• Jay Christian

Leaders of the New School

In 1992, I was a lanky fifth grader living a pretty mundane existence in Midland, Texas and playing YMCA basketball. What’s crazy is that in the 25 years since, I still remember two things about playing ball that season. First, my team was comprised almost exclusively of guys from my neighborhood.

Even though we were all on the same team, we did not all get to play together for most of the game because back then, as is the case now, the YMCA had strict substitution patterns to ensure every kid got to play. However, the fourth quarter was a different story. There were “free subs” in the fourth quarter, meaning the coach was free to play whoever he wanted. Every fourth quarter, our coach would let us ditch the game plan in favor of our free-flowing collaborative style honed on our neighborhood blacktops, a style for which he affectionately (with a hint of code) called “street ball”. More times than not, when “street ball” was deployed, it was a wrap for the other team.

I bring up this random Y basketball story to get to my second memory from that season – socks. Specifically, black Nike ankle shocks from Foot Locker. My whole team had them because our idols, the “Fab Five” – the University of Michigan’s basketball freshmen starting five comprised of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King -- rocked black Nike socks. And to a bunch of hayseeds from the Permian Basin, the Fab Five was the coolest thing we’d ever seen on a basketball court.

Actually, the Fab Five had several signature looks but we landed on socks out of necessity. First, none our mothers would let us shave our heads at the tender age of 11, so that idea was out immediately. Also, back in the era of the YMCA furnished cotton t-shirt jersey, there were no maize and blue color options (we chose the navy “jerseys” as a compromise). Hip-hop fashion was still in its infancy, so cultural appropriation had yet to reach the point where we could sport baggy shorts in a YMCA basketball game, in West Texas of all places. Black socks were subtle and available, so black socks it was.

25 years later, I still remember watching the Fab Five as a kid in my tiny Texas town. I would comb through my dad’s Sports Illustrated magazines looking for box scores and features about the team. I’d watch highlights on SportsCenter until I passed out and then re-watch those same highlights in the morning before school. I wore out my copy of Mitch Albom’s classic, The Fab Five, reading and dogearing the pages in that book so much so that I know the last bit of trash talk uttered in the Fab Five era was delivered by none other than current Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. (For those of you wondering, Pelinka approached North Carolina’s Pat Sullivan prior to a pair of crucial free throws and implored him not to “nut up”.) That’s how big of a Fab Five fan I was and I am not the only one.

The Fab Five may not be the best college basketball team in the last 25 years, but it is the most important. Their cultural influence is not relegated fashion. For all the kids they inspired to wear black socks in youth league games, they also impacted both the modern college and pro games in ways that are still being felt today. From the One and Done rule to the rise of LeBron James, the Fab Five’s shockwaves are still reverberating. With all due respect to the preceding Jerry Tarkanian UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and any other high-flying collection of collegiate talent hastily thrown into the discussion for argument’s sake, there was never anything like the Fab Five before they arrived. And in 25 years, there has never been anything like them since.

They were confident, talented, young and black --- a combination of characteristics that did not sit well with the paternalistic world of collegiate athletics and the outlets who cover it. Prior to the arrival of the Fab Five, freshman, talented or not, were supposed to sit and wait. This idea went well with the marketing strategy of the college game at the time, which was to showcase the larger than life coaches who patrolled the sidelines. Names like Knight, Smith, Krzyzewski and Thompson. These were the real stars of college basketball in 1992. The players were chess pieces; disposable and interchangeable and most of all grateful to have the opportunity just sit at the feet of such legendary figures.

At least that’s what they were prior to arrival of a gifted recruiting class on the Ann Arbor campus in the fall of 1991. The Fab Five refused to wait, their confidence stemming from their highly sought after talents and the world in which they came of age. Drawing influence from the growing hip-hop universe that was showcasing young black talent on a daily basis, the Fab Five asked why not them and why not now. Sorry, that’s a typo. They didn’t ask for anything; they demanded that the world recognize their time was now. They became the show, with alley oops and behind the back passes and trash talk - a lot of freakin’ trash talk – on their way to two consecutive Final Fours before any of them could legally drink.

Their very existence could serve as the thesis for any critical race theorist’s dissertation, a case study in the complexity of 20th century race relations. They were rebuked and chastised for their “street” bravado but nonetheless tolerated for what that bravado produced, namely sold-out arenas, an explosion of merchandising, and a princely sum added to the UM coffers. This battle still wages on in the NCAA; the demands of loyalty and a team first attitude from a class of largely black student athlete participants juxtaposed against a money grab for literally everyone else involved in the operation. The Fab Five were among the first student athletes to call out this hypocrisy.

Both college and professional has also evolved due, in part, to the Fab Five. In college, coaches no longer rely on the old authoritarian system when recruiting top talent. High schoolers, taking their cues from the Fab Five, want to play right away, and if a school cannot offer that, then it risks missing out on marquee talents. The One and Done rule has added another wrinkle to this paradigm shift. Coaches who were once slow to recruit “one and dones” have adapted to the changing tide for fear of following behind programs who have embraced the concept (see John Calipari and the University of Kentucky.)

In the NBA, the youth movement that facilitated the prep to pro pipeline over the last 25 years has its genesis in the Fab Five’s historic arrival. Just a few years after the world was introduced to the Fab Five, Kevin Garnett declared for the NBA draft straight out of high school. Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and a generation of talented prep stars would soon follow, and it makes sense upon reflection. If talented players were ready to compete for national championships at 18, why not the NBA? This was the next evolutionary step of the Fab Five’s legacy.

In recent years, players have sought to exercise more control over their careers until we have arrived at a place where LeBron James now commands more power than arguably any athlete in the world. The self-assurance to wield such power comes in large part from Lebron’s recognition that his talent is a commodity, which was a concept embraced early on by the Fab Five as mere freshmen.

This could all be hyperbole and I, as a Fab Five fanboy, am simply overstating the their influence. Perhaps their legacy is confined to baggy shorts and bald heads. And as far as the prep basketball infusion is concerned, maybe such an infusion was all but inevitable given the transcendent talent that entered the NBA over the last 25 years. All those are plausible counterpoints.

But to paraphrase Jalen Rose, I don’t know the starting five from Villanova’s 2016 championship team. I can’t tell you the starting five from either the Duke team that defeated the Fab Five in their freshmen year, or the North Carolina team that bested them a year later. But I do know this: 25 years after teaming up with my boys to run “street ball” in the Midland YMCA basketball league, I’m still rocking the black Nike ankle socks on the court.

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