As a good friend described it to me the other day, you’d think that NBA Allstar Grant Hill was running to be the first black Republican senator from Arizona.

ESPN’s recent documentary on the “Fab Five” Michigan basketball teams of the early 1990s was uncharacteristically candid. The keenest example was former University basketball player and NBA player Jalen Rose’s admission that, as a 17-year-old prep standout from Detroit, he was jealous of players like Grant Hill, who came from conspicuously wealthier backgrounds than his own. In his mind, that disparity explained why Hill was recruited heavily by traditional power programs like the one led by Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. That would have passed without incident except Rose also admitted that at that age he thought that black players like Hill, who went to places like Duke, were “Uncle Toms.”

I’m less interested in Rose’s use of that phrase than I am in the reaction it produced. Aside from the immediate chatter between the various talking heads of the extended ESPN media empire, Hill himself responded with a 1,000 word online op-ed for The New York Times. It was paean to hard work, bands of brothers and — with a wholly unnecessary Latin proverb — the value of character, struggle and self-improvement. It read like the flimsy, would-be Horatio Alger political autobiographies that always wash up in bookstores during presidential election years. It was breathtakingly inane. But in his rush to claim what he must have seen as the moral high ground, Hill made an ugly subtext of big-time college sports explicit; in doing so, he inadvertently proved Rose’s point.

College sports — big-time sports like Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball — have always embraced hard work as the ultimate arbiter between success and failure. You can see it everywhere during this time of the year: March Madness’s fundamental appeal is the idea that plucky upstarts can do anything they put their mind to so long as they work hard, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and confirm their dedication to the pursuit of excellence. Fans love this sort of thing, which is why people like Krzyzewski and the late John Wooden — whose “Pyramid of Success” can be found ironed to the jerseys of this year’s University of California, Los Angeles Bruins — can transcend the relatively pedestrian job title of “coach” in favor of something like “leader of men.” The difference between success and failure reduces to whether ‘Field Marshal’ Wooden can instill enough “self-control,” “industriousness” and “loyalty” in you before tip-off. Krzyzewski is a latter-day George S. Patton; Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is his Normandy. He’ll even tell you as much in his American Express commercial.

Embracing and extending this attitude are the alumni who watch the games, buy the merchandise and, for a select few, write the lucrative checks that support the largest and most successful programs. Many of them feel very passionate about the importance of “playing the right way” and believe strongly in the Krzyzewski party line that moral rightness is the secret to success. This allows people to start saying some very strange things about certain kinds of athletes under the premise that they’re just defending the integrity of the game. Cue the Rose-produced “Fab 5,” which found footage of no less an ambassador of the game than basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale grimly wringing his hands about the kind of message that the Fab Five were sending vulnerable American youth by wearing baggy shorts and listening to N.W.A. Allegedly serious and responsible people use their concern for the game as a cudgel to label certain players — players with family histories that look much more like Jalen Rose’s than Grant Hill’s — as malcontents, unsuitable for the leading lights of the sport-like Duke. That, essentially, is the polished, up-market version of the Fab Five hate mail that was arriving in Ann Arbor by the wheelbarrow load in 1992.

That was Rose’s argument, as he went on to explain to sports writer Skip Bayless (a man who once argued with a straight face that interracial marriages are a plus for black football coaches who want jobs with programs in the Deep South) in a separate television appearance. Coaches and programs have to cater to their benefactors, and some fan bases have little interest in recruits like Rose for reasons that have little to do with basketball.

It’s great that Hill views himself and his family as decent, hard-working people. What would be better is if he entertained the idea that Rose worked hard too, but only one of them was ever going to get a visit from Coach K.

Neill Mohammad can be reached at neilla@umich.edu.

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