The Fab 5 at 25 seeks to bridge gap between past and future

Saturday, October 8, 2016 - 10:04pm

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Twenty-five years after the Fab Five made waves across the Michigan campus as one of the highest-profile recruiting classes in college basketball history, three members of the storied quintet sat on the stage at the Hill Auditorium to discuss their legacy both on and off the court.

In an event called “The Fab 5 at 25,” hosted by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and opened by LSA Dean Andrew Martin, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Jalen Rose returned to Ann Arbor to shed light on important issues relevant both then and now about race, class and amateurism in major college athletics.

The trio was joined by Washington Post sports columnist Kevin Blackistone, Houston professor Billy Hawkins and Residential College professor and moderator Yago Colás. Notably absent from the panel were Juwan Howard and Chris Webber.

While Webber did not respond to the invitation, Howard, an assistant coach with the NBA’s Miami Heat, could not attend because he is currently in training camp. Instead, he took the time to make a video that opened the discussion, in which he recalled the moment where it all began for the Fab Five.

Living in South Quad at a time when there were basketball hoops instead of bike racks, they had just moved in and randomly decided to play a pickup game. It was the first time they stepped on the court together, and people started gathering around until a large crowd of students had formed to watch them. Some even watched from their dorm windows.

“That’s when that light bulb went off like, ‘Whoa, we can all actually play, and we play well together,’ ” Jackson said. “From that point on, the chemistry, the relationship on the court just transpired.”

While their play on the court garnered plenty of attention, so too did their identity as five, young Black kids at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. Racism became as much a part of their playing experience as it had always been a part of their daily lives. To combat the hate and negativity, Jackson said they banded together as a brotherhood.

In recent weeks, racial divisions have resurfaced on the University’s campus, as white supremacist posters were found plastered on the walls of multiple academic buildings. Amid the launch of LSA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan, these racist acts have stirred up controversy about the role of both students and administrators in ensuring that everyone enjoys a safe, supportive learning environment. King made it clear that everyone has a role to play in creating that reality.

“We’re all one community, and until we really figure out how to operate in that sense, (it) becomes actually allowing a few bad apples to spoil the bunch. We’re smarter than that,” King said. “The time is now. Technology has made the world a much easier place to navigate, so there are no excuses when it comes to communication. And that’s the reason why we wanted to have this forum, so that we can have this discussion because we have the power to change what’s occurring.”

In the realm of major college athletics, where most students-athletes tend to be Black males, Hawkins raised an important point about the debate on amateurism. He claimed that if white athletes made the majority of these massive revenues, there wouldn’t even be a debate. Blackistone went as far as calling it a “complete, unadulterated shame” on the verge of being “immoral,” as he questioned why television networks would pay millions of dollars to broadcast a so-called amateur sport.

From a player perspective, Jackson called it a “sham” that student-athletes aren’t allowed to benefit from their own talent and hard work. He discussed how ESPN and CBS would come to practice, how Nike would unveil their new shoes and how the players would still go home and have to pool their money together to afford dinner.

These NCAA rules on payment would later haunt the Fab Five and alter their relationship with the University when Webber and a few others were discovered to have accepted large sums of money from booster Ed Martin, thus compromising their amateur status. The scandal rocked college basketball, as the NCAA vacated both Final Four berths in 1992 and 1993 and Michigan removed the Crisler Center banners commemorating those teams.

While people often defend the NCAA by claiming that players know what they are signing up for when they decide to play collegiately without compensation, King has a rebuttal.

“You don’t know everything,” King said. “In recruiting, they’re telling you one thing and it’s something else. For instance, when (former coach Steve) Fisher came to my house, he told my parents that it’s all about academics and getting a degree. First day of practice he pulled us in a circle, he was like, ‘Now, I know what I told your parents, but you’re here to do one thing and that’s to play basketball.’ ”

Though the Ed Martin scandal tends to be the point in the timeline that people draw to illustrate the disassociation between the Fab Five and Michigan basketball, Rose notes how relations were strained even back in their playing days.

“So while we were in school, there were a series of silent protests that we engaged in,” Rose said. “Black socks were one, plain blue shirts were one and me wearing a different number in practice was my personal one. … And I was going to wear it backwards because it was my personal way to appreciate our position, but I was plotting our motion. I knew that we had an opportunity to accomplish a lot. This is a mega-stage.

“It was our way to rebel against the system but try to do the best we can to take advantage of the opportunities we were given.”

While the players felt embraced by the student body at the time, the administration gave off a different vibe. Rose pointed out that from when they left campus from 1995 to 2000 — before even the Martin scandal — the Fab Five wasn’t honored at all. Though they captured hearts across the country, it felt like the University wanted to turn the page and forget they existed.

“That was a cultural firestorm that happened on our campus that the world loved, but it wasn’t really loved on our campus. Our students, of course, they were with us,” Rose said. “That family, that bond and that trust was cultivated with the students, and it’s because of their support is why The Fab 5 at 25 right now is the No. 1 trending topic in the country (on Twitter).”

Rose suggested that the student body carries a significant degree of leverage, and that it has the power to affect change on a broad scale. He referenced the protests and petitions that sprung up across campus in the fall of 2014 that eventually led to the ouster of former Athletic Director Dave Brandon.

Moving forward, the Fab Five hope to be acknowledged for their achievements on and off the court, as the scandal that seems to overshadow them doesn’t define their legacy.

“You just pay attention to trends around the country: What does Penn State do for Joe Paterno, what does Ohio State do for Jim Tressel, what does UMass do for Coach Calipari?” Rose said. “There are ways when there are situations that happen on campus where the athletes, when those sanctions end, they still find a way to embrace their past.”