Mar 15, 2011

Like, Love and Don't Like * Special Edition

You knew it was coming. I can't let the recent ESPN documentary about Michigan's Fab Five pass without responding. Here's a special edition of LLDL.

This week, I like the documentary about The Fab Five. I really did like the film. These guys came along about the time in my life when basketball meant everything to me. They definitely changed the game: from their shorts to their black socks to their insane amount of trash-talking. The film did a great job of telling how these five freshmen became starters and reached the NCAA title game in their first two years. The documentary also showed how this group of players were the center of questionable recruiting and ultimately tarnished Michigan's basketball program.

This week, I love the Duke haters. Watching The Fab Five was made even more enjoyable after watching Duke defeat North Carolina for the ACC Tournament championship earlier in the afternoon. See, even before I watched the documentary, I knew there was going to be a slant against Duke. The Duke program was arguably flying at its highest during the beginning of the Fab Five era. Duke defeated Michigan in the Fab Five's first appearance to the NCAA title game (1992). At the time, the game was billed with a racist, white vs. black undertone. Duke had previously found itself in this position in its battles against a predominantly-black team from UNLV in 1990 and 1991. And for some reason, that label sticks with Duke across the nation. Coach K and the Blue Devils are viewed as elitist, white, upper-crust basketball players. The Fab Five's Jalen Rose (and ESPN employee) best sums up this perception in the following clip. SALTY LANGUAGE WARNING.

Nice, huh? That's not to be outdone by fellow Fab Five member Chris Webber the following day on his blog in which he likened Duke to the Jim Crow era of the 1950's. Seriously. He said that.

This week, I don't like ESPN's proclamation that the Fab Five was the greatest recruiting class ever. This statement in the film's promotions sparked a heated debate with my good friend Clay Branch. I told Clay that it all boils down to what criteria is used to define "greatness" in this instance. The Fab Five didn't even win their conference title, much less a national title, so the group can't claim the title of greatest using their ability to win. It's better to argue recruiting rankings if you want to crown them the greatest. There's no doubt that this Michigan class was talented but I wasn't going to accept that they were the greatest class to ever be assembled. I did some homework to prove that I was right. You know what? I was wrong. Well, sorta. High school basketball recruiting rankings weren't as robust in the early 1990's as they are today. The gold standard is the McDonald's All-American Team, which selects the top players from across the nation to participate in an annual all-star game. I obtained a list of every player that's ever played in the McDonald's game. In 1991, four of the Fab Five played in the McDonald's game (Rose, Webber, Juwaan Howard, Jimmy King). I was blown away! I scanned the list to see if any other schools had duplicated this feat. Going back to 1977, many colleges have landed 3 McDonald's All-Americans but only two schools have signed four players: Michigan and........Duke. Coach K welcomed Carlos Boozer, Jason Williams, Casey Sanders and Mike Dunleavy in 1999. And if you want to go back to the "success" element, the Duke group won 4 conference tournaments, lost the 1999 national title game and won the 2001 national title - with lots of individual awards earned along the way. As I left the debate with Clay, I think it is best to say that the Fab Five were great in there ability to influence the culture of college basketball. And....I guess you could say they were very talented too.

UPDATE....Former Duke forward Grant Hill has written a reply to the documentary for The New York Times. The last line is priceless.

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