When I get to teaching the 1970s and 1980s, I show my students pictures of me playing basketball as young kid and in high school. I show them pictures of my basketball idols – Dr. J, Gail Goodrich, and Larry Bird. My students laugh. They laugh a lot. Not at me, or my idols, but rather, they laugh at the shorts – the short shorts to be exact. That was how basketball players dressed until the early 1990s. Then everything changed in 1991. Five freshman at the University of Michigan, including one from the south side of Chicago, changed everything about the modern athlete. It was more than just the shorts. It was how the modern athlete was going to act. There were going to be no apologies.
Jack Johnson was the first African-American athlete to gain national prominence. The boxer became heavyweight champion of the world and flaunted his “blackness” unforgivably. He wore long coats with fur, drovee fancy cars, lived in a swank home in Chicago, and married a white woman. In 1908, Johnson won the heavyweight championship in Sydney, Australia. Immediately, calls for a “great white hope” began. No one could defeat Johnson and his defensive style in his prime. What brought Jackson down was the enforcement of the Mann Act. Ken Burns’ film “Unforgiveable Blackness” said of Johnson:
What most bothered whites about Johnson was that he openly had affairs with white women—and even married them—at a time when miscegenation of this sort was not only illegal but was positively dangerous. Johnson did not seem to care what whites thought of him, and this bothered most whites a great deal. He was not humble or diffident with whites. He gloated about his victories and often taunted his opponents in the ring. (This behavior was not unique to him as a champion boxer. Many boxers, notably John L. Sullivan, acted this way. It was unique for a black public figure.) He also did not care what blacks thought of him, as some were critical of his sex life. His preference for white women seemed an embarrassment and something that would bring the wrath of whites down on the heads of every black person. […] Since Johnson could not be defeated in the ring, the battle moved to defeating Johnson in the area where he most offended and where he was most vulnerable—his [personal] life.
Rather than serve one year in jail, Johnson left the US for Europe. He would eventually return and serve his term but his prime years were behind him. There would not be another African-American champ until Joe Louis in 1937.
The modern athlete still was a long way away. Despite Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 and 1948, the issue of sport and race would not change until the 1960s. In 1964, a young Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship. Clay was brash, outspoken, and unlike anything the world had seen to that point. Immediately after defeating Liston, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and for the next three years, he was an unstoppable cultural force until he was drafted into the Army. Ali refused to go. He was at the center of everything in the 1960s – Civil Rights and Vietnam. His boxing licenses were suspended all across the country. He filed suit not to go into the Army and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Ali would return to boxing. Like Johnson, his prime years had been taken away. He still could fight, but he was not the same. His influence on the modern athlete was huge.
For Juwan Howard, growing up on the south side of Chicago was not easy. Raised by his grandmother, Howard had strict rules to follow including being home by sundown every day. Along with church and school, Howard did small jobs as a child including raking leaves and shoveling driveways. He worked hard and did not take life granted. He said, “You can be here today and gone tomorrow.” But above all else, Howard wanted out. He was going to do what it took. Whether it was sport or school, he would give both everything he had.
A star at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, Howard was one of the top recruits in the nation. He was heavily recruited by many schools including the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan.
Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune explained the decision Howard had to make:
About this time last year, Howard was on track to attend Illinois. Coach Lou Henson came out to watch him play on a few occasions, and Howard figured to fit in well with fellow Public League stars Deon Thomas and Jamie Brandon (who later transferred to LSU). But the NCAA’s prolonged investigation of the Illinois program, which eventually resulted in probation, drove Howard away, and he wound up choosing Michigan over Arizona State.
“Illinois was in a situation where I was waiting to find out what would happen with them,” he said. “Four days after I committed, (the NCAA sanctions) were announced. That hurt them. Deon was always joking that I had better come to Illinois or he’d never speak to me again. He may have been a little upset, but I had to go to the place that suits me best.”
The day he signed his letter of intent, his grandmother passed away. Coaches Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher became his new family. For Fisher and Dutcher, Howard became the lynchpin to help get other recruits. He helped recruit Jimmy King and then Howard lent his talents to help recruit Ray Jackson.
The final two pieces of the prized recruiting class came in the form of Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. Rose, like Howard, had grown up in the inner city. Webber did not. Still, the five freshman became the most highly touted recruiting class – they were four of the top 11 recruits in the nation that year.
When the five freshman showed up in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1991, the style began to change. Jalen Rose instituted the move to long shorts. While Michael Jordan had begun the move to long shorts, Jordan’s were still above his knees. The Fab Five wanted the long shorts like Jordan, but only longer. Coach Fisher relented. The players would add black socks to complete the look.
In a Big Ten preview in the Chicago Tribune, Neil Milbert wrote:
“Freshmen can be unreliable here, but we’re not talking about ordinary freshmen,” said Illinois coach Lou Henson. “When you’re as good as they are, you’re going to be right up there with the best.”
“Those five new kids averaged close to 145 points per game last year in high school,” said Fisher. “But they’re freshmen. Who’s going to score? Who will set the screen for the going to score? Who can accept coming off the bench?
“How quickly they adjust to going to Bloomington, East Lansing and hostile arenas like that will dictate how good we are. We hope we can reach a consistency by the middle of the Big 10 season where we can be a factor and a force.
