Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Updated: October 13, 2:36 PM ET
UM frosh changed game, America
By Scoop Jackson
In 1993, Mitch Albom documented the jump-off.
How five kids entered the stage in 1991 and changed the ideology of college athletics in America.
A few years before, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed the way the country felt about the game. With their style of play, differences in culture and supreme skill sets, they -- in the 1979 NCAA final -- drew the largest television audience in basketball history. As James Todd Smith put it: Bird and Magic were something like a phenomenon.
This was a pickup scrimmage, the returning players and the five new kids that would make up the 1991-92 Michigan basketball team. Practice had not yet officially begun, but players were encouraged to get together and work out on their own.
Already, a shift in the power structure was under way.
A hard-fought rebound led to a scuffle between Chris Seter, a senior forward, and Jimmy King, one of the new kids. Seter yelled, "I don't care who you think you are, you're a freshman around here!"
To which, Jalen Rose, the new 6-8 point guard, who sported a shaved head and a fake diamond earring, and had the habit of yelling 'Money!' whenever he fired a shot, immediately responded with a suggestion.
"OK, he's just a freshman. How 'bout we play freshmen against y'all?"
The upperclassmen shook their heads. This Rose kid had already gotten on their nerves with his I'm-in-charge-here attitude. Now he was drawing a line down the middle of the team. Freshmen against the rest. The veterans had been privately avoiding this since the pickup games began. They had nothing to gain. In most schools, the older players would win this challenge easily; but in most schools the veterans hadn't posted a [losing league] record last season, while the freshmen were winning every high school honor known to man.
"C'mon," Rose repeated, dribbling the ball for emphasis. "Whassup? Freshmen against y'all."
"All right," someone finally said. "Let's go."
And they drifted apart, crossing the invisible lines, those who had worn Michigan uniforms before, those who hadn't. Michael Talley, the junior guard, slapped a few of the older players on the butt, as if to say, no problem, we can handle these punks, let's do it. Seter blew a mouthful of aggravated air and dug in.
"Here we go," Rose whispered to Chris Webber (the McDonald's All-American).
"Let's run, baby," Juwan Howard said, flipping the ball to King, his roommate, who nodded over at his Texas partner, Ray Jackson.
Whoooooommmppph! A pilot light ignited. Four 18-year-olds and one 17-year-old were making like a doo-wop group dropping naturally into harmonies, creating basketball far richer than they could do apart. Howard, the big kid from Chicago, took a nice feed in low, turned and banked one in. Jackson and King, the Texas connection, came flying down on fast breaks, two blurs, seemingly out of control, collecting themselves at the last instant to jam it home and swing on the rim. Steals. Slams. They banged bodies on defense and grunted when they fought for rebounds. Sneakers squeaked up and down the hardwood floor, punctuated now and then by a "Whoooo!" holler from one of the freshmen.
The upperclassmen could not match their baskets. And they could not match their enjoyment. The freshmen were having a party out there. They nodded and pointed to each other, backpedaling after baskets as if their union were the most natural thing in the world.
They won easily.
They won again.
"Can't check me," they taunted.
Jesus, they do a lot of talking
The book was called "Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, The American Dream." In a review of the book on Amazon.com, one reviewer suggested the title be, "Fab Five: The Story of the Baggy Pants Revolution." Damn, how times have changed.
Before the Queer Eye guys but after Freddie Wildstyle'd and Yo'd, for a larger part of America, the five brothas that graced the floor in Crisler Arena that year -- that day -- were something they had never seen before. Everything about them was new. Different. Fresh to death.
Not only did they come with game, they came with juice ("swagger"), 'tudes ("arrogance"), knowledge born ("no Prop 48s") and a foresight ("arrogance, again") that they were going to change the landscape of college sports simply by being themselves.
Before they even stepped on campus together, Webber, Rose, Howard, King and Jackson knew they all were coming. They knew how rare it was for a major D-I university to get five freshmen like them at one time: African-American athletes with no JUCO records, who all passed the SATs, carried over 2.5 GPAs, who were not going to be redshirted.
Basically, the minute they all signed their letters of intent to accept scholarships (and money from boosters, in some cases) at the school Bo built, they knew they were going to become something special.
But two things happened in the midst of their making history on the basketball court. One, they found out that they would become more than just teammates, that they'd become friends, that they were, in Public Enemy lingo, "brothas of the same mind, unblind." And two, they realized they were all unapologetic about who they were and where they came from.
The former is what they dealt with internally, the latter is how they presented themselves to the world.
Like Ray Charles said: They made it do what it do.
And do it did.
Outside of reaching back-to-back NCAA finals, the Kings of New Jack's Other Swing gave America an up-close and personal look at unpoverty'd black male life in this country. They showed them how we act and react, how we talk and walk and talk the walk, how we dress to impress, style then profile, laugh to stop from crying, bleed to stay alive.
They showed America how we was livin', they showed America we.
And America fell in love.
