The Rise of Black Culture in Sports
“The first day the Fab Five stepped on the University of Michigan campus, that was the start of a revolution. It just so happened that this revolution was televised.” – Jalen Rose
In the late and early 90’s black culture began to permeate itself throughout the country. This rise of black culture was seen prominently on the courts and fields of college athletics. In 1992 Jalen Rose, Chris Weber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King were five freshmen on the Michigan basketball team that transformed the culture of college sports forever. They were young, talented, controversial and outspoken. The 1992 Michigan team was the first to not only start five freshmen for the first time ever in college basketball, but they were the first team to start five freshmen who were all African-Americans. In two years, these five freshman broke barriers and tore down traditional conceptions of what the country thought a basketball player should look like, act like and even what music they should listen to. The national coverage this team received was unprecedented and much of the attention they received was negative and racially motivated. These five freshmen were able to respond to the criticism and disgust from much of the country by bonding together and becoming a community and a family in a way that’s only possible through sports. Your race, sexual preference and financial background are of no concern to the people around you when everyone is united under a common goal. Team sports creates an environment that forces out racism and difference because of how it unites, bonds and connects every member of the team toward an ultimate goal.
For the longest time college basketball had been a sport that was traditionally run by white people. In the sixties, seventies and eighties college basketball was dominated by schools like Duke, Kentucky, Indiana and UCLA. Ask any college basketball historian about who the most celebrated players of that era were and you’ll hear names like Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Steve Alford, Pete Maravich and Christian Laettner. All of these players had the same thing in common, their skin color. There were several great African-American players in college at that time but the most beloved and talked about players in college basketball for those years were all mostly white. Most teams would have one or two black players on them at most and many teams would be made up entirely of white players.
For the first eighty years or so of college basketball’s existence the game was played a certain way. It was played selflessly and with an emphasis on fundamentals and doing all the simple things right. There was very little flash or excitement. Players weren’t jumping three feet in the air all over the place throwing slam dunks down, pounding their chests and talking to trash to the other team. Being outspoken or doing anything on the court that caused you to stand out as an individual was generally frowned upon. So when five outspoken and fearless black freshmen began playing for Michigan in 1993, college basketball and the country as a whole were understandably shocked and confused.
The Fab Five was the nickname given to Michigan’s 1992 freshman recruiting class. Chris Weber, Jalen rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were five of the top 50 high school players in the country and to this day they are collectively considered the greatest freshman recruiting class ever assembled by one school. At the start of the 1992 season, the media was already buzzing about the fact that Michigan had five incredible freshmen, but when word got out that they would all be starting the media attention turned into a frenzy. Assistant coach Brian Dutcher described the freshmen as rockstars in terms of the media attention they received. Dutcher explained that, “Everywhere they went people wanted a piece of them, they hounded them for everything from autographs to pictures. We had to have round the clock security everywhere we went” (Dutcher, Fab Five). Young America loved the excitement, passion and entertainment this team brought to the game of basketball.
While many of the young people in America had fallen in love with this team, they were not universally loved by everyone. In fact, there was an incredible divide amongst the opinions people had. In an interview for the Fab Five documentary that ESPN did in 2011, Bryan Burwell, who covered Michigan basketball during the Fab Five years for the Detroit News, said that “It was all generational and cultural. If you were young and black you were like ‘those are my boys, that’s who I am, that’s me’. If you were old and white you thought ‘oh my God these criminals are taking over our sports and they’re influencing our children. Get them away from the TV’.” (Burwell, Fab Five). The Fab Five represented the divide between the young black culture that had begun to permeate throughout college athletics and the old traditional way of thinking about how the game should be played and who should be playing the game. The older generation viewed them as thugs and gangsters because of the kinds of shorts and socks they wore and even the kind of music they listened to. In an interview for the same Fab Five documentary, Jalen Rose lays out in detail the kinds of criticism the team received, “Media members would judge us on more than just how we played. They would judge us on how we dressed. They judged us on the music we listened to. NWA, Ice Cube, Naughty by Nature, they had no clue who those guys were”. The freshmen were a flashpoint of controversy for journalists who for the longest time had covered teams and players that were soft-spoken and non-controversial in the things that they did on and off the court. They often received racially charged hate mail from long time Michigan fans and Alumni telling them to leave the school simply because they didn’t want their school associated with these kinds of players. Despite the intense scrutiny and criticism they received from many around the country, these five talented freshmen were still able to be successful and win at the highest level of college basketball.
While basketball purists and traditionalists hated what these freshmen were doing to the image of their beloved sport, the team inspired and gave hope to another group of people around the country. Until the Fab Five came into existence, younger African-American males didn’t really have anyone they could truly relate to, connect with and celebrate in college athletics. What made this team so hated by one group of people yet so endearing to another was how they refused to conform to what many people wanted them to be. In the Fab Five documentary, Rapper Ice Cube talked about how special it was to watch a group of black guys his age playing the game with passion and staying true to themselves, “The Fab five were the first ones to come out and say that ‘yeah this is our thing, this is who we are’. That’s what made me smile. They did it together and basically told people ‘we are gonna do this for each other, make a statement and play ball in a different way that people are accustomed to seeing’.”. Playing basketball in a different way didn’t mean playing with violence or an undisciplined rage on the court. They brought flash, athleticism, celebration and passion to a game that had never quite seen anything like it before. They weren’t going to change simply because many people didn’t like the way they dressed or acted on the court. Jalen Rose summed up their style and how different they were compared to any other team who had ever played college basketball by saying,
“College athletes in the early 90’s didn’t have tattoos at major college programs. If you had a tattoo you were considered a thug, if you had an earring you were considered a hoodlum. I had a both and I played at Michigan and I had a bald head and baggy shorts with black socks. It wasn’t a novelty, it wasn’t cute, it was who I was and who we were” (Rose, Fab Five).
For two years five freshmen dealt with unparalleled levels of criticism from the national media, fans and Michigan Alumni. They responded to all of the racism and hatred by simply ignoring it. They did one thing, they played basketball and they did it at an incredibly high level Finishing as runner-ups for the national championships for the two years they were in school together. They came together as a group and became a team and a family in order break down all the barriers people tried to place before them. They were the first team in college basketball history who not only had to defeat their opponents on the court but also had defeat stereotypes and a negative national perception of the court. It wasn’t just those five freshman, but an entire team with players of different races and backgrounds that came together and became one unit with one goal.