They didn't simply play the game, they changed it
Were they the brash, bald headed, baggy-short-sporting, black-sock-wearing, trash-talking, swagalicious, arrogant freshman that everyone loved to hate, or were they simply the greatest freshman class that was ever recruited? History has decided that they were a bit of both...this is the legacy of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five.
If we were seeking to tell the same tale that everyone is no doubt trying to recount this week, we could simply parse over the cosmetic details that surrounded Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. We could talk about how they officially brought Hip Hop into the arena of college basketball. Or how they started fashion trends surrounding their desire to look like their cultural heroes.
It would be an easy sell to just emphasize the black socks and sneakers that were so controversial at the time. We could examine all of the trash talking that went on from both the team and the critics and the impact that it had on the game.
But that has all been done. In fact, it’s been to death!
So instead, let’s take a look at the human factor surrounding this crew of phenoms that took the NCAA 1991-1992 season not just by storm, but by a whirlwind.
The first thing we must address is the way that these kids were recruited and why this was such a high priority for the U of M to have such a stellar Frosh squad. Upon winning the 1989 NCAA championship, newly minted head coach Steve Fisher’s coronation celebration with the team was short-lived, as the critics failed to swoon over his team’s victory as a result of him only being on the job for a few weeks prior to the win.
The streets insisted that it was a faux triumph as the 1989 team didn’t really belong to him. Fisher set out to find a squad that would not be tainted by the previous coach’s name and recruitment was the way to accomplish this goal.
Most people assume that the first guy that was eyed by Fisher and his staff was big man Chris Webber. But a suave baller from the South Side of the Chi was actually the first one recruited. Juwan Howard was supposed to eventually be the franchise player of the team. Little did they know he would also become a mini-recruiter himself in that he helped the coaching staff bring in the other four freshman that would become his brothers-in-battle for The U of M. Juwan actively called and spoke with the other players and, one by one, helped get them to commit to Michigan.
The next targets would be the two Texas talents, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Those three would eventually help weigh down the most sought after recruit in the nation, Chris Webber. And the four of them inevitably welcomed Jalen Rose to the roster. So, for all who thought Chris and Jalen were targets one and two: surprise! They were not. But, they were obviously just as important.
Next we must look at the impact these five youth had on the game itself. While everyone knows that college basketball is explosive because it is a literal audition piece for the NBA, these freshmen were able to take it to a brand of run-and -gun ball that had rarely been seen in the NCAA, save for the likes of Louisville's Doctors of Dunk, Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma and UNLV's Runnin' Rebels.
With Fisher’s grasp on the fundamentals and the Fab 5’s mastery of a rock-and-shock, rip-run-and-shoot style of ball, few could bob and weave through the one-two punches which lay in wait in the form of stellar defense and astonishing offense game after game during the regular season.
But when the psychological part of play was perfected by the start of tournament season, these explosive freshmen were basically unstoppable. And they knew it. They taunted and trash talked like none other. Those who didn’t bother to seek to understand why this occurred cringed and balked at their “unsportsmanlike” conduct. Conversely, many of their fans understood it immediately.
They were always the underdogs. So, in every game, people were waiting for them to lose even though they were the one’s with the hot hands every week. It was infuriating to both the squad and their fans. So, they played with heart and emotion every single time they took to the court. They were constantly being called upon to prove themselves and they were over it.
Lastly, they brought something that is thought to be taboo in college sports into the light. These kids were making money for the University of Michigan hand over fist, and yet they were starving. They were literally hungry. The fellas were barely getting by financially and yet they were seeing all of the money that was being made off of their hard work on the court changing hands time after time through merchandise and ticket sales.
None of it was making it over to any of the palms that were dribbling basketballs to earn it. The slap in the face that they felt as a result was strong, and the everlasting sting of this was hard to take for more reasons than one. Ironically, most fans never considered that when purchasing seats to see their games or jerseys to celebrate them. They felt they were being supportive, never understanding that the guys they loved were struggling to get by. The freshman didn’t speak out publicly like they could have and maybe even should have. However, rarely are they given any credit for this.
These five ballers changed the way the game was played. They affected how colleges recruited future teams and forever altered the look and feel of college ball.
Because of them, a more explosive brand of ball is played and it’s played in shorts that lend comfort to those playing it. But they were much more than gimmicks or aesthetics, and as they have been written down in history as the team with five rookies who made it to the big show in 1992, only to lose to Duke in the national championship game, they must also be remembered as the trendsetting taste-makers who gave a much needed metamorphosis and make over to the game at both the player and administrative levels.
Because they dared to be themselves, they inspired future generations to do the same. And the world of basketball should be eternally grateful for it.