The Fab Five: Then and Now

March 25, 2011

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The past two Sundays, ESPN has been running a documentary called “The Fab Five,” about Michigan’s famed five freshman basketball players who captured the public’s imagination twenty years ago.  It’s not quite journalism – four of the Fab Five produced it themselves – but it is a pretty honest account of what those two years were all about, if not a complete one.  And it is undeniably compelling.  The first showing reached over two million homes, making it the highest rated documentary in ESPN’s history.   

A lot of this story, you already know: in 1991, five super-talented freshmen came to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines were the first team in NCAA history to start five freshmen.  They got to the final game of March Madness before losing to the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils.  The next year, they made it to the finals again, but this time they lost to North Carolina when Michigan’s best player, Chris Webber, called a time-out they didn’t have.   

Along the way they made baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and imported rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playgrounds to the college courts.  It’s been that way ever since.   

They stirred up a lot of controversy, but at the time the two most sympathetic figures were head coach Steve Fisher, a truly nice guy who seemed to be a hapless victim of his own recruiting success, and Chris Webber, the most polished of the bunch, due partly to his private school background.  To many fans, the rest of the Fab Five were just a bunch of clueless, classless clowns who didn’t belong on a college campus.   

The Fab Five certainly had its vices, but selfishness wasn’t one of them.  In the history of college basketball, few starting fives worked better together than the Fab Five, mainly because they really didn’t care who scored. 

I started writing stories about them after they left Michigan, and quickly discovered they’d known all along what they were doing, and did a lot of it merely to gain a competitive advantage.  That doesn’t make all of it right, of course, but it dispels the popular notion they were just a bunch of out-of-control kids from the ‘hood simply seeking attention.  They weren’t that needy, and they definitely were not stupid.   

I found the ones I spoke to – Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Jimmy King -- to be unfailingly friendly, respectful and helpful.  My impression wasn’t unique.  "Everyone say, 'The Michigan boys have no respect,'" Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo told me at the time.  "But Jalen comes here and he show respect for everyone: teammates, coaches -- even writers!”   

That last claim I had to test.  When I asked Denver reporter Mike Monroe about him, he said, "He's one of my favorites, and I've been doing this for 11 years.  He's just a real pleasant guy to be around." 

The cloud of controversy that hung over the Fab Five throughout their years in Ann Arbor disappeared in the NBA – when it usually works the other way around.  At one point, three of the Fab Five were listed among the NBA’s top five charitable givers.    

It also turned out Steve Fisher really could coach – witness the masterpiece over Kentucky in the 1993 NCAA semi-finals -- and he wasn’t a victim, either.  I learned the latter on a cold Sunday morning in 1996 – a year after the last of the Fab Five had left -- when my editor called me to find Maurice Taylor’s Ford Explorer that had rolled over on M-14, near Plymouth.   

After I tracked down the truck, a car dealer told me it cost about $35,000.  The Secretary of State told me Taylor’s grandmother bought it, and the records showed the car cost twice as much as her home.  Within 24 hours, we found several other Michigan players were driving cars they probably couldn’t afford, either.  It didn’t take much to smell something fishy. 

The investigation that started that day resulted in two coaches fired, two banners brought down, and the entire program put on probation for years.    

But I had to wonder: If the press could figure all this out in about 24 hours, why couldn’t Steve Fisher connect the dots right under his nose over several years?  They say he wasn’t part of the payola plan, and that’s probably true.  But you’d have to be willfully blind not to see its effects by 1996.   

When Fisher was fired, he said they’d built an elite program, which was true, and they’d “done it the right way,” which wasn’t –  and by the time he was fired, he had to know it.  To this day, Fisher has never accepted any responsibility for what happened on his watch, and Chris Webber has never apologized for taking over a quarter-million dollars from a booster.  Fisher now coaches San Diego State, which played in the Sweet Sixteen last night, while Webber is a very wealthy TV commentator.  Those who followed them at Michigan paid the price for their mistakes.   

