Screen & Roll: ‘The Fab Five’ values a lasting impact over wins and lossesSeptember 21, 2020
“The Fab Five,” one of the early ESPN 30 for 30 films by “The Last Dance” director Jason Hehir, profiles the University of Michigan men’s basketball team’s 1991 class of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The film describes how the team became the first to predominantly start all freshmen, made two straight NCAA championship games and changed the culture of college basketball with their play and style. It also details how its legacy has been hidden away following sanctions for players receiving illegal gifts. This discussion contains spoilers, and we suggest you watch the film before reading.
Lauren Mattice: Knowing next to nothing about NCAA basketball history (at least I’m being honest), this 30 for 30 maybe surprised me the most out of any because of its emotional grounding of the team, the history it made and the legacy it created together for the rest of the basketball world to emulate.
Aidan Berg: Agreed! The biggest challenge facing a documentary crew or anyone else trying to make entertainment out of something is getting people to care about what they’re profiling. In this case, someone might ask why we should care about a team that never won a championship, and one of the big reasons is that it establishes who the Fab Five were as people. We get to see where they came from and how important it was to them to stick by that, how fun they were to be around and the bonds that they formed with each other.
LM: Definitely, and there’s that fine line that many sports profiles struggle with, and that’s putting too much emphasis on either the hardships that athletes come from or on the “escape” that people assume these players are all too ready for. Here, Jalen Rose reminisces about playing with Webber while they were growing up, with his voice being the background to old game footage and team photos from Detroit, and scenes like this stay with you more than scenes of the scandals later to come. But in between the press spotlights, each one of them talks about how the support of their community and each other was what really made the experience worth it.
AB: I particularly loved the part where Ray Jackson, a Texas native, talks about being ready to go back to bed when he saw snow coming down and that Rose got him up and gave him his winter coat. Like you said, that’s the kind of thing that pays off later with the long shot of Chris Webber walking from the court to the locker room after the Timeout Game. It’s the ultimate example of show don’t tell because your heart breaks for the guy watching him with his head down, and that only works if you provide that emotional connection.
LM: That shot is the best because it cuts out the commentary, the background music and all of those additions that sometimes stray away from the point. And it is, literally, long, and you’re with Webber for the moment when the real emotional punch hits. But you’ve been through so much already with this group that when you see Webber going out as a first-overall draft pick a few weeks later, the doc has confirmed something that you might’ve forgotten in that moment after the championship game, and that was that these guys were always destined for greatness no matter when it came or in what form.
AB: You really feel the historical significance of that botched timeout when you see him trying to process it during that long shot, but I think that’s something the documentary does a really great job of throughout and is another crucial part to making the viewer care about this story. Not only does it tell you that what these guys were doing was unprecedented (buzzword of quarantine), but it shows you all the ways that they contributed to the basketball society we know today.
LM: The little bit about them not wanting to wear those “speedos” of shorts that were popular at the time but wanting to follow Michael Jordan’s long and loose shorts style is one of the most hysterical. But when the Fab Five suited up in their baggy shorts and their plain black socks and brought a bit of home to the court by getting into competitors’ heads with some trash talk, everyone watched and then everyone followed. This was the guys at their most genuine and spirited selves, a picture that many either tried to profit off of, or opposed with such vehemence that a whole sequence was dedicated to the racist comments from their school’s own alumni that were mailed in on frequent occasion.
AB: And it’s so effective in the film because it shows you concrete examples of them challenging the system and how things changed because of them. We see the progression from the hip-huggers to the style we see players wearing now, we see the Fab Five wearing plain blue T-shirts as a form of protest, and we can track that to where we are now with college athletes on the cusp of being compensated for their role in bringing money to a university. And, of course, we see the letters from those racist alumni and are faced with the horrible language they were using and we can see just how much pushback there was to the Fab Five bringing their authentic selves to college basketball. I think Hehir’s use of corporeal examples is why the points of this film are so strong.
LM: The film and Hehir couldn’t do that without the guys’ one-on-one testimonies. You look them right in the eye, close-up and all, and hear about their joy and elation after committing to Michigan, and hear about the group forming but also the odds stacked against them. In the lead-up to their first championship title game as freshmen, you see the favorite Duke warming up with their pretty-boy star Christian Laettner, a white, New-York born and private-school trained college basketball super villain who Rose describes as the ideal recruit for Duke. They weren’t looking to bother themselves with an insanely talented but poor Black kid from Detroit, instead they went with what Jimmy King called, “a bitch.”
AB: Always love hearing people hate on Christian Laettner. But that’s another crucial part of this documentary, and it’s something the film itself points out: The Fab Five were great hangs! They were brash, funny and awesome to be around, and that helps the doc avoid the common issue that you brought up about how interviews can muddle the story. These guys add to it. Unfortunately, this strength is somewhat undercut by the notable absence of Chris Webber. We’re not going to get into the he said/he said beef that has existed between Webber and Rose since this film came out, but it is important to note that not having Webber there weakens the overall product.
LM: It simply isn’t complete. It’s understandable to not want to comment, to not want to get re-involved (certainly after the Michigan president and athletic director’s comments), but when you see shots of the guys celebrating after a dunk, pretending to be a rap group in Venice or just defending their prowess and talent as freshmen in press interviews, when you don’t have his perspective, there’s something to be lost and themes that cannot come full-force.
AB: And it’s especially striking at the end when everyone interviewed is talking about what they thought was going through Webber’s mind during that timeout play and telling him what he should do about his relationship with the university. It’s just so interesting to me that this documentary can be effective when probably its biggest character is completely missing.
LM: It definitely can be and is effective, but for me it’s in moments. I can appreciate what that long-shot showed and what it represents, but I can also be ambivalent about what it changed, and maybe that’s the point: to imitate real life. But in the end, the doc to me doesn’t really know what to do with itself after digging into this Webber-less hole. You can reflect on his stats, the Five’s memory of him and his impact on basketball, but you can’t truly understand the Fab Five without his voice.
AB: I hate that we agreed so much in this first edition (this is not what we advertised) so I’m going to push back a little bit as we finish up here. I don’t think that Webber’s absence was a back-breaking blow to what I consider to be the true point of the film, which is the impact this group had on basketball culture. That still shines through even without him, and that’s why I basically grew up never questioning the idea that the amateur system of college sports is inherently flawed and exploitative, that players should be allowed to stay true to who they are and where they come from and that talent wins out over everything. Watching this film at around age 12 was one of the first times those concepts were introduced to me, and in that way I think “The Fab Five” is undoubtedly a success.
LM: Can’t argue with childhood wonder. I will say one of the best returns to this film will be seeing Juwan Howard’s coaching career at Michigan. So much has changed for collegiate basketball but also for players’ rights under the NCAA. Real discussions are coming up to counter the experience they had of seeing their own jersey being sold for $75 in a storefront while they were struggling to pay for gas. We haven’t seen what form the new name, image and likeness standards will take, and we still haven’t seen enough consideration by the NCAA or universities for collegiate athletes as human beings, so I think this legacy Howard comes back to that the Fab Five created will continue to push the conversations in the right direction.
Aidan Berg and Lauren Mattice are seniors writing about sports culture and entertainment. They are also the deputy outreach director and digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan, respectively. Their column, “Screen & Roll,” runs every other Monday.