The Fab Five Got It Wrong: They Needed to Look in the Mirror

Kendrick MarshallCorrespondent IMarch 15, 2011

ANN ARBOR, MI - FEBRUARY 20:  University of Michigan star forward Chris Webber strolls upcourt during a game against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers on February 20, 1993 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Chris Webber was part of the top recruiting class known as the Fab Five and led Michigan to the NCAA championship game in each of his two years at the college. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

As teenagers, Jalen Rose and his Fab Five teammates believed that African-American basketball players who played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke were Uncle Toms.

That sentiment was expressed during The Fab Five, ESPN's "30 for 30'' documentary film about the University of Michigan basketball team of the early 1990s.

“For me, Duke was personal,” Rose said.  “I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for.  Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like  me.  I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms. ”

“This is the reality, as a 38-year-old man, I respect the kind of athlete they recruit. They like to recruit well-to-do black guys that come from well-accomplished families that they understand are going to represent their program a certain way. They’re not interested necessarily in developing a kid from an urban area to try to teach how to be a young man.”

He added, “It’s not because I don’t respect Coach K.  I think he’s a fantastic coach.  It’s just that everybody knows there’s a stigma to where you sign to go to school.  In the early 1990s, if you signed to go play at the University of Miami, University of Michigan, or the [UNLV] Runnin’ Rebels, you were considered, I would say, on the ‘B’ side.  If you went to Notre Dame, Indiana, Duke, you were on the ‘A’ side.”

Rose later admitted his bitterness toward Duke was as a result of him never establishing a relationship with his father, the late Jimmy Walker, and living in poverty with his mother in urban Detroit.

I also grew up without knowing my father being raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago.

I don’t want to sound bitter, but maybe the Fab Five were just like those Duke players by attending Michigan instead of a historically black college.

Jimmy King said growing up in South Bend, Ind. few kids in his neighborhood were Duke fans or could relate to what that university stood for.

Why did he and his buddies go to Michigan then? It is an affluent school as well.

Rose, Chris Webber, King, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson became what they despised.

According to a recent U.S. News Best Colleges report, Michigan was ranked among the 50 best universities in the country. Duke, by the way, was ranked in the top 10.

Athletes like Rose and King are the people some HBCU alums might deem Uncle Toms for shunning the Gramblings, Jackson States, Morgan States and Texas Southerns of the world for Michigan, Duke, North Carolina, USC and Indiana.

To them, not attending an HBCU is just as bad as going to Duke.

We like to think that the Fab Five made some transcendent impact on college basketball by wearing baggy shorts, black shoes, socks and embracing hip-hop culture while making back-to-back Final Four appearances as freshmen and sophomores.

But those young black men could have made a bigger impact if they had decided to suit up for an HBCU instead of a Big Ten school. That would have been revolutionary.

That would have been an appropriate rebellion against the establishment.

However, they joined the establishment and served a system they felt exploited them.

Webber criticized black colleges for not putting themselves in a position to attract elite athletes by upgrading facilities, arenas and acquiring lucrative TV contracts.

“A lot of people put that pressure on me to go to an HBCU, like ‘Come on, Chris, you can change it around, you can change it around’” Webber said as chronicled in the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves.

“But I think that process has to start within the black college association,” he continued. “Playing on BET is not good enough for me. Just like me playing on MTV is good enough. I want the world to see. In a way I feel guilty because we could have changed that rhyme. But we had to do what was best for us at that time. But we talked a lot about going to black colleges.”

So HBCUs didn't fit Webber's standards just like his teammates believed they didn't fit Duke's standards.

Go figure.  

As we all know the Fab Five became a commercial hit to the tune of $10 million in merchandise sales for Michigan while on campus those two years.

Meanwhile, HBCUs have struggled to compete for blue-chip athletes in the game that is recruiting as well as the contests between the white lines.

Webber’s advisers were right. They could have changed the landscape of college basketball forever. However, they chose not to.

The Fab Five at an HBCU could have paved the way for more young black amateur athletes to consider those schools. Webber and Co. would have been true pioneers. Could you imagine the ramifications of a black college appearing in back-to-back Final Fours?

Instead, they laid the groundwork for black prep athletes to not even give a second thought about attending an HBCU. The best black athletes continue to end up in the SEC, Big East or the ACC in droves.

These days HBCU schools are either relegated to the First Four or a date with a No. 1 seed in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament. 

The band of brothers helped a rich, predominately white school win in the end, while black schools suffered another in a long line of crushing defeats.

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