Their 1992 championship game against Duke became the most-watched game in in NCAA basketball history. Their final game together, the next year in the championship game against UNC, became the second-most-watched game. Between the two, more than 40 million people tuned in to CBS not only to see these five brothas ball but also to see how they balled. Their style, their way, them.
More than the bald domes, fresh fades, long shorts, low or no socks, black Huarache and Maestro shoes, CXC and Karl Kani jeans, 'M' caps twisted to the right, bezels in the ear; more than the fact that they swung -- not hung -- on rims after dunks and punched each other in the chest instead of high-fiving one another after every spectacular play; more than the fact that they were all around the same size and that their facial expressions when they stepped on the dance floor were more Michael Graham than Danny Manning, more UNLV than Duke, more than anything was the undertone. Their diss-position.
The belief that win or lose, they were the sugar in honey's iced tea.
You couldn't tell them nothin'. Not a damn thang. And beyond the fashion and aesthetic statements they were unconsciously making, that is what made America fall in love, that is what made the five members of the "Baggy Pants Revolution" heroes.
But young black men like these had been seen before. America just missed it.
* * *
On the campus of the University of Illinois, a change was 'bout to come.
"Yeah, I was there in '86 and I didn't notice it then," says Illini alumni Charles Honoré. "But by the time they got there, I saw it
I saw the change."
"They" came in 1988. They came from all over the place but from one place. They didn't come at the same time. When "they" went to the Final Four in '89, people recognized but were not paying attention.
When Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Steve Bardo and Marcus Liberty made the Illini fly, they kick-started a revolution of basketballism that had never been seen as a collective.
All were the same height, all had the same game. They played ball in a way that reminded old folks of the ABA. They had a certain style, savoir without the faire.
"Their haircuts were different, their clothing was different," Honoré, a police officer who went to U of I on a track scholarship in 1984, remembers. "They took it from midlength shorts to longer ones. They wore their wristbands higher up their arms. They came in with a different style. Basketball was no longer a uniform, it was fashion."
And even they were influenced by someone else.
The advantage the University of Illinois basketball team had in 1989 was that most of them were from the Chicago area. And during that time, around the time all of them were between the ages of 13-16, between the years of 1985-88, a kid by the name of "Showtime" was playing for the Chicago Bulls.
This kid, Showtime -- a name given to him by Isiah Thomas because no other name at the time fit -- was single-fistedly changing the culture of sports. The way it was going to be played and the way it was going to look.
Now everyone saw this kid, but people from the area saw him all of the time. We saw the practices, we saw the shootarounds, we saw all 82 games, we saw the days off, we saw the Chevy Trailblazer commercials where he hit 25-foot jumpers into sunroof tops, we saw the shoes, we saw his style.
And while the world was still watching Magic and Bird, we were watching Him.
In 1988, the kid did a spot with ghetto icon Mars Blackmon, aka Spike Lee. In that initial spot -- that ran nationally in January 1989 but locally on news stations months before -- the kid's shorts ran long. While the 40 million or so Americans who watched the kid score 40 in the All-Star Game, win the dunk contest and basically make the switch from Showtime to God, we in the "area" paid attention to the details: the length of his shorts, the way his socks were worn lower than all of the other players, the way his shoes were not only three-quarters length in height (something unheard-of at the time) but the fact that they were elephant-skin leather and that he often wore them in black.
We noticed he had an earring; that he was playing golf when he wasn't playing basketball; that his suits were always tailored and hung beautifully off his body; and that his sweat suits were not gray or dull, they were baggy and detailed -- and hung beautifully off his body. We noticed that sometimes he even wore his collar up like the Fonz (or Kanye, 15 years later). We noticed his wristbands.
Ball players from the Chi, from all areas circumferencing the Chi, this is what we saw. This is what influenced us. So when the best recruiting class in the history of University of Illinois basketball came together at one time, guess who's style they came to the campus with?
Steve Bardo, the point guard for that squad, testifies.
"I feel as if we were the pioneers, not only for our play, but our style," he said.
"It started with Kendall [Gill]. He was a Jordan fanatic. He wanted to be Jordan. That year he went to [team trainer] Rod Cardinal and asked could we have a different look. Then he came to us and said, 'We're going to be a top 10 team this year, we need a different look.' That's how we got the longer shorts and the [bigger] uniforms. We loved it because it set us apart from everyone else."
When asked if he feels slighted because CWebb and Co. got credit for a revolution they may have started, Bardo simply keeps it real.
"Slighted? Never," he said. "They did something that we couldn't, they got to two [NCAA] finals, they got exposure that we never got. Plus, our squad, we didn't go for mass appeal, we got the street love. And we still get it to this day."
They did things a certain way, their way without the highway alternative. Jordan's way. They were unthreatening about it. Bardo's cleanness, Gill's prettiness, Liberty's unthugness. All played into the Huxtableness of why they were loved, but also why their flavor didn't catch on.
They were products of the culture
but melodic. Smoove, never soft. "I Can Give You More" instead of "I Need A Beat." Plus, their coach had a style all his own that regardless of how fly the Flyin' IL was, their impact couldn't get past Lou's 'do.
