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Thursday, March 17, 2011
The real story: There's work to be done

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

Grant Hill's op-ed in the New York Times is extremely thoughtful.

It is passionate without being hyperbolic, and the kicker about never losing to the Fab Five was priceless.

And had he written it 20 years ago -- while Jalen Rose and the rest of his crew were busy calling him a "bitch" and an "Uncle Tom" -- it would have been the perfect response to their rhetoric.

But that was then and this is now.

Everybody involved is staring down 40, so despite the passion and thoughtfulness of Hill's words, I can't help but feel the dude blew it.

Grant Hill/Jalen Rose
Jalen Rose, left, and Grant Hill competed on the court for years. Off the court, their efforts and aspirations are similar.

Don't get me wrong, Hill did an excellent job of defending himself and the other black players in Duke basketball history. But the thing is, he didn't have to defend anyone. That's because while Rose's comments may have singled Hill out, at their core they were never really about Hill or Duke. They were about Rose and those of us like him -- yesterday, today and sadly tomorrow.

The real problem is that what a 17-year-old Rose said about his frustrations as a poor, black kid in the inner city back in 1991, had been brilliantly set to music in 1971 by the late, great Marvin Gaye and is still being said 40 years later in 2011: "What's going on."

That's not a question, that's a statement.

On the surface, Rose may have been dogging Hill in "The Fab Five" documentary, but what he was really doing was telling the world what the hell was going on in places such as Detroit, Baltimore, Philly, where the combination of systematic racism and self-destructive behavior was sucking the air out of the black community, fostering the crabs-in-the-barrel mentality echoed in Rose's words. The 38-year-old freely admits the reason why the college freshman version of himself despised the black players at Duke in general, and Hill specifically, was because in his mind they had it good. They had fresh air and up to that point of his life, having fresh air was not a part of his experience as a black man. And it isn't a part of the black experience for a lot of 17-year-olds today, not when high school graduation rates for blacks are below 50 percent and black men make up 40 percent of all inmates.

The discussion isn't whether or not Hill is an "Uncle Tom" but rather why so many young brothers in Rose's situation can't -- and even worse, won't -- breath.

The most poignant words spoken in the Fab Five documentary weren't the inflammatory ones spoken by Rose or Jimmy King or Juwan Howard, but by Bryan Burwell. He called out Chris Webber for being a fake gangsta the way B. Rabbit called out Papa Doc on stage in the final rap scene in the movie "8 Mile."

"You went to Cranbrook -- that's a private school," rapped the character played by Eminem. "What's the matter, dog? / You're embarrassed? / This guy's a gangster? / His real name is Clarence / Now Clarence lives at home wit both parents / And Clarence parents have a real good marriage."

Like Clarence, Webber went to private school and came from a two-parent home, and everyone who lived in Detroit during that time (not "metro Detroit area" but "Detroit Detroit") knew Webber wasn't rich but he was a good kid. And like Clarence, Webber felt the need to project an image counter to the way he actually grew up likely because it wasn't street enough. It wasn't ghetto enough. It wasn't black enough.

That's understandable. By the time Webber entered the NBA draft, popular black culture had moved from Malcolm X baseball caps and African medallions to the marketing of street cred and poverty. The black experience Gaye decried in 1971 was being packaged and sold in 1991. Now, all of a sudden, suffocation was a desirable commodity and the black community began dying from a money-driven version of asphyxia.

Many rejected success as inauthentic and emulated those who projected a cartoon version of a life with no air. Decades of racism certainly limited black access to crucial resources such as education, but in March 2011, failure is maintained by acceptance of such nonsensical notions that to be black is to struggle and blackness is finite.

Rose said part of the reason why the Five hated Duke so much was because the school didn't recruit black players like him. The irony is Webber -- the centerpiece of Rose's team -- had the kind of background Duke seems to love. This is why the school heavily recruited him. This is why Burwell said Webber never seemed comfortable in his own skin. This is also probably why Hill felt the need to defend himself. He never tried to project a thug image, and as a consequence, Rose was hardly the first person to question his blackness. Now, calling Hill a "Tom" because he went to Duke makes little sense to blacks who have been exposed to the entire lexicon of the American experience. But for the Roses of the world, those who have not traveled outside of the area code where they were born, or who have not graduated from high school, how can Hill be viewed as anything but?

Is that ignorant? Yes.

Now what?

If the conversation ends there, the numbers for the black community will continue to spiral downward. Hill and Rose know there's work to be done and are both heavily involved in programs that help others. Let's talk more about that. And instead of name-calling over stuff said in a locker room 20 years ago, I would like to see Hill, Rose and ESPN do a follow-up discussion addressing the cultural state of emergency that prompted the words to be said in the first place.

Hill's op-ed made for a great read, "The Fab Five" documentary was a good watch, and at this point, everyone involved knows better.

Now I just hope they hug it out and get back to the work of helping the black community figure out what's really going on.