For the generation of children that were born in the 90s it’s easy to forget how the pro basketball players used to dress back in the day. The jerseys were tighter around the stomach, the shorts seemed disgustingly high above the knees and the socks reached almost all the way up the shin. Compared to the current attire of baggier jerseys, athletic shorts that hang at or below the knee, and ankle high black socks, the old uniforms may appear rather, well, goofy. So what happened in-between the late 80s and the early 90s that caused such a dramatic shift in how one dressed to play basketball? The answer lies with five young men that played for the University of Michigan’s basketball team in 1991, who today are known as the Fab Five.
The Fab Five consisted of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King; they are popularly regarded as the best college basketball team of all time. These men were known for how they changed what it meant to look like a basketball player and what it meant to act like a basketball player. Through their innovations of attire and game tactics the Fab Five single handedly changed the look of basketball seemingly overnight.
During the late 80s and early 90s, the attire for basketball hadn’t changed much since the game’s inception in the 1890s; the shorts were still short and the jerseys were still skin tight. Then in 1991, the Fab Five changed everything, and hit the court dressed in baggy shorts, black socks, and with shaven heads. This may not seem like such a big deal now because this is how most professional basketball players dress today, but the reason that basketball players dress this way now is because of how the Fab Five dressed then.
It was an utterly shocking change of attire that was quite literally the complete opposite of how every other basketball team was dressed at the time. Gone were the days of the classic Larry Bird look of feathered hair and high shorts. In came the new generation, clad in uniforms of shaven heads and baggy clothes that spoke not to the individual but to the team as a whole. With the look of the Fab Five also came the style of the Fab Five, and this was something the world of professional basketball may have not been ready for.
Solidifying their status as different by the way they dressed was merely the first step for the Fab Five. They proved that their unity of dress wasn’t just a gimmick. They had inherent talent and skill that proved they were a force to be reckoned with on the court. With this new look of fashion introduced to basketball by the Fab Five also came the inclusion of the Fab Five’s playing style, which is arguably their greatest contribution to the game. This style of play came in the form of street ball tactics which included flashy crossovers, fake outs, trick passes and ally oops that degraded their opponents. Combine that with their reputation for trash talking, on and off the court, it created an almost thug like aura that many attributed to the rise of popular hip-hop music; something the Fab Five embraced. But was this kind of playing style for the betterment of the game?
The beauty of the style of the Fab Five is that it introduced a new element to the game of basketball that was seldom ever used, the element of mind games. To the older generation of basketball players and analysts they came off as a bunch of punk kids playing street ball in a professional environment.
For the Fab Five, all the flashy moves and trash talking they did was to seemingly destroy their opponents on a mental level. If they could go on the court and mess around with the opposing team’s state of mind just by saying a few choice words, they had already won the game before tip off. This kind of play style was for the betterment of the game, mainly because it had a lasting impact on who could play the game. This meant you didn’t have to be over six feet tall, or dangerous from beyond the arc, or even an all-star rebounder; as long as you had the ability to disrupt an opponent’s state of mind, you would have a place in basketball.
The legacy of the Fab Five lives on in basketball today. We see it in the uniforms and in the styles of the players. There have been some moments where Fab Five style trash talking may have been taken too far, such as the Reggie Miller and Spike Lee feud during the 1994 NBA playoffs.
The important thing to note is that, for the most part, players will not get upset at each other for these kinds tactics because it has been accepted as part of the game. This is similar to how LeBron James has introduced a whole new level of flopping to the game. He knows it’s wrong, the opponents know it’s wrong and the fans know it’s wrong, but it has simply just become another element of the game. Though I doubt we will see anything as innovative as what the Fab Five had done with a simple change of wardrobe and whole lot of attitude, at least not any time soon.
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