Where is 1968?

The University of Michigan Campus, 1968

Today, in their home game against Penn State, the Michigan Men’s Basketball Team busted out throwback uniforms (tweaked with long shorts, for modern sensibilities) from the 1968 season.  The occasion was the rededication of the newly refurbished Crisler Center which had first been dedicated 45 years ago, in February of 1968.  As part of the festivities, the Athletic Department held a  “Return to Crisler” panel discussion “open to basketball season ticket holders, former Wolverine basketball players and other invited guests.”  The Michigan Basketball Facebook page exhorted fans to give a “big Go Blue” to “the over 100 former players returning for the game.”

Among them was Cazzie Russell, a mural of whom adorns the new building.  That’s appropriate since Crisler has for years been known as “the House that Cazzie Built.”  Russell led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten Championships and two final four appearances between 1964 and 1966, and was a two time consensus All-American, leading the nation in scoring with a 30.8 ppg average in 1966, his senior season, when he was named College Player of the Year.  He went on to become the first pick in that year’s NBA draft.  In 1993 Russell’s # 33 jersey was retired, one of only five Michigan players to be so honored.  One of the others is # 45, belonging to Rudy Tomjonavich, who led the squad from 1967 to 1970, earning All-American honors in his senior season.  It is his era’s team’s jerseys the players will be wearing today.

Today’s events have been promoted as part of an effort to build, or rather, rebuild, the links between UM’s basketball past and its present.

The story of course is that the maize and blue chain linking past and present was broken, according to Athletic Director Dave Brandon, “by loss of scholarships, coaching changes, penalties, reputation damages as a result of all the stuff that occurred” — “stuff” presumably meaning the so-called Ed Martin recruiting scandal that engulfed the program in the mid to late 1990s, but with retroactive effects including vacating the wins and other acc0mplishments of the 1992 and 1993 teams led by the “Fab Five” freshman class of Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Juwon Howard, and Chris Webber.” Those teams, of course, reached consecutive NCAA championship games, though the Final Four banners they earned were removed voluntarily by the University at 8 a.m. on November 7, 2002 as part of a package of self-imposed sanctions.

Of course, there were things going in the world — and on the Michigan campus — in 1968 other than the dedication of Crisler Arena; things going on other than the stellar play of  Rudy Tomjonavich, whose jersey hangs in the rafters where the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners do not, whose jersey will be commemorated by the throwbacks worn by the Michigan players in today’s game.  For example, on the very day that the Crisler Center was dedicated, February 27, 1968, respected CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite “reported on his recent trip to Vietnam to view the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in his television special Who, What, When, Where, Why? The report is highly critical of US officials and directly contradicts official statements on the progress of the war.”  Cronkite’s editorial was a moderate, late-arriving voice to an anti-war movement that had been growing in strength around the country, with strong participation from college students including those at the University of Michigan.

But active opposition within the US to the Vietnam war is only a part of 1968.  1968 saw riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  1968 saw urban rebellions in Louisville, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Kansas City.  1968 saw a general strike of millions of students and workers in France. 1968 saw the killing of Che Guevara by US-trained Bolivian rangers.  1968 saw a boycott of the Mexico City Olympic games by some African-American athletes — among them Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to protest racism in the United States.  1968 saw Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their gloved-fists in a black power salute on the medal stand of those same Olympic games.   1968, of course, saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr..  1968 saw a decentralized, but interconnected, global uprising of students, workers, women, people of color, and colonized and formerly colonized peoples throughout the world seeking justice and the right to economic and political self-determination and creating spaces for cultural self-expression.

It will be too much for some, I know.  But I see both a historical and a symbolic connection between the global revolutionary movements of 1968 and the cultural and athletic revolution ushered in (and symbolized) by the Fab Five at Michigan in 1991.  These five young African-American men (all born in the early 70s), came of age in the 1980s, when the domestic social and economic policies of the administration of President Ronald Reagan were at best neglecting and at worst ravaging the cores of America’s urban centers, neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by African-Americans.

Out of the frustration and anger of that experience arose a generation of African-American activists and artists who could no longer believe in the tactics of compromise and the promise of assimilation that had galvanized an earlier generation.  Writers like Amy Bass, Todd Boyd, Grant Farred, Dave Zirin, and David J. Leonard have superbly and rigorously chronicled the connection between sport, race, and political protest from the 1960s up through the present.  They have shown, in particular, how the unapologetic assertion of icons of urban African-American culture — hip-hop, baggy shorts, shaved heads or corn rows — came to predominate in the culture of basketball and so to enter the mainstream of American popular culture, even as the communities from which those icons emerged remained under siege.

The Fab Five are a chapter of that chronicle.  And so on this day when the University of Michigan seeks to heal the ruptures and rifts in its basketball past by recalling 1968, I think it is appropriate — more, necessary — to emphasize the conspicuous absence of any official recognition of the Fab Five in the day’s events.

But equally, in the best tradition of autonomous social activism that does not ask for but simply asserts and takes its rights, I think it is important to emphasize two details:

  • first, while the jerseys the players are wearing today are throwbacks to 1968, basically replicas of those worn by Rudy Tomjonavich, the shorts they are wearing — baggy and long — are unthinkable without the Fab Five and a testament to the fact that — regardless of official public positions — the spirit and impact of the group will not be denied.
  • second, at least a few of the Michigan players, I noticed, wore black socks like the Fab 5 and changed their haircuts for today’s games, wearing them in the style of Jimmy King, Juwon Howard, Ray Jackson, Chris Webber, and Jalen Rose — the five Michigan freshman who in the early 1990s brought the revolutionary spirit of 1968 back to the Michigan campus.

I’m proud that Michigan had some great basketball teams in the 1960s and I’m glad that players like Cazzie Russell, especially, are being welcomed and made to feel at home.  But I’m at least as proud of Michigan’s tradition in the rest of 1968 and what it stood for — from campus activism to the Fab Five to the kids on today’s team who made a subtle statement with a haircut.

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