Mag Excerpt: Fab Five Critics Miss the Point

The Spring issue of GoBlueWolverine the Magazine looks back on the improbable season turned in by the Michigan basketball team. In this mag excerpt, this month's letter from the editor is directed at critics of the Fab Five and why many of the prevalent critiques are way off base.

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Title: Fab Five Documentary Critics Missing the Point
Byline: Letter from the editor, by Sam Webb

The uproar caused by ESPN's "The Fab Five" documentary is both understandable and perplexing.  Understandable because they were a polarizing quintet when they took the floor twenty years ago, so it doesn't come as a great surprise that much of that abhorrence remains present today. However, some of the critiques are perplexing because they frequently seize upon false premises to justify their disdain. 

In the interest of full disclosure, let me be forthright in saying that following the Fab Five was one of the most fun and memorable fan experiences of my life. It wasn't just because of their flamboyant success on the floor.  It also had a great deal to do with their status as iconic figures culturally.  It's that greater social significance that columnist, Jason Whitlock takes such issue with.  In his zeal to marginalize the Fab Five's cultural relevance, he crafted two columns in which he erected hastily built straw men before subsequently knocking them down. Case in point, his March 16th piece titled: Fab Five Film more fantasy than reality…

The Fab Five are taking credit for the real accomplishments of John Thompson's and Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas.

It was Thompson's all-black, Ewing-led teams a decade before the Fab Five that shook the foundation of college basketball, changed the complexion of starting lineups across the country, opened coaching doors that had previously been closed to blacks and paved the way for black sportswriters at major newspapers.

Whitlock is right in his contention that Michigan's five rebellious freshmen weren't college basketball's first non-conformists.  He's wrong, though, when he asserts that Georgetown's significance is somehow cheapened by virtue of the Fab Five's popularity.  Jalen Rose, Chris Webber Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson don't obscure what Georgetown meant anymore than Georgetown overshadows the importance of the 1966 Texas Western team.  That, after all, was the first major college team to have an all black starting five. 

But to my knowledge no one is suggesting the Fab Five were transcendent figures because they changed the racial dynamics in the sport.  They were a transcendent group because their non-conformity was embraced by the mainstream.  For many blacks that were accustomed to exhibiting the social duality long believed necessary to excel, it was acceptance on a level they hadn't imagined.  It was as if the "social dress code" that mandates how one talks, dresses, or in this case, plays a game, didn't apply.  Here you had a generation of people, regardless of race, identifying with a group of black kids that donned bald heads, wore baggy uniforms, talked smack, and listened to rap.  That was undeniably different and undeniably relevant.

But Whitlock's straw man efforts didn't stop there.  He sang in concert with Grant Hill when the former Duke standout got all indignant over the commentary offered up about him and his beloved Blue Devils in the documentary.  The handwringing over the "uncle tom" reference belies both men's intelligence.  Every comment about Duke in the piece was uttered in the past tense.

Said Rose during the film, "I hated Duke. I felt like they only recruited black players that are uncle toms."

The inability or unwillingness to understand that Rose was speaking of his 18 year old mindset is terribly convenient.  It allowed Grant Hill, for instance, to project all of his anger and frustration about a disparagement he probably has heard his entire life onto Rose.  Now he had both the reason and opportunity respond to such aspersions while waxing philosophically in the New York Times.  In Hill's well written piece he demonstrated his knowledge of Latin, his pride in his family and his great two-parent upbringing, and his unwavering belief in Duke as an institution of higher learning.  Bravo!  The only piece of enlightenment there is that he knows Latin.  But bravo anyway.

Leave it to Whitlock, though, to belabor Hill's erroneous point… 

And if it's clear Rose and Jimmy King were speaking in past tense, there would've been no need for Rose to send Hill and Jay Williams tweets before the documentary aired explaining that's how the Fab Five felt 20 years ago.

I don't know, maybe Rose knew that such volatile comments were ripe for being taken out of context by those afflicted with selective listening disease or by those simply looking to rabble rouse.  Why would he ever have thought such a thing? 

To eradicate any possible ambiguity about matter, the blog "Wolverine Liberation Army" counted the times in which the past tense was used when referencing Duke and its players.

"was". "hated". "hated". "felt". "hated". "was". "came". "went". "played". "was". "had to". "was". "resented". "looked".

That's 14 instances in which it was made abundantly clear that the feelings being described were in the past.  It took a blogger to do a job that a journalist should have done before drawing false conclusions.  Nevertheless, just when you think things couldn't possibly get any more ridiculous, there's this egregious jewel from his March 21st column titled: Rose's message misses the point…

Let me get this right. When black men call each other "Uncle Toms" and "bitches" for no good reason and the financial benefit of ESPN, it's admirable candor? When Don Imus calls black women "nappy-headed hos" for no good reason and the financial benefit of a radio station, it's a crime against humanity and a fireable offense?