And the justice of poetry in this whole thing is, the team that stopped the University of Illinois from attaining worldwide credit for initiating this worldwide fame in fashion: the University of Michigan. On a Sean Higgins jump shot.
How Tupac and Janet is that?
* * *
"Many people tell me this style is terrific/it is kind of different/but let's get specific
-- BDP, "South Bronx"
In 1988, America changed forever.
And the culture of hip-hop changed it.
In the book "Rakim Told Me," author Brian Coleman explains: "Long before the Wu Tang Clan began to spread [its] tentacles; when P.Diddy was still using the name on his birth certificate; and while the heads of the Cash Money and Roc-A-Fella families were likely trying to get a date to the 7th-grade dance, Marley Marl and the Juice Crew ruled hip-hop. They were the first rap dynasty, with a distinct ruler and amazingly talented field generals. In the late '80s, there was no one making music like producer/DJ Marly Marl. And 1988 was the year it all broke out."
This crew consisted of 12 people. Just like a basketball team. Of those 12, five -- including the producer -- made history. They did it by recording a song.
The record was called "The Symphony." It was the first recorded "posse" cut. On it Marley had four of the dopest MC's (Masta Ace, Kool G. Rap, Craig G. and Big Daddy Kane) spitting battle rhymes to the world. The fifth MC (MC Shan, who also was a member of the legendary Juice Crew) missed the session. In their own right, all of the MC's were stars; together though, they became superstars.
And although it never got huge Billboard ranking and Casey Kasem never made reference to it on any one of his countdowns, "The Symphony" is possibly one of the greatest moments in hip-hop history for more than just the song. And although it will be forgotten in the history books, the 'hood knows. The 'hood always knows.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were a symphony.
They played ball unlike any before them, like they were on a personal vendetta, like they were coming back to avenge their brother's death. They -- all five -- brought the subculture of black culture into America's living rooms, dens, closets, sports bars and wallets. They -- basically, in large part -- introduced white America to hip-hop when all it knew was rap music.
"They were young and raw," is how Michael Coburn -- author of the to-be-written "Lifestyle Marketing: Leveraging Hip Hop Culture" -- likes to refer to them. "They were a different caliber of ballplayer.
"They were all freshmen but they acted like they belonged. Everything they did was relative to the history of black America and self-expression. Coltrane. Miles. Monk. All unique forms of self-expression. From a hoop and cultural standpoint [the Fab Five] basically took the Jordan Factor to the next level."
As Honoré finished: "It was almost like a changing of the guard with them. It was like going from fighting with soldiers to fighting with warriors."
And even though none of them were "gangster" about how they presented themselves to the world, they had a factor of intimidation that worked more in their favor than any faux "villains in black" label certain people in America tried to put on them.
The deep midnight blue in the color of their uniform pushed their impact further than anything the Illini could come with in their sunshine orange. And when they played at home, the gold
anything in the Nino Brown era that had any connection to gold was
huge. Anything with gold connected to the University of Michigan
In 1989, the year Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson (and Sean Higgins) won the NCAA title, sales of U of M merchandise scanned out at $1.6 million. The year after, $2 million. In 1992-93, the year after the Fab Five's freshman year, the season after the country watched them lose to Duke, sales of U of M merchandise doubled to $4.4 million. The next year, their last year at Ann Arbor together: $6.2 million.
Georgetown got replaced as black America's favorite school that we couldn't go to. The Fab Five just blew up that spot. University of Michigan became our Mecca. Everything those five cats stood for, we stood beside. Mainstream America quickly followed. The rest became a study in corporate culture.
All of a sudden urban outlet stores began to open up in strip malls in suburban neighborhoods, Tommy Hilfiger jeans started getting factory cut a little looser, sneaker companies started shipping black versions of shoes to Footlockers before they sent the white ones, culturally specific lifestyle magazines started popping up (Vibe, Slam, etc.), Newsweek did a cover story on hip-hop. Fred, Barney and the Pillsbury Doughboy start rhyming.
Blame the Symphony.
And outside of the intimidation the color scheme caused -- and the beauty within it -- the endearing quality that put everything they did over the top was that they were introduced to us as freshmen. Then as sophomores.
Their collective youth fascinated, while their inexperience made them real.
But as they became experienced, it was shown that from the Tom Ford side of things, it was Jalen Rose who was the catalyst.
His style became theirs, became them. Not only was he the leader of that team on the court, it was his "feel" for appearance that enabled the squad to become fashion mavens and style agents for an urbanity unseen.
He's the one who set the universal Fab Five standard. From his pinstriped pimp-red draft night suit to his camouflage army-fatigued bomber jackets with matching Tims and fitted New Era. His style alone has led him to being in more hip-hop videos than any other athlete ever.
And every day he reps for all five of them. Always will.
Like the mantra of Brooklyn: "We don't run. We run things."
That was how the Five of them got down. And how we got down with them.
And if you don't recognize their influence, you played yourself.
Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.