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The Impact Of Michigan’s Fab Five Was Even Greater Than You Think

Sportswriting often speaks about ephemeral events in inflated, grandiose terms. Just about all of us who love sports and attempt to write or speak about it are guilty of this at one time or another. Prisoners of the moment, we forget, as time passes, about the events that we once deemed so significant, the result of some combination of our collective societal attention deficit and the actual triviality of the events.

Two decades later, we can safely say that the advent of the Fab Five is not one of those events. If you’re reading this, you probably, no, you should already be well familiar with the story of five young men who changed college basketball forever. The baggy shorts, shaved heads, black socks. The playground ball, hip-hop and trash talk. These are all now so much a part of college basketball, and of basketball period, that no one bats an eyelid over them anymore.

As much as what the Fab Five brought made its way into the mainstream, controversy surrounding the Fab Five was reignited when the ESPN documentary aired in 2011, specifically pertaining Jalen Rose‘s comments describing his hatred for Duke basketball, what he felt the program stood for, and his feelings then about Duke’s Grant Hill. Rose’s comments not only reflect a question of cultural identity pertaining to race (which Michael Wilbon has written about here), but also the chasm between the cultural identities of the Fab Five and 1990s Duke basketball.

The aforementioned chasm was wide and bitter, largely due to what the two programs were perceived to represent. But today, you’d be hard pressed to find such distinctive cultural identities associated with any college basketball programs. Sure, there are still plenty of reasons to hate Duke basketball. But whereas the Fab Five/Duke clashes were cultural clashes, today’s college basketball rivalries are nowhere near such epic levels. Among the factors at work are what Khalid Salaam calls “the death of the ghetto superstar,” prevalent (and growing) cynicism about college sports, and changes in how sports are consumed.

In his piece on the death of the ghetto superstar, Salaam uses Kyrie Irving as an example of a player who exemplifies the move beyond demanding street cred from players. Duke has now produced a one-and-done who has thus far avoided the hate that usually follows former Blue Devils, thanks in part to his nasty game that’s just as at home on the blacktop as it is in Quicken Loans Arena. The criteria for what constitutes “proper” Duke basketball has been adjusted to pragmatically include what previously would have been decried as too flashy, too detrimental to the Duke identity.

Boundaries have been blurred, broken.

In fact, one of the Fab Five members already embodied some of that. Chris Webber grew up in a two-parent home and attended private school (this was before the heyday of private basketball academies, er, high schools like Montrose, Oak Hill, etc.), yet was an integral part of the Fab Five in both on-court play and the culture surrounding them. In fact, Webber was recruited by Duke (which, to Rose’s point in the film, is still problematic in that a player with Webber’s background could exercise “downward mobility” and go to Michigan, yet a player with Rose’s background did not have the “upward mobility” to go to Duke).

The boundaries have been blurred, too, in hip-hop, which the Fab Five helped make mainstream. Hip-hop’s brashest voice hails from the suburbs and is the son of a college professor, and a former teen actor is (mostly) getting away with a single titled “Started from the Bottom.” In hip-hop and in basketball, the blurring and breaking of boundaries have produced their own set complexities and problems, but it cannot be denied that the delineations that once existed are more easily transgressed.

When South Park dedicates an entire episode to an issue, you know that issue has reached prime status as fodder for cynicism, and college sports attained that with South Park’s “Crack Baby Athletic Association” episode. Short of total myopia, even the most rabid college sports fans are aware of just how dirty college sports is, and the cynicism has eroded loyalties and identities. Recognizing themselves as cogs in the moneymaking machine that is college sports, more players and coaches are keen to look out for their own interests in lieu of romanticized notions of tradition and loyalty. The transience of it all makes creating, establishing and maintaining a strong cultural identity in a college basketball program difficult.

The Fab Five fanned the flames of cynicism, both indirectly through the Ed Martin scandal, and also directly, through their realization that people were making bank off of them while their pockets remained light, and subsequent adoption of subversive acts, such as wearing blue warm-ups void of Nike and University of Michigan logos.

The way sports is consumed has changed, and this has not left tribalist sports fandom unaffected. This is the age of fantasy sports, on-demand highlights, and wide access. Fans are more informed about other teams than ever, and can bypass watching full games for highlight shows, thus engendering familiarity with a plethora of teams. Personal stories of players are told, and if we really do hate because we do not understand, the mass of information available makes it harder for fans to harbor hatred (well, I might change my mind on that point if I go look at the comment section of a given online sports article). Marketing focuses on individual players more than teams. The focus is no longer on a singular favorite team, but on individuals and the league as a whole (after all, there is more money to be found for networks and advertisers in broader consumption than the narrow market of single teams).

The Fab Five, cultural phenomenon that it was, de-centered team loyalties on a national level. Even if you weren’t a Michigan fan, but resonated with the Fab Five, then loyalties were suspended, or at least expanded to make room for the Fab Five. And when they disbanded, you probably didn’t stay a Michigan fan. Being a fan of the Fab Five was not the same thing as being a fan of University of Michigan basketball.

The climate that cultivated the cultural clash between the Fab Five and Duke has changed, and the Fab Five actually had a hand in changing that climate. They changed the way college basketball was played, the way players dressed and carried themselves; this we already know. But they impacted the climate and the lens through which we view sports as well.

Was the Fab Five’s impact overrated or underrated?

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