Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson y Chris Webber; aka
Photo by Vedia
Got a chance to watch the Fab Five documentary on Sunday. Watching it was a bittersweet experience, because I attended Michigan from 87-91 (undergrad) and then from 92-00 (grad). I was in my second year (pledging, incidentally) when the 1989 team won it all. I played ball with Loy Vaught, Glen Rice, and Demetrius Calip at the Central Campus Recreation Building (CCRB) (I sucked, and still do, but still…). I didn’t play ball with any of the five, but I remember when Chris Webber dunked so hard he broke one of the CCRB rims.

My last semester as a Michigan undergrad coincided with their first semester as freshmen (and I hung around for grad school afterwards). Remember partying with them after they made it to one of their Final Fours–damn near as soon as they hopped off the plane they came to an AKA party on campus. I wanted to take a little bit of time to unpack some of the aspects of the doc they couldn’t/didn’t.

The Fab Five accelerated a number of trends in college basketball. The first team to bring the black working class urban aesthetic to college sports was the University of Miami. Everyone knows sports is as much of a head game as it is a body game, and talking trash isn’t really new….but both the mode of black urban trash talk, and the way it was RECEIVED by a largely white consumer base was different. Race does not only change how people perform it changes how performances are perceived. The U brought expressive trash talking and aggressive celebration to modern college sports. The U was the first modern team to recruit black working class kids with “inner city aesthetics”. These kids weren’t street gangsters by any stretch of the imagination. But they hung OUT with street gangsters. And they were incredibly successful. They won games, but more importantly perhaps they won the hearts of literally tens of thousands of viewers who had never seen themselves represented that way on television, who had never seen people like them on that particular platform.

But this was football.

The UNLV Running Rebels were the first modern basketball team to introduce this aesthetic. And it’s no coincidence that their starting point guard, Anderson Hunt, attended Southwestern High (Jalen Rose’s alma mater). Jerry Tarkanian was the first modern coach to recruit black working class urban kids, as well as the first to mine the Junior College circuit for kids who could play but could academically qualify for D-1 (who tended to be…black working class urban kids). But this team wasn’t dominated by freshmen. Nor did UNLV have Michigan’s caliber.

So the Fab Five were in some ways the 3.0 version of the U. The 2.0 version of the Running Rebels.

But three inter-related things made the Five different in my estimation.

The first was Michigan. Michigan is one of the best universities in the country. Perhaps THE best public university. A number of its professional/graduate schools are in the top five. It has the largest alumni base on the face of the planet. Whereas the University of Miami’s football team MADE the U, and the Running Rebels MADE UNLV, at Michigan it was the other way around. Yes, a number of us–myself included–liked Michigan because of its football team. But their sports program only enhanced Michigan’s reputation as a world class university. Even though Detroit is only 35 minutes away geographically, Michigan was the last place you’d expect to find black working class urban culture.

Michigan had tradition.

The Fab Five’s presence at Michigan of all places? Severely disrupted that tradition. With their emphasis on team play–they were one of the least selfish teams of that era–they played “the Michigan Way”. But they didn’t perform “the Michigan Way.” Their performance evoked Detroit, Chicago, and the Fifth Ward, moreso than they evoked Ann Arbor. The way they expressed themselves on the court, whether it was how they talked, how LOUD they talked, their fashion–they were the first major college team to wear baggy shorts, the first to wear black socks, the first to sport all shiny bald heads–they represented a mode of blackness college sports hadn’t really seen before.

The second was the larger cultural transition.

Hip-hop is now America’s biggest cultural export. In some ways it is synonymous with popular culture. But twenty years ago? The rise of the Fab Five neatly coincided with the rise of hip-hop. By including Chuck D. and Ice Cube on the documentary they get at this a bit. They could’ve done much more. Here’s one way to think about it. Soundscan became the official way of tracking music sales the same year the Five got to Michigan. Before Soundscan, the official way of tracking musical sales was by calling a sample of stores and asking managers what their top sellers were. After Soundscan the sales were tracked from EVERY store, directly.

The two genres of music to benefit most? Rap and country-western. That year, Efil4zaggin debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, and one week later was #1. No one had any idea rap was now more than a niche black working class genre until Soundscan made it possible to directly track sales.

The mainstreaming of hardcore rap was a seismic shift in American popular culture. And it took a while for the rest of the country to catch up. The Five were, like black working class kids in general, on the cusp of the new trend. Do The Right Thing had only come out two years earlier. Malcolm X came out a few months after their loss to Duke. The Cosby Show was America’s favorite tv show, but as Jalen noted, the image of blackness Cosby promoted was NOT the image of blackness NWA promoted.

Here’s how far ahead of the game they were. Brent Barry wanted to play hip-hop at the 1996 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, five years after the Five entered Michigan. They refused. In the mid nineties Allen Iverson had no problem with having tattoos, but official NBA publications airbrushed them out. Remember, barely ten years before they came to Michigan the NBA was worried about being too black for America, forced to tape delay the NBA Finals. Now, college kids–high school kids even–are leaving for the NBA as soon as they can. Then? it happened, but they were the first group with the potential to come in as freshmen and LEAVE EN MASSE as sophomores.

Culturally speaking, within a short 20 year period America had gone from barely accepting the existence of black America, to relying prominently on black America for its social and cultural capital. And then politically, within twenty years America had gone from only having three black mayors (in Gary, Newark, and Cleveland) to having dozens…had gone from not having enough black congresspersons to having the Congressional Black Caucus. Just three years earlier Jesse Jackson garnered seven million votes in the Democratic Primary, causing many to wonder what he really wanted.

The third brings the first two together. Michigan as a campus was becoming blacker. Michigan’s racial diversity was the direct consequence of three different political movements led by black students. The first Black Action Movement occurred in 1969. The second Black Action Movement occurred in 1977. The third Black Action Movement occurred in 1986. Each movement led to a signal increase in black students, black staff, and black faculty. In 1987, my first year at Michigan, only one black fraternity (Kappa Alpha Psi) could routinely hold parties in the largest venue on campus (the Michigan Union Ballroom–capacity 500).

By 1991? We ALL could. What the Five brought with them, we brought to the campus. Whether we’re talking about the black nationalist events sponsored by the BSU, the largest MLK Day celebration in North America (the consequence of student protest in 1988), or even something like our Unity Dinners, where’d we all wear black and smart mob a random cafeteria (imagine 700 black students appearing randomly at a michigan cafeteria in all black….and silent).

The combination of all three things created significant tension among Michigan alumni, who felt–legitimately–that the tradition they associated with Michigan was under assault. Among sportscasters and sportswriters, who felt–legitimately–that their lauded tradition of proper “amateur athletics” was being undermined. The racist letters were one thing…but I distinctly recall a sportswriter from the Chicago Tribune calling the Five “black panther thugs”–this even though they never threw a punch, much less explicitly expressed black nationalist sentiment. And among whites who didn’t quite understand that America had always been multicultural, had always been a place of intense blackness. If anything America was catching up to itself.

The five helped that process along. Maybe they DID give Michigan a black eye. One like mine.

I wish they could’ve beaten Duke. They should’ve beaten UNC. But I barely remember who won the NCAAs four years ago, much less ten. I suspect that even if I didn’t go to Michigan, I’d have always remembered the Fab Five. They lost the big games, but in the end they won the war.