According to Juwan Howard, the next three years would be the best years of his life. They would also be filled with highlights and controversy. That first year started off well. Webber, Howard, and Rose all made the starting lineup. After a 4-0 start, the young Wolverines ran into number one Duke. In an interview on TV, the team showed no fear. They were not afraid of Duke. At the end of the interview, the team flashed signs using their hands. The thought of young athletes flashing signs was unheard of. Even more so, the team explained they were signs about themselves. Duke got out to early lead and built that lead to 17 points. The freshman did not quit though. They fought back and showed they could hang with the best team in the country. Although they lost in overtime, it showed how good Michigan could get. Sports Illustrated said of the team:
They’re certainly not ordinary freshmen. Webber, a forward, and his classmates—center Juwan Howard, forward Ray Jackson and guards Jimmy King and Jalen Rose—proved that fact against Duke, even though Michigan ultimately fell to the Blue Devils 88-85 in overtime. By the time Duke escaped from Ann Arbor with its ranking intact and record unblemished, the best-freshman-class-ever label, with which the Michigan newcomers had been saddled, was more than mere hyperbole. In their first exposure to elite college competition, the Fab Five proved they are as good as advertised.
It would not be until February that all five freshman would start together against Notre Dame.
At the time, America was in a cultural transformation. On the outside, George H.W. Bush’s presidency had been about a 1000 points of light. Desert Storm and the first Gulf War had been over for a year. The Soviet Union had collapsed. America was at the top of the heap. But on the inside, America was changing. Hip Hop culture was slowly taking over music, movies, fashion, and television. The Fab Five brought it to sport. What made these five freshman different was their culture and attitude. They listened to rap. They listened to NWA and Public Enemy. They had tattoos. They got in opponent’s faces to get in their heads. The ABA in the 70s had brought playground style basketball to the NBA. The Fab Five brought everything else about the playground to the arena.
For Michigan basketball, it was only three years removed from the Glen Rice team that had won the NCAA basketball championship. In February and March of 1992, the team became the team everyone wanted to see. Every Saturday afternoon, the Fab Five celebrated the routine and redefined the spectacular. They became the Beatles of basketball. Crowds and cameras followed them everywhere. It did translate in to winning but it did not translate in to winning championships. In 1992, the Wolverines made it to the NCAA Tournament. In the elite eight, they faced a team that had beaten them twice in Ohio State. In overtime, the Michigan Wolverines prevailed. In the national semi-final, they beat Temple to advance to the final, a rematch against Duke. It was not to be. Duke won going away. However, Michigan and the Fab Five would be right back in the title game next year against North Carolina.
For every fan in the inner city of Michigan basketball, there was an equal detractor. Before the 1993 title game, Bernie Lincicome of the Chicago Tribune wrote,
Today’s mission is to determine what is most unlikable about Michigan’s basketball team. This is not an easy chore because there is something to offend everybody.
Some say it is Michigan’s arrogance, but opinion is not unanimous on this. Ego, like gardening, is psychically damaging only in the extreme. Winners need confidence in themselves.
“My idea of an ideal championship game,” said Jalen Rose, “would be to be sitting on the bench with three minutes to play leading by 30 points already wearing a championship shirt.”
Only 30 points? See, Michigan has its ego under control.
There are those who cannot stand Michigan’s incessant intimidation, its constant badgering and trash talking. Jimmy King scores inside on UCLA and comes down screaming into his defender’s face. Against Kentucky, Rose is yelling at Travis Ford while Ford is shooting free throws.
“I was just asking him where he was going to have dinner,” Rose said.
A sincere inquiry in a close ballgame.
“Intimidation is never a factor against us,” Chris Webber said.
It is easy to be annoyed by the Wolverines’ smirking self-absorption, their complete lack of charity, as if the rest of the world is either against them, or it doesn’t exist.
The undisciplined play and attitude of the Fab Five was not popular in the coaching ranks either. John Chaney of Temple of claimed Fisher failed at teaching the young men character. Rick Pitino, for one, did not like how the team did not box out but rather used their hands in the lower back to gain an advantage.
The infamous “time out” by Chris Webber marred that 1993 championship game for Michigan as they lost to North Carolina. Webber would go pro that summer while Rose and Howard waited one more year. Howard and Rose returned to the Elite Eight in 1994 where they lost to eventual champion Arkansas. Webber, Howard, and Rose would have long pro careers. Howard is still playing while Webber and Rose are retired. Jimmy King would play parts of 3 seasons in the NBA. Coach Fisher is now at San Diego State.
After the fact, events came to light which involved a Michigan booster named Ed Martin. All five players would testify in court about the relationship they had with Martin and most involved money. Webber will not talk about the events while Jalen Rose has always been forthcoming about those days. Despite Rose’s honesty, the banners hanging in the Michigan rafters were taken down after the school received NCAA sanctions. But the memories would not be.
The Fab Five, although they didn’t win any championships, they changed the game and became the template for the modern American athlete. They are arguably the most well known college basketball team of all time. Their attitude, style, and look changed sport and society and not just basketball. While they did not invent the clothes, the look, the swagger, they did popularize them and thus influence athletes of all races.
Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune said this of Juwan and his grandmother after that first year:
“She’d also be proud of the fact that off the court, he has tried hard to continue the lifestyle she wanted him to follow. His intensity in games masks a considerate and caring personality. He is serious about his studies and wants to get his degree before pursuing a pro basketball career. The bonding of these freshmen has given Howard a new sense of family. “I’m happy I came to Michigan, and they all decided to come,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right if I’m not with at least one of them.”
While Howard has played over 17 seasons in the NBA, he is still best known as a member of the Fab Five wherever he goes and whoever he meets. As Jalen Rose would say in a documentary that it would the closest he would get to blood brothers.
For educational purposes only