During the week of Dec. 12, 1991, Michael Jackson’s single “Black or White” reached the summit of the Billboard pop chart. The song featured a prosaic verse performed by a nondescript rapper named LTB. Nonetheless, it was significant in the fact that if the King of Pop was incorporating rap into his music, then hip-hop was officially part of mainstream culture.
Hip-hop also sank its tentacles into the hoops consciousness that week, in the form of five swaggering freshmen at the University of Michigan. On Dec. 12, the Fab Five made its national television debut, taking on Eastern Michigan at Crisler Arena. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwon Howard and Jimmy King all played in the McDonald’s All-American Game, but this was the first time anyone would see the full unit, along with Ray Jackson.
Webber, Rose and Howard were the unquestioned band leaders and were instant starters. Upperclassmen James Voskuil and Michael Talley were the placeholders in the opening lineup.
The freshmen stood out even before the ball was tipped. The baggy shorts worn with a sag, the black socks and black shoes and - much to the consternation of the ESPN announcing crew – the untucked jerseys formed a defiant look.
Howard and Webber were both big guys with mid-range game and superior passing ability. The left-handed Rose was a 6-foot, 8-inch point guard. All had a little flair, evident in Webber’s first basket in the opening minutes. The forward spun away from his defender on the baseline to clear way for a two-handed dunk. Webber added a little flair with a slight pull-up on the rim and then a dramatic gesticulation with his arms on the way down.
Further hip-hop flavor was added to the mix when Jimmy King checked in for Voskuil at the 13:35 mark. This set the stage for the Fab Five’s breakout moment. After Webber blocked an Eastern Michigan shot, King corralled the ball and took off, with C-Webb not far behind in filling the lane. King dropped a resplendent behind-the-back dime to Webber, who leapt above an in-over-his-head defender for a one-handed dunk plus a foul. Crisler Arena erupted and Howard added the punctuation by sprinting down the court to get in the face of the Eastern Michigan player and politely inform the Eagles guard that he just got posterized. (Back then it was still “posterized” and not “YouTubed”.) It was the first iconic moment of the Fab Five in all its uber-talented, trash-talking glory.
Jackson, forever to be the least-remembered member of the Fab Five, finally hit the court with around 8 minutes left in the first half. The full unit only graced the court together for just under a minute in the 91-77 victory, but it was clear that a sea change in college basketball was under way.
That point was reinforced two days later, when the Wolverines played host to defending champion Duke in another nationally televised game on CBS. The top-ranked Blue Devils were the epitome of mainstream college basketball, with hip-hugging shorts and play-the-right-way emphasis.
The Wolverines embraced their role as hip-hop upstarts. They seemed to make a point of making Duke stars Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley the focal point of vocal intimidation and the occasional furtive elbow.
Michigan rallied from a 17-point deficit in the first half and ripped off a 14-0 run in the second half. The Wolverines blew a five-point lead in the final minute of regulation and then lost in overtime, 88-85, after Webber (27 points, 12 rebounds) fouled out.
The brash Fab Five had taken on the establishment and held its own. As the lyrics to the “Black and White” rap state, “It’s a turf war/ On a global scale.” The Wolverines might have lost the battles to Duke – including the national title game later that season – but the Fab Five won the turf war of hoops culture.