Here is the most important moment in the Fab Five documentary. Chris Webber has just called the infamous time-out in the 1993 NCAA title game against North Carolina. We see him a moment later, looking confused and angry, while the broadcast announcer—seemingly gleefully—crows repeatedly “Technical foul! Technical foul!"
The soundtrack for the film dwindles to a single rhythmic pulse.
Jimmy King’s voice speaks, in the present, over the images of the Michigan bench from twenty years before: “I was walking toward Chris, like, ‘what happened?’” The film cuts to a close up of Jimmy talking to the interviewer. “And then I heard Jalen say, ’He called timeout. And we don’t have any left.’” We hear the game announcer exclaiming as he describes the situation: “It’s a technical foul! Two shots and possession of the ball!” We see a clip of Steve Fisher surrounded by his stunned players. Webber bends forward; his hands rest on his thighs.
Jimmy continues, “While he’s bending over, I got my hand on his chest. On his heart, holding him up.” The screen shows this happening and then cuts back to Jimmy today, who pauses with a fixed stare. “And I could feel his weight leaning on me.” Against the rhythm of that solitary drum, beating like a heart, we go back to the Michigan bench. Fisher says something to his players.
“The gravity of that moment,” Jimmy concludes in voice-over before pausing as the film cuts back to his close-up, “will make you just fall over.” And then he just holds the gaze of his interlocutor, of all of us watching, silently emphasizing the force of the moment with the force of his words and perhaps, implicating us, drawing us in as complicit in and captive to that devastating field of gravity. It’s heavy in there.
This moment has stayed with me, and stayed resonant and strange, since I first saw Fab Five more than a year ago. The reasons for this have nothing to do with basketball and little to do with the legacy or lessons of the Fab Five. Some of the power is literary: the understated and poetic deftness with which Jimmy King connects the physical weight of the human torso with the double-sense of the word gravity, in both its literal and metaphorical senses. Less abstract is his crystalline awareness that, tasked with helping to hold up this crushing new weight, it is especially vital to hold up the heart.
In the wake of his visit to my Cultures of Basketball class at the University of Michigan, I’ve come to believe that this moment actually captures perfectly what is most important about the Fab Five. It is not the five freshmen starting and making two consecutive NCAA Final Fours with their combination of precise, unselfish teamwork, creative passing, and thunderous dunks. It is not the trash talk or the baggy shorts or the bald heads or black socks. Though all of these, I now see, are an expression of what is most important about them. It comes back, as it usually does and maybe always must, to gravity, and to the heart.
Two moments from King’s candid 90-minute visit to the class stand out. Twice, Jimmy speculated that the reason Chris Webber has not returned to Michigan has nothing to do with the ten year NCAA ban prohibiting any contact between the University and its former star. Instead, Jimmy said he believes that Chris feels bad—bad about the time-out and bad about his assertions, during the Ed Martin investigation that triggered that ban, that Martin had selfishly preyed on naïve, young athletes.
Jimmy didn’t issue any judgments of Webber for either of these incidents. On the contrary, he talked about his teammate and the chaos that followed him with the same compassion so palpable in the documentary. To a group of Michigan students so young that they were not even alive when Webber signaled for that un-owned timeout—who are now the same age King and his teammates were on the date of that NCAA title game—King spoke a hard-earned adult truth about the hard truths he decided to speak.
“In my opinion, it’s gonna kill you more, it’s gonna eat you up even more, if you don’t face it. Life is,” and here King paused, as if a long shadow suddenly loomed over him. “You can’t run from anything. It’s gonna catch you. It’s gonna get you. You can’t run from it. It’s better to face it, face it immediately. Now you know which way you can go. But when you tryin’ to run and duck and hide from it, you don’t know where it’s gonna pop out on you, and that doubt or not knowing is the fear that just keeps growing and growing. “ King played professionally for a long time, in the NBA for a little while and in Europe for longer. But he’d lived a long time in the shadow of a moment and a myth. It was, again, heavy in there.
“It’s like Green Lantern,” he continued. “You know, the villain from Green Lantern feeds on fear. You know, I use that as an example,” and he laughed here, “but that’s true. You can’t, the more you fear something the bigger it grows. And then you really find out once you face that fear it wasn’t that bad at all. And you can crush it.”
