This is the first post to receive a "veering into dangerous territory" tag. When you wander into a charged argument, what you say is going to be be judged all the more harshly, and rightfully so.
Now that we're caveat-y, I'm a year younger than you so whatever my memories are I guess take yours and shift one more year of Michigan fandom toward that period in your life when you still got Legos for your birthday.* That's when the Fab Five hit for me, and I took away from them and what follows the same bewilderment. Yet I think you've missed the most profound point about what the Fab Five meant.
When Webber was at Michigan, I was at a suburban middle school where most kids knew the words to "Ice Ice Baby" but little more about Ice Cube than that he exists and might be, um, related to Dr. Dre or something?
By the early '90s, this wasn't your grandpa's all white neighborhood. The Birmingham I grew up in was, in attitude, a post-MLK paradise, a time and place that sired a generation for whom calling somebody "racist" is barely one small step from "facist, genocidal dicator." If that was all it took to get past several centuries of bigotry, segregation and hate, you might have looked at the (lily white) parade of militant pro-multiculturalists and declared win. Conformity is a poor victory -- the kind that can breed resentment, and token characters on TV shows, and people who say retarded shit like "Behind every stereotype there's a kernel of truth," and "I'm a racialist, not a racist."
Because as pleasant as anti-racist Pleasantville may be, it can't stand up to the fact that there's some black dudes who play basketball in a way that the Covington Middle School gym has never seen.
The next step is be able to confront the stereotype, and see past it. And doing so means getting right up in its grill, plus the converse: a Webber slam of reality in your face.
I have the thing on my DVR and I just got home from 10 days in Europe so maybe my mind will change, but I've come to peace with the Fab Five as being something that had to happen, and had to happen at Michigan, for the same reason (around the same era) that someone had to finally make The Program:
It's so Da U, and America's racist image of the Black Athlete could finally go to hell and die.
In ways, the Fab Five embodied that stereotype. They reveled in doing so, from their undisciplined "schoolyard" play to the fashion statements, to the nouveau riche West Egg-ity of a whole class of "stud" freshmen. And they were brought down for the same bag.
This was the stereotype of the black athlete: concerned with looking good, individual accolades and hip hop, but not things like "the team." People love a good stereotype on TV -- think how often you've seen Iverson's "practice" speech, or how many small white guys are compared to David Eckstein -- but when it's in your home, you get uncomfortable. This is because on examination, all stereotypes are a house of cards.
Placed in the costume of Cincy or UNLV the symbolic archetype would be complete. But these men weren't in black. They wore yellow and blue -- the colors of, respectfully, female and male conservatism, and something else that might be considered dinosauric:
There is one process for beating racism and destroying stereotypes. First the parties must invade each others' spaces. This leads to discomfort -- sharp discomfort, because we like easy explanations we can believe in and our brains never let go of a misconception without a fierce fight. On the other hand, you can't live with somebody without seeing any notions of what they're like getting picked to shreds.
With the Fab Five, we all get to see that the differences that make us individuals are actually greater than the differences that make us groups. It wasn't about a slam and an F.U. -- it was about the fact that Jalen and Taylor and Webber are really more different from each other than I might be to any one of them. Whatever world they came from, with its different styles and different rules, it was really no different, no more or less mixed up than mine. For them, the attitude and the shorts were simply identity totems -- as applicable to them as Josh Groban and a stuffed beaver might be the 2010 football team.
College programs didn't wake up one day and realize that Denard Robinson is a lot more like Craig Roh than Terrelle Pryor. It's the reason we could laugh about what's a Fck Lion without feeling like there was an incongruency between an ineloquent lineman and a Lloyd Carr recruit.
The Fab Five didn't end racism, at Michigan, or in the country. Outside of HTTV you couldn't read an article on Demar Dorsey that didn't seethe with the attitude of "well what did you expect..." But they were are remain a little piece, a symbol -- as Jackie Robinson was a national symbol for the black man excelling in the white world, so the Fab Five are a (much smaller) inception for the idea that surface judgment is so much bubkis.
We had to learn that the things that are the loudest are usually the thinnest, but conversely that we make our stereotypes part of our identities. This is way beyond "living together in harmony" -- each human is more or less the same little fucker with varying degrees of 10 attribute sliders, each trying to justify our special snowflakeness within a pool of 6 billion others who are uncomfortably similar to us. Seeing the Fab Five on the court, trying to pull the same identity shit under the home team microscope: this was a moment when you can see the whole network of self-constructed boxes, and how bad of a job they really do of sorting out all the legos.
* Why did this have to end?