Betelhem Ashame: A return to the Michigan of old
Ever since five talented yet unproven freshmen stepped onto the court at Crisler Center in the winter of 1991, the Fab Five has been one of the defining eras of Michigan basketball. From the baggy shorts to the black socks to the Nike brand, the Fab Five stamped a unique mark on the history of the program. Though it has been 25 years since the quintet first suited up in the maize and blue, their legacy has only strengthened over time.
Fondly remembered by much of the Wolverine faithful as the greatest recruiting class ever, the Fab Five made a name for themselves with back-to-back national championship game appearances in 1992 and 1993 as mere underclassmen. While their on-court success remains their main claim to fame, the Fab Five’s larger social relevance can be traced to their association with Nike. Baggy shorts and black socks became their defining traits as they took the college basketball world by storm and attempted to prove that they belonged in its top echelon. The trend-setting move, popularized by none other than Michael Jordan himself, put the Fab Five firmly on the map in the eyes of the public.
Fittingly, this wouldn’t be the only connection between Jordan and the University of Michigan. After switching to the Adidas apparel brand in 2007, the Wolverines returned to their past provider this past summer with a new agreement with Nike. Part of the deal includes a clause to outfit the basketball teams in the Jumpman brand, and in a special event coined the Jordan Brand Basketball Unveil held Friday night at Crisler Center, Michigan revealed its new uniforms for the upcoming 2016-17 season.
“We had a great association with Nike back in the day,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We’re always trying to put out the type of basketball team to represent the greatest university in the world. … We have the greatest resources at the University of Michigan, we have the greatest leadership, the alums, the tradition, very similar to the great tradition now of the Nike and Jordan brand.
“So as I said before, this is just, for us to be able to recruit with this Block ‘M,’ with the Jordan brand and represent everything it represents, it’s a perfect match for us.”
Though the students in the crowd — and the players on the team — weren’t even born when the Fab Five made their mark, the excitement for the event was palpable. While guest DJ Khaled garnered much attention from the millennial crowd, one of the most beloved members of the Fab Five — Jalen Rose — returned to his alma mater to serve as the master of ceremonies, and it was surely his presence that attracted much of the estimated 7,500 fans in attendance.
Known by young and old Michigan fans alike during their playing days, the Fab Five became the gold standard for what it means to have success as a unit. Though at different points Rose, Chris Webber, and Juwan Howard staked their claim as star players, none of them ever rose above the team. A parallel can be drawn to this year’s Wolverines, who return all five starters from last year’s lineup yet no one stands above the rest — though seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. could make a convincing case.
Despite a strong connection, many outside the Michigan locker room openly wonder and worry about the team’s outlook this season after the Wolverines sustained numerous transfer and coaching losses. But inside the facility, John Beilein’s team hopes to make the doubters eat their words come March.
“We’ll be a very close-knit team,” said redshirt junior Duncan Robinson. “I know Coach Beilein said that. I know a lot of coaches tend to just say that because it sounds good, but I really believe that. The teams I’ve been on, the ones that have been most successful, are those teams that are made up of that kind of fabric if you will.
“I think we all have a chip on our shoulder to be honest with you. We return a lot of guys and we’ve got some great freshmen coming in, and people are kind of still looking over us a little bit. So we’re excited to prove people wrong and just kind of band together. It should be a great season.”
The new partnership with Jordan has brought a revitalized energy to the players as well as the fans, as they understand the significance of representing the Jordan brand and its promise for a successful season to come. Wearing the Jumpman logo means striving to be the best, and Michigan is eager to prove that it’s ready to take on the challenge.
“I think it’s going to make us a lot more hungry,” Walton said. “We play the game for our families, our friends, personal pride, and the Jordan brand is about greatness. We don’t wanna slouch, but it just generates a deeper hunger, to want to succeed that much higher.
“I just see the excitement that the swoosh brings, and the Fab Five did a great job of some trademark things that we have like black socks and stuff like that. So it’s just great to basically say we’re part of history, and we’re just looking forward to get started.”
As much as the Fab Five is synonymous with Michigan basketball, Nike is emblematic of its success in the 1990s. Finding their way back after a short break, the Wolverines seem optimistic that they can return to the excitement of their storied past.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.