This comparison is so preposterous that it probably should be ignored, but it's just too incendiary not to address.  Had Rose and King been speaking of their present day feelings about Hill or Duke, maybe the juxtaposition would have been apt.  But for the thousandth time, they were speaking of their feelings as unworldly teenagers. A 66 year old Don Imus called members of the 2007 Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy headed hoes."  His weren't the musings of an immature kid, nor were they a reflection of a point of view from when he was.  Anyone that can't see the difference is probably too obtuse to banter with.  But hey, I'm a glutton for punishment.

If it's clear Rose and King don't view Hill as an Uncle Tom, a bitch and a sellout now, then it would be very easy for Rose and King to offer a concise apology for the confusion and move on. But, asked repeatedly during the past week to back away from the statements, Rose sidestepped each time.

"Well, the bottom line is this: They do recruit a certain kind of player," Rose told Skip Bayless. "They recruit a lot of players from private schools."

Yep. Duke, for the most part, recruits two-parent kids. But, more than that, Coach K recruits kids who are willing to be led. Every good coach wants to be a leader. He wants to use his intellect, maturity and life experience to mold boys into young men and winners.

Patrick Ewing and those Georgetown players of the early 1980s submitted to coach Thompson's will and vision. They built a legacy that stands 30 years later. Unlike Michigan and the Fab Five, Georgetown basketball looks the same today as it did during Hoya Paranoia. Think about it.

That two-parent comment is as repugnant as anything attributed to Rose.  The abundance of single family homes is a reality that the kids that come from them have no control over.  Ultimately the parents are still responsible for guiding their children appropriately, but the implication that it's acceptable to overlook them because of the mindset that sometimes results from that condition isn't consistent with what most coaches claim to stand for. 

Aren't coaches often lauded for their altruism?  Aren't they given praise for not just developing players, but developing men?  Who needs that male guidance more than those that have lacked it the majority of their lives?  More specifically, who needs it more, the Grant Hills or the Jalen Roses?  I'm not suggesting that coaches should feel guilty about landing a Grant Hill.  I'm suggesting that they should feel guilty about avoiding a Jalen Rose.

That is what Whitlock suggests present day Michigan is doing… avoiding players that come from areas or circumstances like those that produced Rose.  That's an uninformed point of view and a blanket assertion that John Beilein and anyone currently affiliated with Michigan basketball would patently refute. There may not be a significant Detroit contingent on the Wolverines' current roster, but that has nothing to do with a reluctance to pursue such players.  Check the numerous offers to kids from Flint, Detroit, and Saginaw post Steve Fisher for proof.  Furthermore, if the university wants to put some distance between it and Rose, the brass in Ann Arbor certainly has a funny way of showing it.  Whenever he is back in Ann Arbor he is held up as a shining example of a Michigan man. Now Rose is attempting to be that example in a place where the need is much greater, his hometown.  Of course Whitlock believes that Rose's message is poorly conceived in this case also.

Bitterness is a poison too many fatherless black boys view as an antibiotic.

In the documentary Rose cops to being bitter about his upbringing. In subsequent interviews Rose has stated he believes his bitterness drove him to success on and off the court.

He's wrong, and his message is dangerous. Bitterness, envy and hatred destroy the person harboring those feelings. Bitterness inspired by fatherlessness is one of the primary reasons there are more young black men incarcerated than in college.

Jalen Rose doesn't know what he doesn't know. He's the exception, the aberration. He's 6-feet-8, the offspring of an elite athlete. People like Perry Watson recognized Rose's potential, wrapped him in a cocoon of support and love and fought to make sure Rose's bitterness didn't engulf him.

Most fatherless kids don't grow to be 6-8. They're 5-8, have little athletic skill and are justifiably mad at the world. They don't have groups of men bending over backward helping them to see all the opportunities the world offers them if they can put away some of the bitterness and focus on doing what's necessary to get an education.

Whitlock ignorantly assumes that Rose doesn't understand the uniqueness of his circumstance. Rose's actions account for that truth.  Rose is one of those "men bending over backwards to help (kids) see opportunities."  Rose is in his ninth year awarding academic scholarships to kids in Detroit.  Rose will be opening up a charter school in Detroit next fall called the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy.  There is no Jalen Rose basketball academy, by the way.  It seems to me that Rose is giving both his time and his money back to his community in hopes of promoting education as the vehicle for prosperity. 

It seems to me that Rose isn't the one missing the point.

Be sure to check out the rest of this issue which also features a round table discussion with Michigan's assistant basketball coaches, a season review by former point guard David Merritt, and much much more. Then stay tuned for next month's issue of GoBlueWolverine The Magazine, which will be our Michigan Football Offensive Preview .

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