in 20 years ago, I don't care much about. What he believes in now includes increasing educational opportunities and pursuing new and diverse interests (read: interests beyond basketball). His passions and curiosities, ironically, are in many cases similar to Hill's. They both have an affinity for storytelling, which is why both have worked as executive producers before the age of 40. It's why both have worked in television and why both are good at it. They are both driven by education in general, specifically increasing the opportunities of poor children who don't ordinarily have them.
Jalen will just have to forgive me for telling this out of school, but he has taken millions of dollars of his own money to start a charter school in Detroit. He funds scholarships people have had no idea about, scholarships that have nothing to do with basketball or sports. He's fanatical about it, about self-determination, about ambition, about fatherhood. Same stuff Grant Hill cares about. Some would say these are conservative or "Uncle Tom" values. But you won't read that here. Jalen Rose is no more an "Uncle Tom" because he's rich and can bring about change with his dollars and his influence than Calvin Hill was for working his way through Yale while preparing himself for a career in football that continues through today in his work for the Dallas Cowboys.
The notion that there is one definition of "Blackness" is insidious and dangerous and too often promotes the notion that athletic achievement is "black" and academic achievement is "white." It's the intellectually lazy notion that has led too many in this generation of black men to believe athletic pursuits are somehow more worthy than academic pursuits and anybody who isn't with that school of thought is an "Uncle Tom" or less than fully black. It's the very thought that leads black folks of all ages to resent Duke basketball, in the same ignorant way we used to resent the Celtics, despite the presence of some of the smartest, most accomplished (and put upon) black people in America. Anybody who suggests that academic pursuit and blackness don't go together should be shouted down publicly.
Rose is involved in just such a pursuit now with his storytelling. His point of view, as anyone could hear during ESPN's MLK Holiday town hall meeting in Atlanta two months ago, is riveting. I've been encouraging Rose to branch out from basketball because his interests are too varied to be limited to any one thing. And in that way, for him to generate this kind of discussion is exactly what a documentarian is supposed to do.
In the meantime, the conversation essentially between Hill and Rose has to move beyond that, even beyond Duke and Michigan to something larger and more inclusive that is perhaps led by the sensibilities of Hill and Rose but focuses more on what they share rather than the little that separates them.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.