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How Michigan's Fab Five Changed the NBA Forever

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How Michigan's Fab Five Changed the NBA Forever
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Swag was born two decades ago on the hips of the Michigan Wolverines’ Fab Five.

It’s hard to imagine that something as simple as altered clothing, or in this case longer and baggier shorts, could fashion a lasting culture for the NBA.

But the game changed when the nation’s premier high school talents joined together in 1991 to set a trend that would carry into the NBA and transform the league as it stands today.

It was more than just amplified shorts and black socks; the "best recruiting class ever" trotted out five freshmen, all with unfiltered attitudes to match the distinct look.

The core that would play three seasons together consisted of Detroit stars Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, Chicago's Juwan Howard and Texas talents Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Of the five, Jackson was the only player who was not honored as an All-American and never played in the NBA.

ESPN Films' "The Fab 5" documentary captured the 'basketball revolution'

The Fab Five never won an NCAA championship, which was fine, because it was bigger than the box score anyway; the Fab Five was outfitting the image of today's NBA stars.

The team’s trademark baggy shorts served as an emblem that stood for more than just fashion. The Fab Five, also in black socks, created a game powered by the players, a new tradition of doing things their way.

The culture went from this:

Mike Powell/Getty Images

To this:

John Stockton's look was fading.

The transition to a new style shorts became emblematic of a new style of player.

The new version of hoops star presented a culture shift felt with some backlash.

What was viewed from the outside as ego, disrespect or "too street" was truly just neighborhood personality breaking through.

A New York Daily News story by David Hinckley captured the controversy that surrounded Michigan's freshman:

"I think people saw us that way," says Rose. "We were the bad guys."

Some of that, he admits, came from their style: trash-talking, baggy shorts, black socks, a lot of playground swagger.

"We weren't polished," he says. "So that's how people perceived us. But remember, we were college kids. College kids say and do dumb things."

The teammates had no problem mouthing off in good fun with one another or jabbing at opponents.

Much of the Fab Five's style and attitude intermingled with the increasingly popular hip-hop culture that was growing into the game.

The young Wolverines had no problem acting true to their animated nature.

J.A. Adande wrote for ESPN.com:

Their generation was the first generation to have hip-hop provide the soundtrack to their entire adolescence. You could hear EPMD booming in the Michigan locker room or see the players jump on the scorer's table and wave their arms like in Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray" video after a victory.

The vibe of the early 90s—the Spike Lee style and Naughty by Nature sound—became a part of the game. Still to this day, the sounds of hip-hop intertwine with the NBA clubhouse.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The relationship between the NBA and popular culture is on display through Jay-Z and LeBron James.

LeBron James is a product of the Fab Five era.

The king of the NBA isn't today's league trendsetter; he's just following what the Fab Five started two decades ago. Josh Freedom Du Lac wrote for ESPN The Magazine:

If you want to know how the three-time MVP prepares to play, you have to get inside his headphones. Tonight, the custom-designed pair of Beats by Dr. Dre that James wore into the arena have been replaced by a Beats by Dr. Dre speaker, which several teammates are trying to tune out by covering their ears with their own Beats.

... He appears to be getting frothed up, an hour before tip-off. Routine stuff, he says. "I know where I want to be before each game, and the music is how I get there," he says. "I allow myself to feel the music and get lost in my preparation."

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James not only picked up on the hip-hop pulse of the Fab Five, he also has become the face of the superteam trend started at Michigan. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the headliners for superstars joining forces.

Where do you think they got that idea?

The blacktops changed with the Fab Five.

James was nine years old when Webber, Rose and Howard entered the NBA draft after their years together at Michigan. The superteams of the 70s—the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics—never came together with the same talent-collecting intention of today's superteams.

Now, top players look to run courts together, not opposing one another, while second-tier players wait for "next."

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The problems for the Fab Five's head coach, Steve Fisher, were similar to the problems of today's superteam coach.

Fisher allowed the superteam to operate as it wished, as described in Mitch Albom's book, The Fab Five: Basketball Trash Talk the American Dream:

And now fate—and a hell of a recruiting effort—had left him in charge of the most highly acclaimed freshman class in history. And he had to figure out all these major issues: Who would start? How could he keep the others happy? What about the rap music?

Were he a control freak, like some coaches, he would have laid down the law about behavior, about discipline, about how you talk, how you dress, what music plays in the locker room.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Baggier shorts, though not to the length of Michigan's, became more popular in the 90s.

Fisher never compromised the on-court product, but he allowed his young talent to create its own identity.

The Fab Five set its own standard.

It became the player's game, and it became a fashionable game.

It was all part of an early 90s power grab that took place on the Michigan campus and also in places like three-and-a-half hours west in Chicago with Michael Jordan.

It was back then that the authority over basketball changed.

The culture of the game became the culture of the player, and it has never shifted back.

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