What a coincidence that a documentary about the Fab Five is programmed right after ESPN’s Selection Sunday of superfluous special programming.
What a coincidence that the documentary features five college athletes who competed in the NCAA Tournament, but, admittedly, never walked away with the trophy.
What a coincidence that the film discusses the exploitation, or glorification depending on who you talk to, of college athletes. Especially during a time where names like Cam Newton, AJ Green, or even a lesser known Enes Kanter, have graced our headlines not for their statistical accomplishments, but for their alleged misdoings as an amateur athlete.
What a coincidence that Jalen Rose, a member of the Fab 5, is now a member of another well known mega-team. And wouldn’t you know it? That same mega-team is putting their employee front and center to enjoy some more exposure after a somewhat forgettable NBA career.
And what a coincidence that Chris Webber, undoubtedly the most talented and troubled individual this film profiles, has politely declined to be a part of it.
Like many of you, I had my doubts about a documentary on the Fab Five. Because, like probably many of you, I knew very little about them.
When the Michigan basketball players were donning flat-tops, black shorts, and baggy shorts, I was taking lessons from a large purple dinosaur.
And even a decade later, when my interest in sports, and more specifically basketball, began, any reference to the Fab Five was a tarnished one. Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard were only NBA players to me. Still, whenever I watched games with older relatives, they referenced to a certain group they were once a member of. Something about five freshman. Something about Michigan. Something about never winning. Something about money.
Ignorantly, I developed my own opinions on this Fab Five group. Sure, they were good. But they never won a championship. Sure they were talented. But at what price?
To me, it might as well been a basketball team made up of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Pete Rose. Talented individuals that forfetied those said talents for money and fame. They cheated the integrity of their game, and ultimately will be remembered for that more than their athletic accomplishments.
Despite these sentiments and preconceived ideas of conspiracy mentioned above, I sat down and decided to watch ESPN’s “Fab Five” documentary. Because, again, like most of you, I am a sucker for these things.
In two hours, simply put, I was educated. I was educated on the beginnings of such a revealed team. How a team such as Rose, Webber, Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson were brought together. How their desire to hoot, holler, and draw attention to themselves almost matched their desire to win. Almost. I was educated that there was in fact a time when high schoolers chose a school based on their want to win as opposed to which school would give them the most exposure to pro scouts. And I was educated that despite their appearance as professionals playing in a college environment, they were still teenagers. Teenagers that were abet to make mistakes. Whether it be hanging out in a suspected drug house or calling a time-out in an NCAA final when your team has none left.
Of course the rest of the documentary focused on the investigations on several Michigan players’ dealings with Ed Martin, a booster who financially assisted several Michigan athletes in their everyday lives. Admittedly, some more than others.
The film then briefly discussed the idea that these college athletes were “used” by their school. That somebody, whether it be the school or the manufacturer, made millions of their jerseys, black sneakers, and socks. All while these kids were unable to may for a meal at Taco Bell.
And then, like any good documentary, it closed with a magnificent montage of the players doing what they did best. Playing basketball well and then letting you know about it.
Once again, ESPN showed us why they are the best in the business. Not because they domiate the sports top story-lines, but because they tell them like no other.
Now many after viewing this film expectedly started discussing it’s purpose.
Was this film a cautionary tale about the perils of being successful? That no matter high you go, you will always fall?
Was it a battle cry for the sympathizers of today’s college athlete? A reminder that no matter how many accolades, dollars, and exposure you create for the school, you’re still the same as any college student? Broke?
Or was this film simply Rose, Howard, King, Jackson, Michigan coaches, and various Detroit journalists taking the opportunity to toot their own horns and tell everybody how awesome it was? When ultimately, they won nothing but a couple of NCAA semi-finals?
If those, or any other ideas of ultimate ESPN collusion came to mind, you simply missed the point.
The Fab Five were not a semi-professional college basketball team. The Fab Five are not some martyrs we should feel bad for because their school was making a buck or two off their accomplishments. And the Fab Five are not some over-hyped excuse for a cultural movement in college sports.
While these are issues the film discusses, they are not the major point.
Instead, the Fab Five were, and are an amazing story of five young men who chose to play together at the University of Michigan. Together, they not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. All the way to the NCAA Final. Two years in a row. Together they overcame obstacles of racial prejudice and overall distaste for their style of play. And together they somehow figured out a way to become comfortable enough, despite the fact that their banners sit in a basement, to retell their story.
So what if they never won anything? Neither did Phi Slamma Jamma, or even more recently, neither did last year’s Kentucky Wildcats. Teams that were all great fun to watch both on and off the court, but no hardware to speak of.
Great stories, not great athletes, coaches, or statistics, are what ultimately what attracts us to sports. College athletics even more-so because they lack of terms like “collective bargaining” or “signing bonus”.
The point of the Fab Five documentary was simply that, to document a period of two years where five college basketball players played under one roof and had a damn good time doing it. A document to tell that story.
If anything, a primer for what is surely to be a great time of storytelling as the NCAA tournament approaches. Nothing more, nothing less.
The NCAA infractions, their lack of titles, or some of their lack of reputable professional careers are nothing but footnotes.
That is what you should come away with after watching this documentary.
By the way, I did notice that I used all former baseball players as my examples for a team that truly cheated their game.
What a coincidence, huh?