Long before one-and-done players became the norm, Michigan’s Fab Five became pioneers in the sport. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson all stepped foot on the University of Michigan campus in 1991 as freshmen and took the basketball world by storm, becoming the most polarizing team in NCAA history in the process. Bringing a brash attitude to match their immense talent on the court, the Fab Five’s impact went deeper than basketball. The five players became pop culture icons thanks to the the way they dressed, the way they played the game, and the sneakers they wore. Though the team never won a national championship, they set trends around the country from the way college coaches recruited to the way kids around the country dressed.
On February 9, 1992, Wolverines head coach Steve Fisher started all five freshmen for the first time in a contest against Notre Dame. The result was a 74-65 win that saw the five freshmen score all of Michigan’s points. More eye-popping than the teams stats and ensuing wins were what Webber, Rose, Howard, Jackson, and King wore on the court. Taking cues from University of Minnesota and future NBA guard Voshon Lenard, the Fab Five rocked all-black Nike socks to go with their baggy shorts and bald-fade haircuts and soon enough, black socks started to fly off the shelves and pop up at AAU tournaments around the country. Much like Georgetown jackets, hoodies, and hats became the “it” gear to wear in the late ‘80s, the five freshmen made Michigan the cool team and soon enough Michigan Starter jackets were everywhere.
Even more influential than the black socks, shorts, and haircuts were the sneakers the guys wore on court. To match the socks, the team wore all-black Nike Air Flight Huaraches and took the sneaker to new heights. While the Huarache silohuette was more known for its running model in the early ‘90s, the basketball version of the sneaker debuted in 1992 and the Fab Five co-sign made it popular right away. Along with Huaraches, the Fab Five also rocked the Air Force Max — made popular by Charles Barkley — and the Air Uptempo, all of which became staples in sneaker-savvy rotations across the basketball landscape.
The Fab Five were “influencers” before the term became part of social media biographies and, in some cases, a legitimate career. Any sneaker they laced up immediately became a must-have. Their on-court style was natural and effortless. The long shorts, black kicks, and black high-socks were what the players were most comfortable in and while they weren’t getting a check cut from Nike, they certainly took advantage of the Swoosh by getting the newest gear before anyone else. Before Instagram and Twitter, kids turned into Michigan games to see what they should be copping next. The endorsement of the Huarache, Air Uptempo, and Air Force Max helped make the models some of the most popular of the ‘90s and are still rocked to this day thanks to retro releases.
Despite being just 18-year-old college freshmen, the Fab Five stood down to no team on the court during their first year together. Playing an uptempo style that featured the 6-8 Rose in a point-forward role, the 6-10 Webber as a high-flying, high-scoring, dominant power forward, the 6-9 Howard as a bruising center, the 6-6 Jackson as a sweet shooting two-guard, and the 6-5 King as a do-it-all guard, Michigan made a run to the 1992 NCAA Final where they met Duke. The matchup was an old guard vs. new guard Final featuring a Duke team that was led by senior Christian Laettner, junior Bobby Hurley, and sophomore Grant Hill. Duke ran through the Wolverines, beating them 71-51 for an NCAA title and effectively ended the Fab Five’s first year on a sour note.
Instead of heading to the NBA, the Fab Five returned for their sophomore year and once again made it back to the Final game — this time against North Carolina. The Wolverines unfortunately suffered the same fate as the year before, though this time they lost in spectacular fashion when Webber attempted to call a timeout that the team did not have and the Tar Heels won 77-71. This would be the final time the Fab Five took the court together.
In two short seasons, the Fab Five turned the college basketball world on its head. Every player who has worn black socks, baggy shorts or laced up a pair of Huaraches has been either directly or indirectly impacted by the Fab Five. With March Madness here and multiple freshmen-led teams poised to make a run at the title, the Fab Five’s place in basketball history is still felt over 20 years after the fact.
Follow Peter on Twitter at @Peter_M_Walsh