- The Fab Five (2010)
It is now commonplace in NCAA Division I men’s basketball for the best players to leave for the National Basketball Association (NBA) as early as they can; hip hop has firmly established itself as the sport’s preferred soundtrack; and baggy shorts are now the norm. This was not the case in 1991, when most players stayed with their college teams for their entire four years of eligibility, hip hop had not yet established itself as a fixture of mainstream popular culture, and most players’ shorts ended well above their knees. Jason Hehir’s ESPN Films-produced documentary The Fab Five examines how the University of Michigan’s 1991 recruitment class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson—a dynamic and stylish group popularly known as “The Fab Five”— propelled college basketball’s transition into its current form.
The Fab Five led Michigan to both the 1992 and 1993 National Championship games, which it lost to Duke University and the University of North Carolina respectively. While the Fab Five never won a championship and Michigan was eventually constrained to vacate the group’s most significant NCAA tournament victories amid allegations that several players received money from boosters, the film argues that the quintet’s cultural [End Page 489] impact transcends wins, losses, or scandal. The all African-American Fab Five played with a style heavily influenced by urban hip hop culture. They were trendsetters who sported baggy shorts, black shoes and socks, and shaved heads. Furthermore, they incorporated an outspoken swagger, penchant for trash talking, and sense of showmanship into their play that excited many young fans while outraging traditionalists. The majority of the documentary consists of interviews with the players (each member of the Fab Five except for Webber participated in the film), coaches, and various commentators who discuss the team’s rise to prominence and its influence on the history and culture of college basketball.
The film repeatedly emphasizes the Fab Five’s position as part of hip hop culture and how it both built from and amplified the form’s rising popularity during the early 1990s. While the production accurately identifies the Fab Five’s intimate connection to hip hop culture, it overestimates the team’s importance to popularizing the relationship between sport and hip hop. For instance, just one week after The Fab Five’s premiere, HBO Sports— ESPN’s primary competitor in the television sports documentary genre—released The Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, which focuses on the scandal-laden University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) basketball program that won the National Championship in 1990 and lost the 1991 title game. While the HBO Sports documentary gives most of its attention to the controversies surrounding UNLV’s program, it makes many of the same claims regarding the team’s relationship to urban African-American and hip hop culture that The Fab Five makes about the University of Michigan team that emerged one year after UNLV’s second trip to the NCAA Championship. Along similar lines, the 2009 ESPN Films production The U asserts that the University of Miami’s football program during the 1980s and 1990s established links between college sports and hip hop and played with an uncommonly confident swagger. While neither of these films necessarily contradicts The Fab Five’s argument, they do suggest that the University of Michigan’s basketball teams were not without precedent. Michigan’s Fab Five did not establish the connection between college sports and hip hop but rather intensified an increasingly familiar relationship between these two sites of American culture.
Related to but more persuasive than the links it draws between the Fab Five and hip hop, the film discusses the team’s place within the racial politics of college basketball during and beyond the early 1990s. The production notes how the University of Michigan’s mostly white fans simultaneously celebrated the Fab Five’s success while expressing discomfort with the group’s racialized style of play and demeanor. The racial tension surrounding the Fab Five’s position in NCAA...