Alphabet Soup, or, Not "Fab," Not "Fresh," but Just "Five"

Alphabet-soup

When Jimmy King visited class last week, one of the things he advised the students was to treat negative publicity  “like alphabet soup.”  I won’t directly reproduce his salty metaphor, but the gist of it was that you take the negativity, digest it as fuel, eliminate the waste product, and move on.  He’s really, really, really good at that.  I don’t know how many times some outrageous, negative thing has been said about Jimmy or his teammates or about some of the current Michigan players that I’ve taught over the past two years, and I begin to blow my stack about it and Jimmy always comes back to calm me down with some version of “alphabet soup.  It’s not that I don’t understand it.  I do.  And if I were the target of the negativity I think I would find it easier to follow Jimmy’s advice.

But when my friends or my students are targeted by the negativity, I’m unable to tolerate it.  Yesterday, I encountered a column by Mac Engel the gist of which was, as the headline read, that “This Michigan group already better than the Fab Five.”  The writer went on, in the column, to assert his opinion that: “They are better than the Fab Five and their impact will ultimately be of greater significance.  This Michigan team is not anywhere as talented as that famous quintet, but they are better stewards for the game and their school than the crew that made glorifying underachievement as chic as baggy shorts.”

In the course of his pseudo-argument for this, he made two claims that I cannot let stand:  1) of the “Fab Five” he said:  “That crew was an overly indulged, excessively enabled pack of me-first whiners who cared more about what they didn’t have than what they did have. Twenty years later, we know their impact was more about basketball fashion than a basketball game.” 2) that the two Freshmen from this year’s team that he quoted are relatively ignorant of and apathetic about the “Fab Five.”  Both of these claims, I can attest from my first hand experience, are patently false.

I don’t know Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, or Juwon Howard so I won’t speak to Engel’s characterization of their personalities (by which I don’t mean to endorse it).  But I do know Ray Jackson and I know Jimmy King, the latter very well.  And I will say that the last thing I would say about either of them is that they are over indulged, me-first, or whiners.  On the contrary, they are hard-working, unselfishly generous to a fault with their time, experience, and resources, and about as even-keeled in expressing grievances as anyone I’ve known.  Moreover, this should come as no surprise to anybody with an understanding of basketball who actually watched their teams play and saw them play an unselfish style involving ball movement, screens away from the ball, and teamwork — different from the current squad’s equally unselfish style only in that the current team employs more ball screens.

Now, it may be true that Ray and Jimmy, in my opinion understandably, feel hurt that the University has not done more to publicly honor their accomplishments, particularly since they were never involved in, or even accused of, any wrong doing.  But it’s also true that every time I have heard either of them speak on the matter, publicly or privately, they go out of their way to demonstrate their empathetic understanding for the difficult position that University Athletic Director Dave Brandon and University President Mary Sue Coleman face (which is more than I can say for me).

As for this year’s “Fresh Five” and what they do or don’t know, or do or don’t feel about the “Fab Five,” I will say this.  Engel offers quotes from Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, in both cases employing the quotes to suggest that the players just don’t know much or care much about the “Fab Five.”  My own experience with these two young men suggests that they, very appropriately, care the most about and want to focus on their own team and making contributions to its success.  And it is true that they are young, neither even born yet when Michigan was last in the Final Four.  As a college teacher, I can assure you that they aren’t the only college students who don’t know that much about what happened twenty years ago.  But then, that’s part of why they’re in college, isn’t it: to inform themselves and develop an understanding of their place in the world and its history.  So yeah, because they were unborn, they only know about the “Fab Five,” as Engel claims, from other sources.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t care.  On the contrary, they have both also made clear, and publicly so, that they care about and respect, and consider themselves part of a lineage descending from the “Fab Five.”   If he were informed, Engel might have noticed that during Michigan’s February 27th home game against Penn State, during which the renovated Crisler Center was rededicated and numerous past Michigan players and teams — though not, conspicuously, the Fab Five — were publicly honored, both Glenn and Mitch (along with other teammates including Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Trey Burke), shaved their hair to match the hairstyles worn by the “Fab Five.”  I’d add that the day after Jimmy King’s visit to our class, Glenn, sporting a glittery “Fab Five” snapback baseball cap, expressed his admiration that King should be so unselfishly willing to share his time with university students and, moreover, so even-handed in his discussion of how Brandon and Coleman have approached the issue of the public legacy of the teams he was a part of.

So Engel is just flat wrong, both about the “Fab Five” and about the “Fresh Five.”  But his being wrong isn’t the main thing that bothers me: it’s the nature of the argument (the reductive, dichotomous comparison of two pseudo-entities: “Fab Five” vs. “Fresh Five”) and, even more, the broader ideology his argument strives to reinforce.  I get that within the simple-minded world of sports journalism: comparisons between the two teams are tempting.  It’s just apparently too neat to resist for most sportswriters that a) 20 years separate Michigan’s two final four appearances and 20 is a round number — cool!! ; b) both teams featured a group of players anointed with the moniker “five” preceded by an alliterative adjective (“Fab” in the case of the class recruited in 1991 and “Fresh” in the case of the class recruited in 2012 — never mind that it was the press itself which did the anointing in both cases).

The problem, to begin with (as I would guess any member of either the “Fab Five” or “Fresh Five” would be among the first to point out), is that both groups were on rosters that actually had more than five players on them.  The press and apparel manufacturers may have found the neatness of a single class of five talented players who, in virtue of their positions, could by themselves form a full five person team blindingly alluring.  But I don’t think the players, their coaches, or any knowledgable fans ever forgot that each group was just part of a larger group, and a larger group on whom they heavily depended for their successes and with whom they share the responsibility for their failures.

