Last night I caught ESPN’s 30 for 30 installment, The Fab Five. The documentary chronicles the two years the University of Michigan men’s basketball team captured the imagination–and ire–of the sports watching public. I was a young kid when Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Chris Webber revolutionized college basketball and rocked my basketball-loving world, even more so than the Larry Johnson-led UNLV Runnin’ Rebels who came a few years before them. Growing up in basketball obessed Indiana, loyalities were given to either the Purdue Boilermakers or the Indiana Hoosiers. I had always been rather uninspired by the rivalry, couldn’t care less about Gene Keady or Bob Knight. But the Fab Five? I wanted to be their little tomboyish sister or something. I wanted the baggy shorts, the black socks, the black sneakers–that I had to convince my dad to buy me, because according to him, “girls don’t wear black gym shoes.”–and maybe even the bald head. The Fab Five documentary took me back to those inevitably heartbreaking two years when Jalen Rose was my favorite Fab Fiver and the Duke Blue Devils were exactly that–devils. Although the film primarily spoke to the part of me that never got over the Wolverines losing in the NCAA tournament, what also coalesced in the film was perhaps a incredibly pivotal moment in black cultural when desire for respect and the pursuit for respectability were abandoned, inevitably resulting into a hyper-commodified and commericialized black culture that has now reached an extremely nihilistic moment.
The literary work I do centers on late 20th century black culture and that surrounding it: racial integration, the rise of multiracial identity, the idea of post-soul, crack, Cosby,OJ, Rodney King. All that good stuff. Consequently, I find myself searching for a moment, or a set of moments that mark a shift in black identity and/or culture. What The Fab Five showed me was perhaps one of those shifts. The Fab Five emerges towards the end of the Cosby-era, if you will, and the beginning of hip-hop’s reign as the primary soundtrack to young American life. With their aforementioned sartorial choices, their playing style, their swagger, their youth, the Fab Five disrupted college basketball. They didn’t care about fitting in, or waiting their turn; they wanted to be their cocky selves and do things their way. This put them in stark contrast to Duke, for example, who, as Jalen Rose correctly asserts in the documentary, only recruited (and still only recruits from what I can tell), Cosby-esque black basketball players such as Grant Hill, who come from traditional, respectable family structures and solid middle-class backgrounds. The Fab Five cared nothing about appearing respectable, palatable to the NCAA or appealing to the American public. And this is what makes these young black men fascinating. Nothing in the portrayal of these young men suggests that they ever desired to be or make one think that they were “just like (white) America,” or that they were just so happy have an opportunity to be at an institution like the Univeristy of Michigan. Rather, they embraced the fact that they were the personification of the antithesis, and their popularity demanded that we paid attention to that. At this juncture, one could still theoretically not be familiar with rap music, but the Fab Five are on national television beating the mess out of people’s beloved alma maters. One would have to work much harder to avoid them, especially come March when 35 million people are glued to their televisions for the NCAA basketball championship. What America feared, in a sense, was on primetime–and their college campuses.
Of course, like everything else seemingly different and brand new, the marketplace took notice and immediately created products based upon the images of the Fab Five. I couldn’t be the little sister that I wanted to be, but Nike made sure that I could buy black socks and sneakers. The Fab Five recognized that they were being exploited–Nike, after all, was selling “Fab Five” sneakers that none of the Fab Five could afford to buy. They sold out arenas, but didn’t have gas money. They rebeled by wearing plain t-shirts instead of ones with the Michigan and Nike emblems prominently displayed. Yet America was already thirsting for a product that Nike was more than happy to provide. I had more than just the black socks; I had a Michigan warm-up, shorts, and a custom Michigan jersey in my wardrobe. It never occured to me that these young icons I admired were eating cereal for dinner some nights. They were just cool to me, and I wanted to be like them. I had yet to discover that capitalism assigned a price to cool and adjusted the market accordingly.
Such realities should hopefully compel us into reassessing the state of amateur athletes. I’ve mentioned this previously, but I think it bears repeating: a “free” college education is not sufficient payment for the revenue these young athletes generate for the institutions they represent, especially with such dismal graduation rates–in basketball in particular. Since most of us refuse to question the very odd idea that men and women are given athletic scholarships to academic institutions, perhaps at the very least we should demand an overhaul of the system. The NCAA remains one of the most hypocritical institutions in all of sports. The Fab Five’s two trips to the Final Four and other accomplishments were “erased” from the U of M record books once it was deteremined that Chris Webber had taken money from a U of M booster. The evidence is specious at best. Of course, none of the revenue U of M and the NCAA generated while Webber was a member of the Fab Five was returned. Appalling, indeed.
Above all else, last night I was reminded of why I love the Fab Five, why no matter how many times I watch the highlight and although I know the outcome, I pray that Chris Webber doesn’t call that timeout; that he passes the ball to Jalen and somehow they score. I love them for being young and black and arrogant and brave enough to be their brash selves. I love them for being revolutionary by just being themselves. I love them for recognizing how their images were being manipulated and fighting against it. (Such maneuvers seem like logical starting points for considering how/why so many young black men in hip-hop especially aim to self-exploit and -caricature for their own benefit.) I love them for being brothers above all else. And I’m glad they’re all still around to witness their iconic status.
If you see Chris Webber, be nice to him. He’s still hurting.
Fill out your bracket. Enjoy the tournament. Boiler Up! (I’ll always have a soft spot for Michigan basketball, but an alum is an alum.)