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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

The Fab Five polarized and revolutionized


MIAMI -- LeBron James was an impressionable grade-schooler growing up in Akron, Ohio, when the Fab Five rose to prominence at the University of Michigan. The baggy shorts, the black socks, the swagger, the way they played the game -- a young, soon-to-be prodigy soaked it all in around the time he was first picking up a basketball.

Basketball worlds collided, and a mindset and purpose were forged, right then and there.

"I don't think it was anything negative, honestly, what they did for the game of basketball, especially for inner city kids like myself," James was saying at his locker Wednesday night before the 66th game of his eighth NBA season. "I was old enough, 8 and 9 years old, and that's when I really started playing basketball. And that was the only team that really I wanted to watch."

Juwan Howard is the only member of Michigan's Fab Five that is still in the NBA. (Getty Images)  
Juwan Howard is the only member of Michigan's Fab Five that is still in the NBA. (Getty Images)  
The Fab Five are back in the news this week, stirring debate and divergent opinions about the game, race, and culture once again -- two decades after they loudly and boldly ushered in a new era of basketball and a new kind of athlete. That an ESPN documentary on the rise and fall of the Fab Five -- Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson -- could cause so many hard feelings after all this time speaks to their influence.

"The swagger they brought to the game, the fun, knowing that these guys were just right out of high school -- 17, 18 years old -- playing for a huge college and playing on a big level," James said. "To this day, a lot of things that we do as athletes come from those guys, from the Fab Five."

And some would say, that is more the problem than it has been the solution. But it isn't that simple.

They were brash, unapologetic, controversial, and different. Twenty years later, we are reminded of their impact and importance by virtue of the discussion and response generated by an excellent documentary. Some people loved it. Others hated it. In journalism, that's the sign of a job well done. For the Fab Five, it's fitting.

Ugly and ignorant opinions shadow every new generation of basketball players, because every new generation that comes along has a little Fab Five in its DNA. (Just ask LeBron.) The question of whether the Michigan freshmen changed the game forever, or whether they were merely the first ones to honestly confront what the game was becoming with or without them, pretty much forms the line in the sand where opinions about the Fab Five are concerned. Love 'em or hate 'em. To this day, there is no straddling that line.

Now, into this important debate walks the great unifier, Grant Hill, who correctly excoriated Rose's reference in the documentary to Duke only recruiting black players who were "Uncle Toms." Hill's only misstep in an otherwise thoughtful piece in The New York Times was failing to make it clear that this was Rose reflecting on how he felt years ago, as a teen-ager. But Hill's point remains valid. With even-handed prose, he exposed Rose for the same kind of stereotyping that Rose and the rest of the Fab Five -- quite accurately, mind you -- felt they were unfairly targeted with in the early '90s.

"To hint that those who grew up in a household with a mother and father are somehow less black than those who did not is beyond ridiculous," Hill wrote. "All of us are extremely proud of the current Duke team, especially Nolan Smith. He was raised by his mother, plays in memory of his late father and carries himself with the pride and confidence that they instilled in him."

Hill's personal experience of coming from a stable home with two educated parents shouldn't be held against him any more than a disadvantaged athlete's background of coming from a broken home in the inner city should be held against him. In fact, this subject matter is so delicate that it presents the danger of falling into the same trap I just did by calling a one-parent home "broken." In many, many cases, that simply isn't true.

It's a somewhat embarrassing perk of being a journalist in the information age, but a three-second Google search revealed to me a web site titled, www.withoutafather.com which lists successful people raised by a single parent. The list ranges from every variety of musical artist (50 Cent, Eric Clapton, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Shania Twain, Barbra Streisand) to actors (Cary Grant, Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron, Eddie Murphy, Al Pacino, Eva Mendes) to presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.)

You could add to that list the name LeBron James.

Me? I came from the predominantly white suburbs of New York City, was raised in a middle-class home, and my parents got divorced in 1989 as I headed off to Bloomington, Ind., for college. Was my home broken? Hardly. Was I, or was Hill for that matter, venturing out into adulthood with some sort of unfair advantage? Some would say yes, but in order to say that, you have to accept the equally false notion that those with less fortunate experiences were doomed to failure. The list of names above, and many others, proves that point.

As Hill so eloquently wrote in the Times, his parents need not apologize for working hard, becoming educated, and staying married any more than Rose should have to apologize because he never knew or even met his father, former NBA star Jimmy Walker, who died in 2007. That stuff is personal, and more to the point, it's unique in every walk of life and for every basketball player standing on an NBA court or blacktop playground. The Fab Five polarized opinions about all that matters in sports and life -- race, family, geography, opportunity, and every perceived privilege or disadvantage. They're still doing it today. Whether they changed basketball from a technical or sociological standpoint, or merely were swept up in a cultural movement that was bigger than they were, isn't so important. What matters more is that the game we see now, nearly 20 years later, is very much a product of the phenomenon that the Fab Five ushered in.

That's why James, who will lead the NBA wherever it's going next, wore a puzzled look when I asked him to take a stab at the positive and negative ways those bold, trash-talking, anti-establishment freshmen at Michigan influenced the game.

"I don't see any negative out of all that, what they did for the game," James said.

But it's never like that. There's always some good and some bad.

Prioritizing the SportsCenter moment over the backdoor cut, thumbing their nose at the NCAA establishment, and later contributing to an NBA culture where the pecking order was dictated by the size of paychecks made the Fab Five villains to some and heroes to others. Stars teaming up and conspiring to play on the same team? James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did it last summer, but the Fab Five beat them to the punch by 20 years.

To a kid picking up a basketball for the first time in Akron, Ohio, this was the blueprint. For me? I was a junior at Indiana University when the Fab Five came together in Ann Arbor. On Wednesday night, 20 years later, I was standing in the Miami Heat locker room next to a 6-8, 260-pound version of that kid from Akron, who was standing next to a locker that belonged to Howard, the last of the Fab Five still in the league. Talk about worlds colliding.

It won't surprise you to hear that I despised the Fab Five back then, but not for their shorts, style or swagger. I just hated them because they were on the other team.

In my college days, I sided with an even bigger bully -- an ignoramus who, in many ways, was far worse for society than the Fab Five. I rooted for a bully named Bob Knight, who did a lot of good for basketball and for young men but also did a lot of harm that I, and many others, chose to ignore.

It was people like Knight and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke who were lauded for putting the Fab Five in their place. But the joke is on them. The game and the business of the game are a lot more like what Webber, Howard, and Rose envisioned -- and what James admired in them -- than the purity those men had in mind.

Is that good or bad? It's both. And it's just the way it is, whether you like it or not.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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