The Rebels & Fab Five
Much more than baggy shorts and black socks.
by Carron J. Phillips / @MrPhillips1983
This week in America everybody is doing the exact same thing — filling out a bracket. And as March Madness begins, true basketball heads will start to reflect on some of the great teams in college basketball history.
Don Haskins’ 1966 Texas Western team changed the sport forever when he was the first to start five black players, but, in the 1990s, a new crop of teams started to make its mark on the game and society. John Thompson turned Georgetown into a powerhouse in the 1980s and gave black people across the country a team of their own to cheer for. Nolan Richardson’s ’93 and ’94 squads at Arkansas put the Deep South on the map with their “40 minutes of hell.” But from 1990-1993 two teams took over college basketball while also forever changing the game that we all know and love.
This past weekend HBO documented the Runnin’ Rebels from UNLV. While I think HBO did a horrible job telling the story, it was still needed. Too much time was spent on the past instead of focusing on what everybody wanted to see: the story of the ‘90 and ‘91 teams. For those of you who are old enough to remember, you understand how great of a team that Jerry Tarkanian had out in Vegas. This was something that nobody had ever seen before. Loyola Marymount had a similar style with “The System” with Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, but they couldn’t compare to what Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon were doing. These were college cats with grown men game. When they beat Duke by 30 in the national championship game in 1990, the nation started to really understand how great they were. In the HBO special, Coach K spoke about what took place that April night, “They just killed us….They were dominant and I thought they played their best game in the championship game. Which says something about the character of their team.”
While the accomplishments of UNLV’s two greatest seasons were marred by NCAA investigations and scandals, their legacy will never be forgotten. In contemporary college basketball we’ve never seen a team go on a 41-game win streak with an average margin of victory of 28 points. Their dominance was uncanny and may not ever be duplicated.
The Fab Five
As the end credits of ESPN’s “30 for 30: The Fab Five” rolled by on my TV screen Sunday night, I sat on my couch in silence. I was trying to find the right word to sum up how I felt about what I had just watched, but I couldn’t think of a one that could do my feelings justice. I had been waiting on this day my whole life, and while the Fab Five impacted every young black boy who loved basketball in the ’90s (especially those of us in Michigan), it impacted me on a much deeper scale.
For those of you that don’t remember, I’m the guy who wrote the Duke story a few months back that received 49 angry comments. But I understand why most black people dislike Duke. Think about it — as ESPN started to blow up in the early ’90s, their coverage of Duke was off the charts. And every great black team during that time period had one thing in common, Duke. UNLV beat them, and then lost to them. The Fab 5 lost to them three times in two years, and Arkansas defeated them in the ‘94 national title game. So I get it, I really do.
I was born and raised in Saginaw, MI, one of the most dangerous cities in America, but I grew up middle class. But in middle school I was one of three black kids on basketball team at an all white school. In college, my best friend was a manger for the Michigan basketball team when Tommy Amaker was coaching and I’ve been to Crisler Arena multiple times and witnessed the banners not being there. On the University of Michigan’s campus the Fab Five and Chris Webber do not exist, at all. So I understand why Chris Webber is still upset, and at the same time I totally agree with what Jalen Rose said about Duke in the ESPN special.
The Fab Five changed basketball forever. Most people get caught up in the baggy shorts, bald heads, trash talk and black shoes and socks. But it was deeper than that; just last season the country was either ranting or raving over John Calipari’s freshmen at Kentucky. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe took the country by storm, but if it wasn’t for Juwan, Jalen, Chris, Jimmy and Ray, their acceptance would never have been possible.
It had only been a few years since freshmen were even allowed to play college basketball, but Steve Fisher had the kahunas to actually start five of them. To get a better understanding of it, in 2003 Carmelo Anthony took Syracuse to a national title as a freshman. The Fab Five went to back-to-back national title games as freshmen and sophomores. It had never been done before, and it probably won’t happen again.
The Fab Five also gave a generation of young black basketball players a team to identify with. UNLV was on the west coast and had a team full of players who looked like grown men, and Georgetown just seemed like the team that your uncle or dad loved so you just wound up routing for them too. But for me and my generation, the Fab Five was our team. They embodied what the young hip-hop generation was and displayed it on the basketball court. It was just like rap music — some people hated it; our parents didn’t understand it, but we did. We felt them.
Every generation has their own calling card, and every race showed be equally depicted in the media. Some young black men decided to play ball at Duke. Duke was and is still needed; if this were TV they would be like The Cosby Show. A nice and affluent two-parent household, but everyone can’t identify with that. The Fab Five belonged to the kids whose parents were working overtime just to get them some shoes to hoop in. If Duke was the Cosby Show, then the Fab Five was South Central.