I’ll take a step back, to draw relation to that year’s Duke vs. Michigan battle. Just one year before, Duke University beat the historic UNLV Runnin’ Rebels team. The image of Duke University, then and now, extends from their expensive private school heritage. That is to say that Duke emits an image of affluence, and affluence in America has been fairly racially monochromatic (I believe many would call that a gross understatement).
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels had Larry Johnson in 1991. Larry Johnson had a stylish center part in his fade haircut, and a flashy gold center tooth filling to boot—I’m guessing Johnson had a gap in between his two front teeth like my father and I, but I’ll leave the gold filling of that gap to my father and Larry Johnson, and just keep the David Letterman look for myself. If you want to find a person with a gold center filling in America, Duke University is not a good starting point. Places like the Southside of Chicago, Brooklyn, NY, New Orleans, and Dade County Florida are good starting points on the search for gold fillings, or even full gold dental fronts a.k.a. ‘gold grillz’.
If you pit a team led by a golden tooth warrior like Larry Johnson—I’ll mention for additional perspective that Johnson was an older junior college transfer—against a Duke team led by former Minnesota Timberwolf Christian Laettner, the less privileged type of minority regions mentioned in the previous paragraph are going to identify with, and root wildly for the golden grillz. This sensation is obviously not monochromatic, but people have been known to identify with people who reflect similarities to their own community. It’s human nature.
UNLV won the NCAA Championship in 1990 with a season of some of the most ridiculously lopsided thrashings of the last few decades. It seemed like they would double the points of each opposing team, and their defense was the absolute metaphorical definition of ‘suffocating’. Because of those powerful victories, and the golden grilled leadership, UNLV led off the 90s decade as ‘ghetto superstars’.
I myself was beyond fond of that UNLV team. I can remember the 1991 rematch of those two teams in the Final Four semi-final game as if it were yesterday. As a retirement gift, my father had received one of the first models of a handheld television. I watched that 1991 UNLV game in the chilly stands of a big-time high school track meet in San Diego. As the final race began, the 4x400relay, I stood on the side of the track watching the ending of the game. As the 3rd leg of our team came around the final turn, I still had the television in my hand catching the final moments of Duke defeating UNLV 79-77 in a nail-biter; though I should have been standing on the track awaiting the baton for the final leg. As I realized that UNLV was indeed going to shockingly lose that night, I stepped on the track, grabbed the baton, and took off in the most furious run of my entire life. The phrase “eating up the track” would have clearly applied to the angry digs my spikes took into that rubber track. I feel like the track must have looked like the pothole filled streets of Minnesota in April when I got done.
I’m sure that Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, and the rest of the Michigan Fab 5 have a crushing 1990 UNLV vs. Duke memory as well. That UNLV team meant something to black communities, in a similar, yet less potent way, as did victories of Jack Johnson, Mohammed Ali, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe and others. Rooting for Duke was mildly akin to a black person of the past rooting for Max Schmeling in a bout against Joe Louis.
Now I don’t use the adjective ‘mildly’ mildly. Oppression still exists, and for that matter, the late 80s in the Los Angeles region felt terribly oppressive. But 1980’s oppression was a definitive upgrade from 1930s oppression. 1930s oppression would perhaps have made a black man cheering for Max Schmeling to be called an ‘Uncle Tom’. 1990s oppression made my homies and I laugh at the one black kid in school with the Duke jacket and the lumpy flattop haircut.
At the end of the day, it was just great basketball, coupled with the undertones of race and class in America. You gotta love sports for tugging at those undertones, and allowing us to “get it out”. Grant Hill of the Duke team is no “Uncle Tom”, and I really feel the phrase has no place for use at all. Grant Hill was just a “punk a** rich kid”, and now most of the Fab 5’s kids could be called that too…and we have to love them all the same.