Words by Ian Stonebrook
For decades, the free-flowing nature of basketball was stylistically seen as jazz. Whether played on the pavement or in the pros, the sonics and aesthetic of hoops hit smooth notes as finger rolls swished through nylon and ABA balls spun on fingertips.
Eventually, the record scratched and a new movement was born: hip hop. So, what happened when roundball jumped from jazz and went to rap?
The world found out in 1991 when the Fab Five arrived on campus in Ann Arbor. More a crew, less a quintet, Jalen, Jimmy, Juwan, Ray and Chris came to college basketball louder than anyone before, shifting the sound and style of the game forever.
When it came to appearance and apparel, the Fab Five changed more than just the look, they moved the marketing and money associated with basketball to a whole new space. From head to toe, see just how the underclassmen at Michigan offered a boom-bap baptism to the Birth of Cool.
Despite honing the hairline of a pre-teen Paul George even while approaching 50, it wasn’t always crisp cuts for Jalen Rose. In an early TV appearance with the Fab Five freshmen, the set’s fearless leader appeared shy for the first and last time, apologizing to the entire city of Detroit for being behind on seeing his barber.
Fast forward months later and the conversation wasn’t about the hair on Jalen Rose’s head, it was about the lack thereof. Made famous by Michael Jordan but more Onyx in inspiration, the point guard and his top tier sidekick, Chris Webber, shaved their heads before either of them even considered male pattern baldness. The brash look led the way for their rebellious play, expressing youth and unity in the most counterculture of manners.
Years later, the likes of Ed Cota, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison went chrome dome in Carolina while Jalen’s Pacers team broke out the razors for an impassioned playoff run. When it came time to connect the dots culturally between Air Jordan and Fredo Starr, the Fab Five was truly a cut above.
In the early ‘90s, college apparel was popping but it wasn’t polished.
On the court, top tier programs wore uniforms from the likes of DeLong and Russell while fans copped caps and jackets made by The Game and Starter. When the Fab Five touched down in 1991, Michigan was a Nike school when it came to footwear. When it came to their jerseys - on court and in stores - the tanks did not bear a Swoosh as college kits didn’t register at retail.
Well, not for long.
The cultural explosion at Michigan in 1991 had fans flocking to buy anything maize and blue. Replica jerseys with #5 and #4 were favored with even an unlicensed Wolverines cap calling out who you rode with. Not only did the Fab Five usher in a new wave of style on the court, they soon influenced fashion and retail off the court.
Because of this major moves began to happen. Nike no longer worked directly with coaches as they had for years. Instead, the Swoosh saw the future and signed the entire University of North Carolina to a multi-million dollar endorsement deal. The University of Michigan soon followed, with Nike quickly putting out authentic Chris Webber jerseys for a whopping $94.99 in 1994. Everyone from Aaliyah in print to Jimmy King in Crisler would rock maize jerseys with an embroidered Swoosh, upping the ante for college gear across the board.
For the years that followed, Nike released Michigan jerseys tied to the likes of Jalen Rose, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Louis Bullock and LaVell Blanchard. Authentics, replicas and even practice jerseys were manufactured for U of M with schools across the country adapting to the same business model. Because of the Fab Five, fans everywhere showed their school spirit with Swooshed stamping.
Legend has it that Michael Jordan wore what were considered ‘baggy’ shorts in the early ‘80s because he was embarrassed of his skinny legs. Hardly big enough to sway when he ran, shorts began to get bigger as the ‘90s arrived as UNLV ushered in a slightly roomier cut.
Despite Mike’s influence, when it came to most hoopers in 1991, the length and width of their shorts didn’t matter much. For Jalen Rose, however, it mattered a lot.
Having watched local legend Anderson Hunt hit jumpers in the Thomas & Mack Center with mesh hitting just above his knees, Jalen needed his shorts to take that trend even further. Whether it be sagging or switching shorts with the team’s center, Jalen’s shorts suddenly ventured towards his shins, creating a trend that lasted 25 years.
Like his tank up top, the baggy game gear worn by the Fab Five was soon sold by Nike and marketed to the masses. Authentic shorts with the stitched M just like the pairs they played in retailed for $84.99 in the mid ‘90s and moved in bunches at Champs Sports. Not only were Jalen, Juwan and Jimmy influencing the kids, they were pivoting the pros as players in the NBA soon adopted a baggier cut.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, baggy shorts were it, hitting new lengths later on when Nike rolled out their ankle approaching System of Dress style. Eventually, fellow Detroit native Chris Douglas-Roberts would risk it all by bringing back John Stockton shorts, later paving the way for Jalen Green and the Unicorn kids that show thigh today.
Juwan Howard gets credit for bringing the Fab Five together while Chris Webber put them on the map and Jalen Rose made them cool.
When it came to going grandpa style with the socks, though? Well, that was another member.
“The black socks were initiated by Ray Jackson,” Jalen Rose told ESPN in 2011. “We were in Texas to play against Rice and one of Ray’s good friends brought him socks to rock at home to be fresh. They were grey Nike socks with a blue Swoosh, but we all went to the mall and were on the hunt for black ones. At the time, they didn’t even have five pairs of black Nike socks at the entire mall! So a couple of us had on black Nike socks and a couple of us just had on black dress socks.”
Said in part to be inspired by fellow Detroit native Voshon Lenard who sported black socks at nearby Minnesota, the Gopher guard may have initiated the idea but the boys in Ann Arbor made it pop.
In fact, the Fab Five made black socks sell so much that they effectively made all socks sell.
Think about it, before the Fab Five socks were an afterthought when it came to getting fresh. After the Fab Five, they were the ultimate accessory for your sneakers, eventually paving the way for the Elite socks that stormed the 2010s and Supreme crew cuts that captivate today’s kids.
When the Fab Five stepped on the court, the world noticed in more ways than one.
While their game and attitude spoke loudly, it all reverberated with the hardwood in the form of their noteworthy Nikes. Though not on brand payroll, the amateurs in Ann Arbor added juice to signature shoes from Charles Barkley and pairs seen on Scottie Pippen. Still, no model mattered more to the team than the famous Nike Air Flight Huarache.
“We saw the Huaraches and were like, ‘Yo, Jordan has a shoe, Deion’s got a shoe, Charles has a shoe, Bo has a shoe, whose shoe is this? Nobody’s attached to the Huarache, so this is the Fab Five shoe right here,’” Jalen Rose recalled on his Renaissance Man podcast. “Once we took to the floor and rocked the Huaraches we made history.”
The Fab Five made models matter so much in the college game that the rival Reebok almost signed on to be Michigan’s official endorser before Nike broke the bank.
To this day, retro releases of the Huarache, Maestro and Air Force Max variety are still sold subconsciously with Fab Five fever attached. Just the same, the likes of Nike, Jordan and Adidas all lure top tier talent to schools of their endorsement by creating college colorways on the current signature sneakers of today’s stars.