Now that March madness (and even April apathy) are over and Michigan’s fans have started to recover/shift their focus to the upcoming football season, it’s worth watching The Fab Five, which is part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series I mentioned last week.
Unlike those films in the series that celebrate athletic accomplishments, however, The Fab Five is about the would-be dream team of Michigan basketball freshman that didn’t only lose two national championships, but got into so much trouble with the NCAA that the school voluntarily removed any banners or evidence of their victories and the basketball program suffered for years afterwards.
Four of the five members went on to the NBA (with only Juwan Howard going on to win a championship, with the Heat), and all five left Michigan to enter the draft after their sophomore year; Chris Webber was especially eager to put Michigan behind him since he’s frequently credited with making the mistake that cost Michigan the Fab Five’s second chance at a championship. (He called a timeout with no timeouts left, which is a technical foul that basically gave UNC the ball and, as most people believe, the gift-wrapped victory).
Almost ten years later, Webber was also the focus of the NCAA investigation, which accused him of lying about taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a booster who was involved in illegal gambling. Webber was eventually found guilty, for which he paid a fine, did community service, and got suspended from a handful of NBA games. The school also wiped out all of the Fab Five’s banners and titles, which is why, despite the fact scandal didn’t do much to harm his successful NBA career, Webber refused to be part of the documentary. He attended this year’s championship Michigan game, but in a private suite.
Among college basketball fans, feelings about the Fab Five era are mixed; some will always love them for their talent, style and potential, while others think they were only good for hype and ruining Michigan’s reputation. Having Fab Five member Jalen Rose as one of the film’s producers probably accounts for the film’s sympathetic tone (he went on to play in the NBA and now does commentary for ESPN), but bias or no, the movie does point out some objective truths about flaws about the way the NCAA regulates kickbacks to college players, and how playing at such a high level for no pay (while the school makes a huge profit at their expense) is what drives players to turn pro sooner than they used to. It’s even more understandable given how so many college athletes come from poverty, so they aren’t as eager to live like college students while working like NBA players, or to ask questions when enthusiastic superfans want to shower them with gifts.
As part of the NCAA ruling, the school had to disassociate itself with the Fab Five players for ten years, or up until this year, when they lost in the finals, again. While I’m not a fan of college sports in general, I did find The Fab Five to be interesting, not just in terms of how these men dealt with such big expectations and so much disappointment, but how Michigan has dealt with it and (almost) recovered.