In the summer of 1993, Jalen Rose uttered this phrase: “Even though we never won a championship, they’ll be talking about us for 20 years”. Although it has not yet been that long, Rose was still somewhat prophetic in his statement. The Fab Five were an incredibly gifted group of freshmen that literally took over college basketball. And with names such as Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and to a lesser extent Ray Jackson and Jimmy King, it would have been hard for them not to.
NCAA basketball has always garnered national attention, but the Michigan program around that time seemed to bring in a little more than usual. The country tuned in to watch their games, the press wrote several stories about them (depicting them mostly in a negative light) and the fans bought their merchandise; all of it.
My teenage years were spent growing up in Montreal, Canada; and all anyone wore during the time was Michigan gear. Wolverine hats, jerseys, shorts, shirts and tracksuits dominated the scene. Indeed, rocking Michigan gear in the early 90’s was the cool thing to do.
And yet, as Mitch Albom implicitly points out in his book Fab Five, that Michigan team accomplished a lot in two years but seems destined to be remembered for everything they failed to do. The list:
- Failure to win a national championship
- Failure to win a Big Ten Title
- Failure to defeat Duke
- Failure to respect their opponents
- Failure to play with poise under pressure
- Failure to play with class
- Failure to play the game “the right way”
- Failure to act like grown men
- Failure to conduct themselves like civilized individuals
The irony of course is that had this team won a national championship, none of those issues would have ever been mentioned.
Make no mistake though, that Michigan team was extremely talented.
Typically, teams that advance in the NCAA tournament do so because of terrific guard play and experience. The combination of both usually overwhelms teams that succumb to the pressures of the game itself and suffocating defenses that expose their weaknesses. Consequently, teams that are careless with the ball and lack experience often fare poorly in the tournament. And wouldn’t you know it, those were the issues that plagued the Fab Five for their two years together in Ann Arbor.
The Michigan Wolverines had a knack for turning the ball, and further compounding the issue, their collective youth meant that they rarely focused on the little things that wins ball games; things like boxing out, shading a specific offensive player’s right hand and committing cheap fouls to name a few.
As a result, teams with lesser talent often hung around and kept games close against these Wolverines, but they still figured out ways for the most part to pull out wins. Mind you, teams that combined smarts and experience with talent found ways to run circles around Michigan because they took advantage of their mental lapses.
Hence, teams like Duke and Indiana (at the time coached by Bobby Knight) often made things extremely difficult for Michigan players.
And despite their obvious shortcomings, Steve Fisher’s team still found a way to make it to back-to-back national championship game appearances.
The Wolverines might have lacked solid leadership as well as a propensity to do the little things, but they won ball games. And to do so, they relied on their impressive big men (Chris Webber and Juwan Howard) and their mercurial star point guard (Jalen Rose).
But the most important thing that Michigan squad had that allowed them to beat other teams was their confidence. And they had plenty of it. Jalen Rose was often the catalyst because he never felt as though a team with him on it would lose. Thus, he talked the talk and walked the walk, but then he would talk some more.
If Jalen was the guy that everyone looked to for confidence, he was also the team’s spokesperson. Much like Gary Payton did during his NBA days, Rose talked trash with the best of them (he was probably undefeated at it in college as well) and was never shy about getting in his opponent’s face and intimidating him.
As Jalen Rose went, so did the four other players on the court with him; but especially the guys that came in his freshman class. And given the fact that Rose was well equipped to start verbal warfare, the Wolverines often got into people’s faces and let them know just how good they were.
Teenagers loved watching the Fab Five. These were college players that came to showcase their skills. They dunked, lobbed the ball for alley oops, made behind the back passes and yelled at opponents after dunks. This was a street basketball team masquerading as a college one some thought.
And as much as the younger generation loved watching the Wolverines and followed their every move, the old guard despised them. It was said that they talked more than they played, disrespected their opponents, failed to be good role models and looked like buffoons with the way they wore their basketball uniforms.
During the two years that the Fab Five played at Michigan, you would have thought that the team’s record hovered around .500 given all the criticism that they faced. Bill Walton who had recently begun his broadcasting career shared this opinion at the time with the world: “They’re one of the most overrated and underachieving teams of all time.” The team’s record in those two years in Ann Arbor? 56-14.
This team was unique in its own way. They did not conform to social norm and therefore were seen as being different, an outcast of sorts. Too many teams had come in and done things the right way. And given the fact that the Michigan unit did things in a much more different way than most people were accustomed to, they were perceived as bad for the game.
In a roundabout way, the Fab Five and Kobe Bryant probably both have that going for them. The expectations that people have set for them on how they should conduct themselves and how they should play made it as such that they were often targets for criticism despite their accomplishments.
And despite these obstacles, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King transcended college basketball. They became rock stars and influenced kids to buy their jerseys and baggy shorts, shave their heads and talk trash on the basketball court; a reverence that is usually reserved for NBA players.
But as mentioned previously, these were not your regular NCAA players; and that’s why 18 years later, they are still fascinating to talk about.