A Lesson on Blackness from The Fab Five (Jalen x Jimmy x Chris x Ray x Juwan)

Jose Vilson Jose

Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson a.k.a. The Fab Five of UMich

Last night, ESPN premiered the much-anticipated documentary “Fab Five” (the behind-the-scenes story of The Fab Five from University of Michigan’s early 90s days) as part of their 30 for 30 sports short docs. Most of my sport fan friends opted to watch this in lieu of sleeping the extra hour we all missed out on. The story of these five boys who were quickly shoved into manhood reminded me of the fanaticism for college basketball my friends found back then, but it also called to mind the implicit separation some groups put on Black athletes with the rest of their communities.

Jalen Rose and Jimmy King’s segment about Duke University basketball (and their early visceral perceptions about Grant Hill) rung hard in my ear, like a timbre I heard before in my neighborhood. People from the hood never went for Grant Hill until he got to the Pistons, and even then felt funny. On the other hand, they cheered on the “niggas” because, while they didn’t play like those players, they empathized with their bravado and defiant attitudes. We loved the pros more than anything else, but seeing these kids with the new styles had a charm to it that made the rest of us feel like we could do it, too.

When I got to Syracuse University, I saw what the rest of the country saw for the previous half-century: the Black athlete on the college campus (and in general society) had a quixotic relationship with the rest of the student body. On one end, they’ve been recruited by the college to play their specific sport for a team they’ve assembled in exchange for room and board. Out of the many letters they may receive in the mail, they choose to play for that college, and it’s simultaneously seen as an honor and an entry into advancing that sport into a career. That’s what’s fed to us and Americans in this country have generally bought into this lane of thinking because it’s the easiest.

What the documentary did last night was force us to think about the uglier side of collegiate sports. The millions of dollars that the presidents of these universities, network and cable television stations, paraphernalia makers, and plenty of corporations make hand-over-fist on the sports played predominantly by Blacks and Latinos in this country highlights a huge issue we see whenever we think a traditional institution gets corrupted by its own greed. The ratio of monies these entities make individually over these athletes is nowhere close to fair to the athletes, including the “compensation” of a back-up career. Many of these athletes come from low income neighborhoods where scrapping and hustling for the next dollar is a skill we learn at an early age.

Thus, players even getting a modicum of a stipend for their services just to make through to the next should be standard for colleges, not a judgment of virtues.

Compound that with the inevitability of the way some Black intellectuals ostracize the Black athlete for the stereotypes about them: their lack of study habits, their propensity for white women (a whole ‘nother issue that deserves its own blog post), their apathy towards social consciousness, and we have a recipe for jealousy, miscommunication, and oftentimes, battles that need not be. This Black “nation within a nation,” as WEB DuBois would put it, increases the false dichotomy Black intellectuals put on Black athletes and is symptomatic of the way some powerful men choose to exclude full representations of Black people in this country.

While these factions fight against each other, Bill Walton and Dick Vitale, the well-to-do opportunists they are, decided that the Fab Five played far too rough (even when they played the game with unselfish strategy), had too much bravado (even when Bill and Dick made money from commentating their games and expressing their opinions in an increasingly popular sport) and didn’t deserve to be in the league (even when they made the championship twice). The documentary did a few things effectively, but the first thing was shine a bright line on the shadows our current HD screens don’t allow us to see. I have respect for both of the commentators I mentioned, but, as with so many others, their version of morals always collides with the racial and economic realities of the sports they try to find relevance in.

With all these monies exchanging hands and the featured labor getting pennies on the dollar for their services living in collegiate squalor, the astute observer should make the connection to a post-modern slavery until they turn professional.

Yes, we ought to highlight more Black people who don’t do sports, or act, or sing, or rap, or any other form of entertainment for the masses. We should have more conversation around this idea of Black intellectual, too, because what some Black intellectuals emit isn’t always intelligent, poignant, or even useful. When we talk about the Black athlete, we should consider the circumstances under which he or she came to be where they are, just like any human being. We should check their makings against the industry they’ve chosen for their careers instead of against our own salaries.

The sports and entertainment business are absurd. but who creates the absurdity, and who decides what gets highlighted? Who decides what’s Black and what’s not? Jalen, Jimmy, Chris, Ray, and Juwan were young kids soaking up the lessons the world had to offer. Their kinship offered them a late-20th century taste of what it meant for their Blackness to be unbearable, too.

Jose, who celebrates Pi Day, too …