Watching Miami Heat games this season, viewers catch glimpses of NBA journeyman Juwan Howard. He sits toward the forgotten end of the bench. His goatee he's had since birth is still impeccable, flecks of gray and all. He watches helplessly as the Two and a Half Men of South Beach (Dwyane, Lebron and Chris) continue to fall short of expectations. Juwan knows a little bit of about that himself.
Last night, ESPN premiered Fab 5, the latest sports documentary in it's critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series. Their names - Chris Weber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and, of course, Juwan Howard - ring familiar in the ears of longtime hoop enthusiasts. They are regarded by many as the greatest class of incoming freshmen ever recruited. And as sure as they lived up to it, they also fell victim to it.
The five played together intact for just two seasons, but the memories of watching them play and the impact they made have lasted for more than two decades. If you missed last night's airing, find it, wait for it, record it, watch it.
I do, however, take issue with parts of the visual presentation. The on-court footage of the Fab 5 was trip down memory lane, but it was also a never-ending trip down the actual lane. Over and over, each clip was punctuated with a thunderous slam dunk, swinging from the rim, posterizing opponets. Though exciting to watch, the imagery did them a bit of a disservice. The Fab 5 couldn't have accomplished the unprecedented success that they did if their basketball prowess was limited to rim clutching acrobatics.
Black athleticism is more than just young kids wearing bagging shorts dunking the ball aggressively. The highlights chosen for the film painted a one-dimensional picture of their talent and ability. No team reaches the NCAA Championship game two years in a row, led by underclassmen, without range and depth to their game. The stereotype of the menacing and unnuanced urban youth is overplayed. But what's new?
What the film does really well is tell a coming of age story of five young black men who were given a crash course in the racket that is big time collegiate sports. There is an account of Chris Weber observing how his jersey with his name emblazoned on the back was selling for $75.00, yet he found himself unable to even buy a slice of pizza. The irony wasn't lost on Chris and the other four.
Jalen Rose similarly reflected on a team trip to Italy, after their inaugural season, noting that a lot of money was being made as they played European professionals in sold-out crowds gyms, yet they saw none of it. NCAA rules prohibit such fairness. This isn't terribly different from the legendary stories of record companies, both black- and white-owned, robbing black artists of royalties due to them. The exception is this is collegiate sports where it's condoned and sanctioned.
Indeed, mistakes were made by members of the Fab 5 and punishments were leveled. But for 19-year-old-kids mistakes are easy to come by. It's even easier to get ensnared by the nebulous rules of the NCAA, the very organization that realizes 3 plus 2 equaled Fab 5 millions - which these young men saw not a penny of.
I'm always struck by people who prefer the college game over the pros for reasons of purity. There is very little pure about a billion dollar industry like that thrives on cheap labor. Whereas many Fortune 500 companies outsource their work overseas, if the NCAA could get away with it they would in-source sweatshop labor from southeast Asia. Collegiate sports lost its cherry as soon as merchandising and billion dollar network contracts came into play.
This is why it brought me great satisfaction to be reminded that at one point, in protest of the millions being made off their talent by the likes of Nike and their own school, the Fab 5 began warming up in solid blue t-shirts, no swoosh, no university emblem, nothing. Resistance and defiance is a major part of the story of the Fab 5. It's no surprise that Muhammad Ali embraced the young men during an encounter in Atlanta and told them to "shock the world". Though falling short of winning a championship, they did just that. One