Sportswriting often speaks about ephemeral events in inflated, grandiose terms. Just about all of us who love sports and attempt to write or speak about it are guilty of this at one time or another. Prisoners of the moment, we forget, as time passes, about the events that we once deemed so significant, the result of some combination of our collective societal attention deficit and the actual triviality of the events.
Two decades later, we can safely say that the advent of the Fab Five is not one of those events. If you’re reading this, you probably, no, you should already be well familiar with the story of five young men who changed college basketball forever. The baggy shorts, shaved heads, black socks. The playground ball, hip-hop and trash talk. These are all now so much a part of college basketball, and of basketball period, that no one bats an eyelid over them anymore.
As much as what the Fab Five brought made its way into the mainstream, controversy surrounding the Fab Five was reignited when the ESPN documentary aired in 2011, specifically pertaining Jalen Rose’s comments describing his hatred for Duke basketball, what he felt the program stood for, and his feelings then about Duke’s Grant Hill. Rose’s comments not only reflect a question of cultural identity pertaining to race (which Michael Wilbon has written about here), but also the chasm between the cultural identities of the Fab Five and 1990s Duke basketball.
The aforementioned chasm was wide and bitter, largely due to what the two programs were perceived to represent. But today, you’d be hard pressed to find such distinctive cultural identities associated with any college basketball programs. Sure, there are still plenty of reasons to hate Duke basketball. But whereas the Fab Five/Duke clashes were cultural clashes, today’s college basketball rivalries are nowhere near such epic levels. Among the factors at work are what Khalid Salaam calls “the death of the ghetto superstar,” prevalent (and growing) cynicism about college sports, and changes in how sports are consumed.
In his piece on the death of the ghetto superstar, Salaam uses Kyrie Irving as an example of a player who exemplifies the move beyond demanding street cred from players. Duke has now produced a one-and-done who has thus far avoided the hate that usually follows former Blue Devils, thanks in part to his nasty game that’s just as at home on the blacktop as it is in Quicken Loans Arena. The criteria for what constitutes “proper” Duke basketball has been adjusted to pragmatically include what previously would have been decried as too flashy, too detrimental to the Duke identity.
Boundaries have been blurred, broken.