Swag, swagger, swaggest: the Fab Five

The term “swagger” is thrown around so much these days that it’s starting to lose value. If you saw a dog wearing a gold chain, you might think to yourself, “Man, that dog’s got some swag!” But does it really? Probably not. It might look cool, but the G’d up mutt does not portray the true meaning of the word. Last week, while watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the Fab Five, I learned the real significance of the term.

The film details a group of five freshmen at the University of Michigan who vaulted into the national spotlight in 1991. It chronicles the Fab Five’s attempt to capture the college basketball national championship while also detailing their off-court cultural impact. The group began as one of the best recruiting classes to ever come out of high school, but were never able to get over the hump as they lost in two consecutive National Championship finals. The quintet’s lasting legacy, however, was how they revolutionized the college basketball landscape by being the first team to bring a hip-hop attitude to the hardwood. Their identity was defined as pioneering the style of baggy shorts, black socks, and most importantly, exuding swagger.

Simply put, the Fab Five were hard as !$?%. Rose, Webber, and Jackson all hailed from the mean streets of Detroit, while Howard grew up on the South Side of Chicago. N.W.A. was blasted in their locker room and the squad talked an inordinate amount of trash on the court. Moreover, the team had an “us against the world” mentality, and the media portrayed them as everything that was wrong with college basketball. Their swagger was as much a product of their cockiness—the five freshmen were an intimidating bunch that jawed with their opponents and each other—as their backgrounds.

The 30 for 30 series has produced a number of solid documentaries, but none have come close to this production. There was never a dull moment and, watching with five of my fellow hoops junkies, we were taken on an emotional roller coaster ride. ESPN does an incredible job incorporating raw footage, recent interviews, and a soundtrack that syncs well with the on-screen action. We all cracked huge smiles when we saw Juwan Howard thuggin’ out in the locker room after a big win, and felt a pain in our hearts when witnessing a defeated, lifeless Chris Webber sulking in the tunnel after calling “the timeout.”

A large reason for the success of this film was the fascinating story it portrayed. Can you imagine coming out of high school and starting for a powerhouse Division-I basketball school with four guys your own age who would soon become brothers to you? It’s something that many of us can only dream of and attempt to recreate on the intramural floors of the McGill gym. The sense of brotherhood among these freshmen was unparalleled and something we may never see again. In the days of one-and-done college players, it’s rare for a group of studs to stick together for more than one season.

Critics have argued that the Fab Five were not the first team to bring this attitude and style to the hardwood. The Georgetown Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing in the 1980s, and the 1990-1991 UNLV squad led by Larry Johnson each brought a similar mentality to the basketball court. However, the Fab Five’s legacy is better remembered for a few reasons. First, the media was given extensive access to the group which led to the formation of a cult following. Second, the Michigan stars embraced their roles as rockstars to a much greater degree. Georgetown and UNLV laid the foundation, but C-Webb and co. truly brought swagger to the forefront of American basketball.

Swag is not someone in bottle service pouring liquor down a freshman’s throat. Swag is when you trailblaze a style in the national spotlight. Swag is when you stick together with your brothers in the face of adversity. The Fab Five defined swagger.

As we were glued to the TV watching the documentary, one of my friends was in the living room attempting to write an essay that was due the next day at 2:30 p.m. “Where are you at in it?” I asked him. “Oh, you know, just getting started,” he replied. In debating whether he would partake in watching the movie, we both looked at each other and understood what had to be done. The essay could wait. He had a much more important lesson to learn.

As this is the final TMI I have the privilege of writing, I’d like to thank the Tribune for allowing me to voice my opinion in this space for all these years and I’d like to thank you, the reader, for taking the time to listen to what I had to say. For anyone who is passionate about sports, I encourage you to reach out to the Tribune and start writing. It was one of the best decisions I made at McGill and I hope you can get the same enjoyment out of it that I did.

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