The Documentary Project: Volume 5 - "The Fab Five"

Note: Most of the documentaries I will be watching for this project revolve around subject matter that I don't know just a whole lot about. Because of my love for sports (and basketball in particular) and my knowledge of these events, however, I cannot write a review that sticks exclusively to the content of the film without dipping a toe into the sports side of this movie-sports equation. My apologies in advance. I'm also a Duke fan, so...

In 1991, the University of Michigan changed the face of college basketball. A program with a proud tradition, Michigan at the time was in a down period despite having recently won a national title. In an effort to rejuvenate his squad, head coach Steve Fischer hit the recruiting trails harder than ever before and managed to secure commitments from 5 highly touted players from across the country. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson all made their way to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1991, nicknaming themselves "The Fab Five." While Webber was the prize recruit, it was Rose who galvanized the young group, bringing with him the brash swagger that he picked up playing in the projects of Detroit. As a group, the Fab Five was a shock to the sensibilities of the average college basketball fan. They wore baggy shorts and black shoes, talked trash the entire game, and finished off dramatic plays with screams and taunts. They also experienced an incredible amount of success for such a young squad and this factor, combined with their appearance, made them a cultural sensation. "The Fab Five," an ESPN documentary produced by Rose, explores the impact of the group, both on and off the court, and the eventual letdown that this era was to the university.

There's no questioning the entertainment value of "The Fab Five." The follow up to ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series from last year (HIGHLY recommended for any sports fan, by the way), very few full length sports documentaries can hold your attention the way this one does. Shots and recaps of those two "magical" years are interspersed with interviews with the members of the squad (minus Webber). From a personal standpoint, it was great fun to relive the moments of those seasons because these were the formative years for my love of basketball and particularly for the hated Duke Blue Devils (a Michigan rival of sorts).

That said, this isn't in any way, shape, or form what you'd call a "fair and balanced" documentary. There's no questioning the impact of the Fab Five; they were a cultural phenomenon. But Jalen Rose would have you believe they were THE cultural phenomenon in sports, THE group that changed everything from fashion to style of play. That's simply untrue. In many ways the Fab Five were the little brothers of the University of Miami's football team in the 80s, a squad that polarized a nation of sports fans. Even more current to the rise of the Fab Five, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels had won a title only the year before this crew took to the floor and had garnered extensive attention while playing with the same style and swagger that the Fab Five "invented." Even the baggy shorts look (a style I'm extremely grateful for as a skinny white kid with a less than formidable lower body that would look terrible in the short-shorts of the 70s and 80s), which Rose takes credit for, had already been brought to the forefront by none other than Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever. College basketball may have been lagging behind the playground but the insinuation that the Fab Five started the baggy shorts trend is absurd.

In addition, the on court success of the Fab Five was, quite frankly, a bit of a disappointment considering the end result. They reached two Championship games in their first two seasons together but got crushed by Duke in 92 and watched Chris Webber call a timeout his team did not have in 93, costing his team a shot at the win. The next year, after Webber left for the NBA, Rose and Howard led them back to the Elite 8 but again they lost to the eventual champion, Arkansas. Not a bad run by any means but when you consider the attention the group brought upon themselves as they entered college, you have to feel that anything short of a title is a letdown. And at the end of the day, Chris Webber's involvement with a less than reputable "business man" during this time ultimately led to Michigan vacating the wins accumulated during the Fab Five run and cost coach Fisher his job. "The Fab Five" touches on these subjects but, as you might imagine, paints the events in a much more favorable light that they appear to outsiders. The result is the feeling that this group of guys, while significant, is much more important in their own minds than they are to the rest of the world.

We are also treated to what amounts to jealousy and name calling, as Rose and King call out their Duke counterparts, referring to vaunted Duke hero Grant Hill as an "uncle Tom." Coming from a tough background, Rose tells the camera that he felt any black man who went to Duke was selling out his race. Looking past the extremely offensive and unfair terminology, I found it more than slightly ironic that Rose and King attacked Duke though they went to Michigan, which is essentially the Duke of the Big 10, an upper class school full of upper class kids. Rose has since attempted to clarify his statement by saying this was how he felt as a teenager but wouldn't go so far as to say he didn't feel that way now. I would take great umbrage with this statement but I feel Grant Hill settled the matter much more eloquently than I ever could.

The documentary fails to touch on the most important part of the Fab Five's impact on college basketball. Their real significance was the way in which their success changed recruiting. Up until that point, very few freshmen were expected to do much in their first year on campus. Freshmen, no matter how highly recruited, generally rode the bench along with the walk-ons and were expected to wait their turn. The Fab Five forced college basketball coaches across the country to change their tactics. The ante was raised, essentially, and coaches soon found themselves working harder to bring in not one or two player but an entire class of highly touted recruits and doing anything they could to see that through. Already a dirty game in college football, recruiting became a big, nasty business in basketball and that is due in large part to the Fab Five. This part of the equation was bypassed in the film in favor of the sexy, flashy half-truths that dominate the narrative. The absence of Webber, too, takes some punch out of "The Fab Five." He comes across as petty and false, a middle class kid who preened and posed and played a thug on TV but was really much more spoiled than he'd ever have you believe. His side of the events displayed in this movie could have brought some real substance. But then again, his refusal to participate is a microcosm of his entire basketball career: disappointing. Very few players did less with more than Webber and in a way, that sums up the era of the Fab Five and the documentary about them: lots of style, very little true substance.

Grade: B