As I watch the promo.’s and commercials for ESPN’s upcoming “Fab 5” documentary, I’m remembering just how cool this all really was. And the bulk of the fascination has to do with the timing.
I was at the height of my sports infatuation – 7th/8th grade – when this remarkable group burst upon the scene. At 13, I was just getting to the point where I was old enough to truly understand and consume sports, yet I was still young enough that nothing had been spoiled for me. I was blissfully ignorant, and was enjoying seeing the sports world through Jalen Rose-colored glasses.
This was long before politics, scandals, and off-the-court/field incidents took college athletics from the Sports Page, to the Front Page. Coaches were still good guys, the players were the cool kids, and the teams still existed as tight-knit units. And nowhere on the sports map was this more clearly seen than in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Complete with baggy (alright, obscenely baggy) yellow shorts, and black athletic socks, they brought something to the table we’d never seen, the likes of which we’ll probably never see again. This is what I meant when I talked about timing.
You see, part of the magic and mystique surrounding the Fab 5 was how they seemingly just arrived. Nowadays, in an internet world that hangs accolades on pre-pubescent ballers long before their 12th birthdays, their is no element of surprise. Sure, true hoops aficionados probably had a young Chris Webber on their radars. But without the spotlight of the 24-hour News Cycle, most of us were in the dark. And when these kids (remember, they were all about 18 years old) showed up at Michigan in 1991, the prevailing question was “Who are these guys?”.
The answer, simply: They are the Fab 5. Five freshman studs sent to dominate the world of college basketball. Remember, this was long before “1-and-done” was the traditional motto and mantra of incoming recruits. These were still the days when upper-classmen ruled the game, when senior leadership and experience were the keys to a season’s success. Instead, Head Coach Steve Fisher tossed his keys to five 1st-year players, trusting they’d motor Michigan all the way to the promised land. And they almost did…twice.
Michigan’s Fab 5 reached the NCAA Title game two years in a row, in 1992 and 1993, before Chris Webber broke up the band and headed to NBA after his sophomore season. Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard left a year later, while Jimmy King and Ray Jackson stayed the full four.
And though the group that amounted to arguably the most tremendous recruiting class of all-time never took the title, they did take the nation by storm, leaving a footprint that could only have been made through the help of their trademark dark socks.
To a 13-year-old kid, loving hoops and sports in their earliest, purest forms, the Fab 5 were nothing but cool. They had cool names, like Jalen and Juwan, King and Jackson. They wore cool numbers, like 4 and 5, and sported cool, matching sneakers. Never before had the color yellow looked so cool as it did when these 5 freshman took the court together.
And, oh, by the way, they had game. Serious game. This wasn’t a case of style without substance. There was enough substance to fill three recruiting classes, let along just this one. Four of the players went on to the NBA. Webber was a bona fide star during his heyday, Howard is still playing, and Rose is a recognizable national analyst.
And as ESPN readies to airs it’s most recent 30 for 30, nearly 20 years after their last game together, one wonders how the Fab 5 are remembered today?
Well, I guess that depends upon who you ask.
Many will remember Webber’s infamous time-out call which sealed North Carolina’s Championship in 1993 (and sealed my victory in the infamous Moore Business Forms office pool).
Others are quick to refer to the scandal the players left in their wake, resulting in forfeited victories, and a tarnished image.
But when it comes to changing the game, leaving a mark, making a statement, and doing it all with flash and flair, the Fab 5 were like none other.