Because I’m a basketball fan, and because I remember the Fab Five the way I do, there is always the issue of awe around its members. This particular moment was different, and evoked a different type of awe. I felt thrilled because King was saying something I say to my students all the time, and I felt awed that he'd suddenly elevated the discussion to the level of profound wisdom, and I felt jealous that he did it through this humorous cool-nerd metaphor that would never be part of my own repertoire. I felt happy for my students and proud that I'd had something to do with them having this moment. It was as if he had been stealthily drifting along the baseline and suddenly rocketed off the floor to snare and throw-down an alley-oop from Chris.
The second moment was at the very end of class. Responding to a question about whether the Fab Five had wanted to revolutionize the culture of the game, Jimmy first simply answered: “We meant to do that.”
But then he elaborated. After discussing extensively how they would blend their talents and share roles and responsibilities in order to succeed on the court, the Fab Five, he recalled, next went about figuring how to “be fresh” while doing it. They didn’t know what the magnitude of that co-freshness’ impact would be, but they knew they’d cause a stir. They were happy to do it because it was a part of the joy of the game for them.
“We had a saying,” he concluded, ”and if you can understand this saying you will understand where we came from. And it’s not to be funny. But we used to say, let your nuts hang. And the reason why is you can’t be timid and scared of facing and fighting anybody or anything. So imagine people in the halls, in the tunnels. That was our chant. We couldn’t put that in the doc because that’d be too much. But that was our real chant before we walked out on the court. And we used to say it loud and Coach used to get mad. He tried to stop us but we were like, ‘that’s our mentality.’ That’s how we goin’ out.”
It’s not that these two answers really reveal anything about the Fab Five that we didn’t already know, or hadn’t suspected. Even the "let your nuts" hang anecdote is, after all, already in Mitch Albom's book about the team.
They still stand out, though. In part, this is because they illustrate the eloquence and hard-earned candor of Jimmy King, and evince the same wisdom that first caught my eye in the documentary when he recalled the seconds after The Time Out. Having seen all that, it wasn’t all that surprising to see Jimmy King so easily and avidly assuming the role of mentor and teacher to students half his age.
But they’re about more than Jimmy King, too, in the same way that the Fab Five was about more than any of the individual players who comprised it. King’s heavy knowledge and experience, however lightly he continues to bear it, is kept up—now as then—by some very buoyant stuff. This was then, and is now, what defines that team: the autonomous joy and compassionate solidarity in the face of an inconstant, hypocritical, suspicious and often unfriendly world. This is specific to the Fab Five and vital to why they have remained so enduring a part of how we think and feel about college basketball, but it is a lesson that college students not yet born when the team was refining its freshness can also understand. Anyone facing down the world as it exists can understand it. This is the happy acceptance of a fundamental challenge: to uphold the heart amidst the gravity of life.
The shorts and socks, the shaved heads and smack talk were not only stylish ends in themselves, not only racially signifying acts of rebellion. That, too, sure, but these were also indispensable elements of the Fab Five’s signature and still-unmatched elevation of the game, by playing as an expression of joy and an exercise of desire and power, not “power over” but rather “power to, together”
The English poet William Blake once wrote “he who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.” Blake included it in his “Proverbs of Hell.” But we know this heading was just his ironic way of signaling his values in a world he believed had gone all upside down, casting heroes as villains and elevating pious hypocrisy to the status of religious dogma. Many of us who followed and loved the Fab Five saw the same nefarious, dogmatic hypocrisy at work in the way they were treated by the college basketball establishment at the time and are still treated in some quarters of that establishment, one could argue, to this day.
But we’re going “against,” again. And that wasn’t what the Fab Five were about; it’s not how Jimmy King or anyone who watched them or cared about them or understood them thinks of the team. What I saw in that team was a group of gifted, intelligent adolescents bearing gracefully some very weighty adult knowledge, and playing with the exuberant joy of kids realizing their desires. This was the thrill of it, and is still: we should all be so lucky as to know our desires, and so courageous in acting on them; we are lucky, whenever we get the chance, to see this sort of fulfillment in action. It’s probably a bit much to suggest that, if Blake were writing his “Proverbs of Hell” today, one would read “Let your nuts hang.” But consider the alternative.