Then, Engel calls the “Fab Five’s” legacy a “marketing gimmick,” but seems to lay the blame for this on the players themselves, as though they were the ones who signed (or personally benefitted) from the endorsement deal the University signed with Nike.  Even in the  “Fab Five” documentary that Engel — bursting through an open door with obvious self-satisfaction — calls “heavily biased,” we see the five teenagers rejecting the “Fab Five” moniker, telling the camera that they refer to themselves as “Five X (Times).”  I didn’t know them then.  But I know the “Fresh Five” now, and I can tell you that they really don’t seem to think of themselves in  terms of that nickname either.

They do, however, show a clear bond that comes from sharing the experience of being members of the same recruiting class.  And I imagine that’s not too different from what really held together Ray, Jimmy, Juwon, Jalen, and Chris.  In fact, it’s not that different from what seems to me to hold together, say, a group of 5 graduate students that we admit as a cohort into our doctoral program in Comparative Literature at Michigan.  My point is that it’s weak argumentation and unfair, moreover, to chastize either group for the “marketing gimmicks” that their universities and apparel manufacturers, with the aid of the press corps, devise to sell tickets, seal television deals, and sell sneakers.

Elsewhere, Engel trumpets the fact that the “Fab Five” — wait, let’s just correct this language once and for all:  the 1991-2 and 1992-3 Michigan Men’s basketball teams “led to zero titles, an NCAA probation and effectively destroyed this program for two decades.”  He presents this as bare fact to counter what he calls the “revisionist history” whereby the “Fab Five celebrates itself as revolutionaries who changed the game.”  The only part that is true is that neither of those two teams actually won the NCAA title.  Okay.  But neither the “Fab Five” as a group, nor the teams of which they formed a part, “led to NCAA probation and effectively destroyed this program for two decades.”  Once again, Engel uses the shorthand “Fab Five” with a mean-spirited sloppiness, omitting the fact that of the 1991-2 and 1992-3 teams, only one player — Chris Webber — was found to have violated NCAA regulations.

Moreover, it is not “revisionist history” to say that the Fab Five changed the game, it is a widely accepted interpretation of the subsequent course of development of the college game (and for that matter the pro game).  And the revolutionary effect went well beyond what Engel seems to consider mere sartorial accoutrements (“fashion”).  As I have written elsewhere, “The shorts and socks, the shaved heads and smack talk were not only stylish ends in themselves, not only racially signifying acts of rebellion. That, too, sure, but these were also indispensable elements of the Fab Five’s signature and still-unmatched elevation of the game, by playing as an expression of joy and an exercise of desire and power, not “power over” but rather “power to, together”.  And that, to me, looks a lot like what I see the “Fresh Five” — sorry, the whole 2012-2013 Michigan’s basketball team — exhibiting as well.

And this brings me to what I find most insidious, disturbing and, frankly, enraging about this weak argument and the ignorant claims and decontextualized quotes out of which it is fabricated: it works to reinforce a racialized and racist discourse operating within the culture of basketball, especially college basketball.  Let me be direct.  Historically speaking, basketball is a game whose principal and most enduring innovations have emerged from the hoops laboratories of America’s inner-city playgrounds, whether those were populated by ethnic immigrant communities (the sons of Irish-American or Jewish immigrants) in the first half of the 20th century or by African Americans in the second half.

At the same time, those who have governed the game at both the amateur level and the professional level have always played a tricky game of trying to capitalize on those innovations and their origins while not affronting the largely white, male, middle-aged (and now mostly suburban) audience that pays to watch the game.   What the Michigan teams of the early 90s did was challenge the rules of that tricky game by refusing to check their humanity at the door.  They insisted on being basketball players and human beings, with origins, experiences, personalities, and preferences.  In their wake, countless high school, college, and professional players would follow suit, forcing the game’s governors to broaden and diversify just a little bit the variety of marketable images that an aspiring player might take up.

Let me deliberately put it in the simple terms that Mac Engel might understand:  because of the “Fab Five” (remember, I’m deliberately employing the reductive terminology) a light-skinned player like Mitch McGary from a small town in Indiana can feel free to  dive after loose balls, rebound like his life depends upon it, throw the occasional behind the back pass and shave his head to honor his predecessors and a darker-skinned player like Trey Burke can feel free to mostly very quietly go about surgically dissecting defenses for layups, drop-offs, or kick-outs with his throw-back point guard play, and humiliate his opponents with his pocket-picking ball defense and shave his head to honor his predecessors.  Do you see?  They can be express their particular talents as players, perform their roles on a team, and do so in the unique way that expresses their individual personality and so fulfills them as human beings as well.

In short, chill, Mac.  Or, really, step off.  There is no “Fab Five.” There is no “Fresh Five.”  There are just, at any given moment on the court, five.  Five adolescents, thrown together by a maelstrom of forces well beyond their control, but choosing to forge bonds of respect and friendship in order to draw the best from themselves and each other: delighting in the human magic by which they are irreducibly different from one another and yet able to labor in common cause.  Winning games, or winning titles, that takes care of itself, or rather — as for all but one team every year — doesn’t.  And, in any event, however important the titles may be, they are not the measure of success for anyone who understands that any given five are just developing human beings.

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