ESPN Films: The Fab Five (2011)

Directed by Jason Hehir

Every sport has their heroes, their pioneers, and their legendary teams. For college basketball I honestly cannot think of another single team that meant more for the sport or was more recognizable than the Fab Five from the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. There are players that immeddiately pop into mind when thinking about the legends of the game, but when it comes to entire teams, there is none bigger than the group of freshman that changed the game and “shocked the world.” Any fan of basketball should easily recognize the names of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, but the five were rounded out by Ray Jackson and Jimmy King, each of which were also blue chip recruits coming out of high school.

The only one of the five who declined to be interviewed for the film is the most controversial of the bunch, Chris Webber. Webber was indicted for lying to a grand jury about improper benefits received from  U of M Booster. As a result, the university was stripped of its two Final Four appearances under the team and they were forced to vacate all the wins recorded while Webber was there. Before seeing the film, I had only heard of the legend of the team and knew of the victories and Final Fours they were forced to say never happened. Director Jaason Hehir does a great job of presenting the story and backstory of these players and their impact on the image of college basketball.

The film follows a traditional chronological narrative, which is comfortable, yes, but also necessary for an historical perspective on an influential group of people. I think what shocked me the most about the team was the revolution they put the game through, something I had not quite realized as a younger fan of the game. I grew up and currently live in an era of basketball where high school players used to be able to go straight to the NBA (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and a number of unfortunate flops). I live in the era of the “one and done,” college freshman who feature prominently on their teams just to leave after one year for the NBA thanks to the new rule prohibiting high school players to make the jump. It is also not uncommon to see baggy shorts and outspoken, arrogant players. It is the world I live in.

So knowing that it was the Fab Five which pioneered these things, I can easily put their significance into perspective, which is exactly what this film does quite well. It meshes the archive footage with interviews creating a reminiscing effect which is very becoming of the men involved. They were just college kids when they made history so hearing from them as grown men with time on their side for perspective I think creates an interesting forum to hear their side of the story. Is their perspective biased? Yes. Is the film biased? To a a degree but in reality it can only be as biased as the viewer allows. There comes a time when you must realize where the information is coming from and put that into the context of what the people are saying and from that glean the truth.

I don’t know if the fallout from the Chris Webber thing was justified, though I do tend to trust journalist Mitch Albom who proclaimed that the Webber family and Chris himself lived quite modestly and did not gloat any monetary gain while he was in college, so it is difficult to imagine that he was receiving thousands of dollars, but the fact remains that the Webber issue brings up a popular question in collegiate athletics: Do players deserve to be paid? My stance has always been that their payment is the college education, taking the stand that they do not have to pay the thousands of dollars the other students of the university do to get their college education. But it is true that these players bring in big dollars to their institutions, and to many more people, and hardly see a dime of it relatively speaking. The Fab Five are important because they helped pioneer and create the current climate in college athletics. That and they were massively entertaining, one presumes.

*** – Good


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