This past week the University of Michigan Men’s Basketball program hired Juwan Howard as their next head coach. It was the first step in mending what has been strained relationship between the school and the famed Fab Five team that Howard was a member of.
Let’s take a step back. If you’re a sports fan and you’ve never heard of the Fab Five there’s a major gap missing in your sports history data bank. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Howard came together in the 1991 season and became the first-ever freshmen quintet to start a college basketball game.
They didn’t just start a game, they changed the game. The Fab Five became cultural phenomenons whose notoriety grew beyond the college basketball world. They were must-see TV every week they played, bringing a high flying style of play to the court that was reminiscent of playground hooping on a Saturday afternoon at Rucker Park.
Black socks, black sneakers, long baggy shorts, shaved bald heads and swag for days, the Fab Five made their mark on the sports world, reaching back to back Final Fours in 1992 and 1993. That accomplishment and the way they did it unofficially immortalized the Fab Five as cult icons for generations of basketball players that came after them.
Years after the Fab Five played their last game together at Michigan, the school removed their Final Four banners from Crisler Arena as part of self-imposed sanctions that resulted from one of the largest financial scandals in NCAA history. The violations primarily involved payments booster Ed Martin made to several individual players to launder money from an illegal gambling operation. Though several Michigan players from multiple seasons were involved, Webber was the only member of the Fab Five that was implicated in the scandal.
The scandal itself didn’t just forge a divide between the Fab Five and the school, but also between the players themselves for more than a decade. ESPN’s critically acclaimed documentary on the Fab Five specifically detailed the unfortunate extended rift between Rose and Webber (Webber declined to participate in the ESPN film).
There have been moments like UM’s 2013 Final Four appearance and Webber being invited as an honorary captain at a UM Football game last year that initiated somewhat of a reunion between Michigan and the Fab Five. With Howard’s hiring, both parties seem to have come full circle and are ready to move on.
As a long time fan myself of Michigan’s basketball and football teams, I thought the self-imposed sanctions were a knee jerk overreaction by some high-level, old, white, un-engaged administration staffers. Totally vacating the memory of the Fab Five from Michigan’s athletics history removed everything these five young men accomplished in such a short period of time. College basketball is what it is today because of the cultural influence of the Fab Five.
Howard coming back and being a part of Michigan’s basketball culture should immediately impact recruiting similar to the effect Penny Hardaway has had on Memphis’ recruiting success. But the first course of action by Howard as the head coach should be to lobby for the Final Four banners to be raised to the rafters again. Reestablishing the historical essence of one of the greatest times in basketball history will complete the healing process and could once again restore the University of Michigan as a force to be reckoned with in the college basketball world.