Who were these five basketball-playing Muhammad Alis with no resume?
When the 1993 Wolverines walked onto the court wearing black socks to match their black shoes, jaws dropped. Everyone knew already that the five sophomores playing tremendous basketball: they’d gone to the NCAA Finals the previous year, as a squad of starting freshmen. And everyone knew they’d been wearing long, baggy shorts, cool and young and brash. But this was something else again, a calculation and a declaration: the Fab Five knew who they were.
The black socks, recalls Jalen Rose for The Fab Five, the ESPN documentary that premiered 13 March to coincide with the start of March Madness, were exactly that. The team had been alternately acclaimed and vilified during their freshman year. Jason Hehir’s movie shows how they came together, recruited by the University of Michigan, starting with Juwan Howard. Once he was signed—and felt welcomed and cared for by the coaching staff—he went on to become “the mastermind behind everything,” according to guard Ray Jackson. Howard helped coach Steve Fisher and assistant Brian Dutcher to bring in Jackson and Jimmy King (both high school stars in Texas), and then Detroit natives Chris Webber and Rose.
The team they made together is justly famous. While the film doesn’t detail what each player brought to the game—how Webber performed as power forward or Jackson at the 2—it does allude to a kind of chemistry among them, as well as their mutual ambition. They were unselfish players, they took pride in one another, and, they appreciated their unusual circumstance when, at a game against longtime school rivals Notre Dame, Coach started all five freshmen, “These kids wanted to win,” sums up assistant coach Brian Dutcher. “High school kids weren’t going to the NBA yet,” and so Michigan was able to assemble five top recruits in one class. Rose (who produced the film) asserts, “This was the start of the revolution: it just so happens that this revolution was televised.”
The film underscores this process, both the televising and its costs. The kids were on TV, they were stars and good at it (“It was like going on the road with the Jacksons,” says assistant coach Perry Watson), and soon, the pressure intensified. Webber (who declined to appear in the film) reveals in archival video that even as a star at Detroit Country Day School, “I felt bad or guilty because I was being overworked by a lot of things, not just basketball, but by the media or just by people.” Rose recalls that he came to the Wolverines with attitude. “I hated Duke,” he says. “Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.” Here the film turns to Grant Hill, from what Rose calls a “great black family,” including a mother who roomed at college with Hillary Clinton. Rose says he resented that his own mother “busted her hump for 20 years,” and that he never knew his father, a professional athlete (like Hill’s).
Rose’s story may or may not stand in for the stories of his teammates, but a montage of their one-word evaluations of the Blue Devils (i.e., “I thought Christian Laettner was soft”) suggests they share his idea that “They are who the world accepts and we are the world rejects.” The Fab Five embraced this notion, embodying something like a generational rebellion: they listened to hiphop (and were asked about it by reporters who were not listening), they had tattoos, and they talked smack on the court and off. The Detroit News’ Brian Burwell provides a context: “Trash-talking in sports, from the playground was never about getting in your face, it was about getting in your head and that’s what these kids were doing.” Still, “It got distorted by people who weren’t familiar with what they were saying.”
At the same time, they were winning games—56 all together, over two seasons. This made them objects of admiration as well as anxiety. King observes they were “Five black kids from the inner city at a university that prides themselves on being very traditional.” As rumors spread that Fisher wasn’t disciplining his players (Rose corrects this story, saying he just didn’t do it “in a public forum,” only “behind closed doors”), the coach and players were receiving hate mail—explicitly racist hate mail (Fisher recalls, sadly, “And [the writers] proud to say that they were Michigan grads”). Howard says that through this experience, “We became even closer as a family.”
They became closer still when the team lost to Duke in the ‘92 finals, and Coach took them to Europe for 16 days, where they played teams in Italy and France and discovered a wider world. Rose says now that, despite their lack of appreciation for the differences they encountered (video shows them complaining like homesick kids), “One thing about the Europe trip, it made us feel like pros, it didn’t make us feel like college kids anymore.” That is, it “made us pay attention to the business aspect,” as they came to see that “Somebody’s getting paid and it’s not us.”
Thus, when they came back as sophomores, the team was no longer just thrilled to “be there,” but now they were self-aware. They—like so many other college athletes before and since—saw the university and other institutions were profiting from the sales of tickets, gear, and other branded merchandise. “Exacerbating the immense pressure” in 1993, says the film’s narrator, “was their belief that they were now cogs in a money-making machine. They resisted as they could, and as a team, Rose remembers. They put on “plain blue shirts that didn’t say ‘Michigan’ and didn’t say ‘Nike,’ didn’t say anything.”
If this “silent protest” didn’t precisely benefit the Fab Five, it makes a compelling point in the documentary. Again and again, college teams—football, basketball, baseball, softball, and more—become revenue sources for the schools. In this apparently ever-expanding industry, coaches are paid millions, schools profit, and players are expected to pay for free—officially.
The word “scandal” is attached to discoveries of any sort of seeming payment to players: in the case of the Ohio State football, players were suspended for selling merchandise reportedly belonging to them, and coach Jim Tressel—who knew about it and didn’t report it—was fined and suspended two games. Most recently in college basketball, UConn coach Jim Calhoun has been suspended for three Big East Conference games next season (not during this year’s tournament), because a player was paid by a booster.
And in the case of the Fab Five, booster Ed Martin was accused of paying players and Fisher was fired, in 1997. In 2002, the school took down the banners and jerseys recalling the team’s triumphs of 1992 and ‘93 (both years, they went to the Final Fours) and placed the basketball program on two years’ probation. The team members split over their accounts of what happened. Rose here explains that the payments were not extravagant, that Martin’s contributions were part of a system in place not only to recruit stars but to help kids without a lot of resources get through school. It’s the sort of explanation that makes sense, the sort of activity that likely occurs frequently. College athletics programs and school administrations need to be honest about what they do with the money they make. They need to stop pretending their players are not working.