Like most of college basketball-loving America, Jeremy and I both watched ESPN’s “Fab Five” documentary on Sunday night. The film took me back to the peak of my sports fandom. As a die-hard Duke basketball fan, I was intrigued by the Fab Five in 1992, but I don’t remember having a visceral reaction. A year later, I was avidly on board with them. The documentary was a reminder of their singular on-court style and deeply challenging off-court style.
Since Sunday, the film’s racial politics have touched off debate. Most of the discussion has centered on the Fab Five’s racially tinged comments about Duke. Specifically, there’s been a lot of dissection of Rose’s assertion that the only black players Duke recruits are Uncle Toms. In the classic sense, Uncle Toms are black men who ingratiate themselves to whites. As Grant Hill points out in his rebuttal, Rose’s Uncle Tom seems to be something else: a black man with no discernible black qualities. Hill appears as the film’s chief example, although none of the Fab Five directly accuse him.
(I’m wondering when a certain Michigander will weigh in on this. I’d imagine plenty of big thoughts on this are floating around in that wrinkly head.)
Rose’s teammates — Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard — spoke harshly of Duke. And hilariously: Christian Laettner was a b****. But their name-calling fell within the realm of generally accepted competitive trash talk. Rose went farther, launching a political attack against Duke’s recruiting practices. I hesitate to take his comments seriously now. As mentioned elsewhere, Rose was acknowledging his feelings from 20 years ago, not necessarily stating a current opinion.
The Uncle Tom discussion was one of many points where I wished Chris Webber had been involved.
Webber’s high school experience — he attended the overwhelmingly white and wealthy Detroit Country Day — was probably pretty similar to Hill’s. The documentary alluded to some race-based insecurities that created for Webber. Given that, and Webber’s self-awareness, I wonder if his current take on Duke may have been more nuanced. In a Monday blog post, Webber largely comes down on Rose’s side, although he also does a fair amount of equivocating.
Webber, of course, was nowhere to be found in “The Fab Five.” He declined repeated requests to appear in the documentary. His reasoning isn’t clear, but participating would have required discussion of some toxic topics for Webber — the timeout against North Carolina and the Ed Martin scandal.
But I also wonder if some old Fab Five power dynamics played into Webber’s decision. Rose was billed as executive producer, a credit he did not share with the rest of his teammates, who were each credited as producers. Rose was also the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, appearing in several interviews and on Bill Simmons’ podcast. Rose’s production company, Three Tiers Entertainment, was a partner in making the film.
Given the harsh things Rose has said in the past about Webber, particularly Webber’s disingenuous handling of the Ed Martin scandal, I wouldn’t be surprised if Webber bridled at being a featured player in Jalen’s history of the Fab Five.