Friday, April 5, 2013

History and culture

The Fab Five, an ESPN documentary about the Michigan Wolverines basketball team of the same name, is playing again tonight on ESPN2. It was first released in 2011 and is the highest-rated ESPN film ever made. That alone might be sufficient for ESPN to be willing to show it again; especially during tournament season. But it is, of course, being rebroadcast tonight because Michigan is back in the Final Four of the men's tournament for the first time since the Fab Five's second season at Michigan.

When I it was first released, I loved it. It was a great trip down memory lane to a time when I was a couple years out of  Michigan (we had won the title with Rice, Vaught, Robinson, Mills, and Co. in my junior year) and it took time to tell the side of the story that few people focus on relative to that team, but which has come into sharp relief in the past two decades with the evergrowing pile of money that has subsumed college sports and phenomena like the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit. It also mentions the cultural impact that the team had and continues to have on the college game and America's perception of it, in which young, black men "dared" to be themselves rather than the public's self-centered idea of what they "should" be.

On the arrogant Michigan fan side, I enjoy the fact that the current team has reawakened the national following that Michigan sports often enjoys. After all, ESPN isn't broadcasting material about Louisville or Syracuse or Wichita St. because there really isn't any. Michigan has the largest living alumni base in the world and a fanbase many times larger. If there's any way to get advertisers to respond, you troll for that audience. However, it's also nice to know that there's still a certain cachet amongst Michigan athletics that creates that kind of furor. After all, the current team is also replete with starting freshmen and has become one of the more stylish of the tournament contenders because of the brilliant play of its point guard, Trey Burke, and its starting (freshman) center, Mitch McGary. The team plays exciting basketball and the larger fanbase of the game itself tends to respond to that.

Winning games in remarkable fashion doesn't hurt that cause any, either.

On the other hand, I find myself unable to watch the entire documentary because the memories it brings up are quite painful ones, as a fan. The excitement of the initial Fab Five run took a heavy hit when the team was hammered by Duke in the first title game and the missed opportunity of the second, when we were the vastly superior team to North Carolina, makes it that much worse. Combine that with the aftereffects of that team, which doomed the basketball program to a decade of mediocrity or worse from 1998 to 2008 and the shine comes off pretty quickly. To its credit, the documentary both doesn't shy away from that topic and also dares to ask questions about the presumed conclusive nature of much of it (Mitch Albom questioning the thousands of dollars allegedly given to Webber when his family lived quite modestly was the most salient point.)

But the most interesting aspect of the current team is that, while the Fab Five had enormous impact on the cosmetic culture of the game, the current team is silently providing veracity to a perception about B1G basketball. Simply as a fan of the game, it's enlivening to me to see the team that plays the furthest thing from the glorified rugby that is Big 10 conference play be the sole representative for the conference in the tourney's final rounds. Separated from B1G officiating, much of the conference often flames out in the first weekend. Michigan, on the other hand, has never looked better this season.

Here's hoping for a different end to this trip to the finals.

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