Duane Burleson/Getty Images
If there is one reason to watch ESPN’s documentary about the Fab Five, it is Jalen Rose. I’m always pleasantly surprised by his ability to speak his mind in an authoritative and eloquent way. He speaks the truth, and the Fab Five documentary was his opus. It was less about the story, which we all know so well, and more about the storytelling, which, in the absence of Chris Webber, fell squarely onto the shoulders of Jalen Rose. And just like his “response game” in Illinois after the crack house allegations surfaced, Rose delivered.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who sees Rose on ESPN from time to time. I will be the first to admit that every time I turn on a pregame show I fully expect “the Barkley effect.” That is, incoherent thoughts, sloppy vernacular, and silly comments that are meant more for entertainment than information. You don’t get that with Rose, though. Considering his background as a public school kid in the inner city of Detroit, that’s pretty impressive. Of course, he spent three years at Michigan – but I can’t imagine he studied a great deal.
The documentary shows how the Fab Five already had some inherent social skills that they brought to the table when they arrived at Michigan. The best choice that the filmmakers made was to make Rose, who had established himself as the voice of the Fab Five, the voice of the documentary as well.
I mean it seems obvious. How much do we want to hear from Jimmy King and Ray Jackson anyway? They probably could have cut those guys completely out except for their insult-hurling at Duke early on, which set the tone for the level of insight we could expect the rest of the way.
That insight is what makes this story so great. It is the moments like Jimmy King calling out Christian Laettner, or Rose calling out Grant Hill, where some of the more “human” elements of the story take shape. For sports fans, comments like these are like tiny windows that give us a glimpse into the very real nature of things. On top of that, these comments allow you to view history through the eyes of the characters themselves. Yes, we know that there are lots of fans in the world that hate Duke. Yes, we know that Duke has built in rivalries with a ton of teams because they win all the time. But thanks to the Fab Five documentary, we learn that those feelings were shared by the players at the time. These players tell us honestly and concisely just what they thought about the Blue Devils. Now we can go back and watch those games with a real sense of historical otherness. It’s not just social memory anymore. What we perceived to be true is now true, and we owe that to the perspective provided by the Fab Five documentary.
The documentary also provided a glimpse into the business of the game and how that affected the players involved. This is where Rose’s matter of fact honesty shines through.
Part of me wanted to hurl criticism when they players started talking about the big business that Michigan apparel became. Rose talks about the Fab Five shoes that Nike put out without them even knowing about it. He talks about the introduction of the black basketball socks, and how they were used basically as free marketing to boost sales (which were like $10 million after their freshman year). I went into victim mode, thinking these guys were huge babies. They are college players after all, not professional athletes.
But Rose makes you think. He just spells it out in a way that makes sense. They were just college kids. They did go to parties, and enjoyed camaraderie, and thought Europe was boring, and just wanted to play basketball games. You would be hard pressed to imagine a situation where you were doing what you love, it was blowing up everywhere, and along the way tons of people were cashing in on your success while demanding you to continue in excellence and not mess up along the way.
That’s a rat race that very few people could have survived. Expectations are high for athletes, and even more so for phenomenal athletes (or groups of athletes). I think about the LeBron James saga, and how he became the villain after leaving Cleveland, or how it became unfathomable to get behind Tiger Woods after reading some of his dirty text messages. For almost a year, Kobe Bryant was vilified for cheating on his wife. As fans, we react to (and sometimes feed on) the failings of our professional athletes.
When five freshmen got together and accomplished things that no other group of players had before, everything went into a pressure cooker. We all contribute to that pressure, but few of us could have handled it.
Jalen Rose saw past that. When Chris Webber called his infamous timeout that sealed the fate of Michigan for the second time, Rose recalls his reaction at the moment. “We had to go pick our brother up,” he said. He wasn’t mad. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t hysterical. He simply had the presence of mind to understand what had happened, the gravity of the situation, and what needed to be done. He had to lift his brother up.
Voices like these are not rare, but their stories are rarely told. The Fab Five weren’t perfect, and neither was Jalen Rose, but his ability to tell the story as it actually happened, and provide human insight along the way, made the story of the five freshmen sympathetic and compelling. Even if you don’t care much about Michigan – watch the documentary simply to watch Jalen Rose. I don’t think anybody agrees with everything he said (you’ve probably seen the outrage over his “Uncle Tom” comment), but the documentary is worth watching for the way he said it.