Friday, April 1, 2011

THE FAB FIVE: I'll see your "Uncle Tom" and raise you a Stepin Fetchit

For the first time in years, the legendary Michigan 'Fab Five' has been in the news this month, mainly due to an episode in ESPN's "30 by 30" "documentary" film series.

"First time in years," because basically nobody has been doing much thinking about the FF, except as footnotes to the end of the NBA careers  of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. Juwan Howard, the only remaining member of the FF still playing, currently sees mopup minutes off the bench for the Miami Heat (in some ways an NBA version of the FF) and, at 38, may well be in his final season.

The FF only really existed, of course, during the 1990-91 and 92-93 seasons, since Webber bolted for the NBA following the 1993 NCAA title game, followed by Rose the next season, so the entire unit (Webber, Rose, Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson) only played together for two seasons.

Children born any time after the NCAA title game are now 18 years old, and the majority have either graduated from high school or will shortly.  So basically anybody playing high school basketball now has only seen the FF on video or in history books.

Of course, you can't find any of this out by looking in the official NCAA record books, since the records and statistics of games involving Webber were vacated by U-M following revelations in a federal perjury case that he had accepted over $300,000 from booster Ed Martin. (A professional gambler, by the way. We'll leave that one -- the VERY curious endings of both NCAA final games involving the FF -- alone for now.)

As usual in propaganda/puff pieces covering the FF, the ESPN production (partially financed by Rose, a commentator on the network) claimed they had "dramatic" and "enduring  impact" on the game of college basketball.

Rose has kept the publicity bandwagon going with a public feud with Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, charging that the Blue Devils only recruit players Rose described as "Uncle Toms."

(After a firestorm of criticism, Rose backed off -- a bit -- from the comments, carefully noting the "Uncle Tom" epithet was what he "used to think" as a callow 17-year-old. Subsequent TV and radio appearances clearly indicate that whether or not he has given up flinging "Uncle Tom" at players like Grant Hill, he still finds the whole thing just utterly hilarious.)

Well, let's see. In the program, the FF is lionized for introducing:
  • Shaved heads
  • Baggy shorts
  • Hip-hop music
  • Brash rebellious attitudes, especially toward coaches
  • Exciting slam-dunk basketball
  • Black shoes and socks
OK, let's run down the list.

Yul Brynner could tell you that shaved heads were hardly invented by the Fab Five.
So could Jack Johnson, who won the world heavyweight title in 1908.

Now of course it's not likely kids in the 1990s knew too much about Jack Johnson. (I didn't learn anything about him until I was 13-14, but that was 20 years earlier). But there was another guy a little more contemporary who was making shaved heads fashionable somewhat earlier than the FF.

I lived through the 1980s, and I can tell you, after the skimpy shorts we all sported in the mid-1970s, shorts were getting looser and longer throughout the decade. And guess who was leading the charge? Why yes, our old friend Michael Jordan.

That's Jordan from 1987, when the FF was still in junior high school. No, he's not sporting floor-dragging skorts we've seen in recent seasons, but those are definitely moderately droopy drawers.

Hip-hop music didn't exactly erupt on the world all of a sudden in 1992 either. Ever since the days of Grandmaster Flash about the turn of the 1980s, through Run-DMC and Public Enemy mid-decade, hip-hop was pretty much the soundtrack of choice around any basketball court. Here's one from 1988, when the FF were freshmen in high school.

"Brash rebellious attitudes" were first reported in the year 87,864 BC when teenage cave dweller Urggh-Unk, in response to the seasoned savvy savannah hunter Glaaghh-Arrgh lecturing him on the right way to hunt mastodons, told the old man to take a hike and go sit in the cave.

"Exciting slam-dunk basketball" is especially a fiction, because the FF did not really play exciting slam-dunk basketball -- they played sagging, collapsing, double-the-post defense (really more like a zone). A half-dozen times a game they would run a fast break, but more often they walked the ball upcourt and tossed it in to Webber or Howard in the low post.

They didn't invent it either, but here was some real fast-break basketball from when the FF was still in high school:

And some more exciting fast-break basketball from when they were in grade school:

Finally, the FF is remembered -- probably more than anything else -- for supposedly introducing black shocks and shoes to basketball. The problem with that is, when I was in high school in the mid-1970s, several high school teams in the mid-Michigan area wore black shoes and black socks, as a tribute/salute to the 1968 Olympics medal-stand demonstration by Tommie Smith and Lee Carlos. A lot of people didn't like it, but they did it anyway.

Through the years, I always thought the Fab Five had been doing the same thing: wearing black shoes and socks as a protest to advance the cause of equality.

Well, guess what? It turns out, as reported by the FF documentary, the Fab Five wore black socks for one very simple reason: NIKE told them to. To sell shoes (and socks).

Yes, NIKE. A billion-dollar company, run by Phil Knight, most definitely a white man.

Like "Uncle Tom," there's a term for black people who jump at the command of rich white bosses.

Let me introduce you to Stepin Fetchit.

And so much for those pioneering trailblazers, the Fab Five.


Blogger Michael said...

Nicely done, Joe. In a way, I think the Fab 5 was the first time I'd ever learned that recruiting was such a big deal. Despite all the goofiness, going to the finals in their first two years is still something to marvel at. Even then, there have been much better teams. I still don't remember any highlights from Rice and King, and they seemed especially disappointing in those finals games. But my memory gets hazy.

April 1, 2011 at 3:39 AM 

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