Twenty years ago, I thought the leaders of the Fab Five were Steve Fisher and Chris Webber.  But it turns out the real leader was Jalen Rose, who finished his degree by writing term papers in the back of NBA team planes.  He and the other three have proven to be thoughtful, successful and even honest men, committed to their communities and their families.  I’ve come to have great respect for them – and much less for their so-called leaders.   

What a difference twenty years makes. 

Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio

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  • 3/25/2011 9:32 AM hutch wrote:
    If you didn't know Jalen was the leader even back then, you really weren't paying attention. And if you really think learning about Taylor's car made it clear there was something wrong, you don't know what the Athletic Department was already doing at that point about checking on cars drive by athletes.
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  • 3/25/2011 10:15 AM Rick Meader wrote:

    Great work, an interesting, and unique, take on the whole thing. I was kind of uneasy about the Fab Five at the time, and actually thought Jalen was the dirtiest of them, which, it turns out, was as far from the truth as possible. Sometimes you're glad to be wrong.
    Reply to this
  • 3/25/2011 10:17 AM John U Bacon wrote:

    Thank you for your note.

    No question, Jalen Rose was the internal leader of that team, as I reported in Basketball Digest in 1996: "'Jalen was from inner-city Detroit, and carried himself like Superfly,'" says Jason Whitlock, who covered the team for The Ann Arbor News. 'That's what kids respected. He had an amazing impact on all the others but Juwan.'"

    "'He made sacrifices,' [Perry] Watson says. 'He knew they couldn't all be the go-to guy. Jalen decided Chris was the main man, and everyone else followed his lead.'"

    But clearly Fisher and Webber were the public faces of the Fab Five, and the most frequent spokesmen. I should have clarified I was referring to their off-court, public roles.       

    Likewise, I was already well aware that Red Berenson kept a list of all his players' cars -- make, model, year, value and owner - and looked into any vehicles that seemed nicer than a college kid might afford. But he was doing this on his own, not as part of athletic department policy -- which I also reported in 1996, in the Detroit News, and later in my first book, Blue Ice.

    I hope that clears up any confusion about what I knew, and when I knew it.

    Thanks for reading, and for writing. 

    Reply to this
  • 3/25/2011 10:40 AM John Ferens wrote:
    If you had watched M Basketball up close in the early 80's you would have understood how this got to where it did. The worst thing that ever could have happened to M basketball was winning in 89. Bo wanted to clean house with the entire program after Frieder bailed, but look what happened. He gave Fisher the job under enormous pressure after he won NCAA and thus continued the debacle of a corrupt program. As far as you gaining respect for members of Fab 5, I was embarrased for our school after watching 30-30 as I was when they were playing. Sure I drank the kool-aid and liked the wins, but knew something was wrong and distasteful as they conducted their business. Fisher can play dumb to it all he wants, but his tutor Frieder showed him that winning was more important than the guiding a "Student Athlete" on a full ride scholarship. And honestly, considering all the advantages they gave themselves illegally, both coaches did not do very well at that (winning) either. Fisher had no chance of ever changing the landscape, he just rode the wave. Mitch Album hanging around players and being asked by them for Pizza money....give me a break. Did Mitch get that kind of one on one time with Anthony Carter. No way. Bo made sure that never happened, while the B-Ball team was a completely different program.
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  • 3/25/2011 11:40 AM James F. Epperson wrote:
    Nice job, John. As I've said elsewhere, Fisher mis-handled his success, and it cost him and it cost the University.
    Reply to this
  • 3/25/2011 3:39 PM Steve Fishman wrote:

    I read with interest your article about the Fab Five and the recent documentary. As the criminal lawyer who represented Chris Webber in his federal perjury/obstruction of justice case that resulted in a misdemeanor conviction for contempt of court, I don't disagree with most of what you wrote, particularly with reference to what Steve Fisher knew or should have known.

    However, there is one thing in the story that still grates on me after all these years, and that is the suggestion that Webber received a quarter of a million dollars ($280,000 in most accounts) from Ed Martin. That figure, which I have always referred to as an urban legend, was unsupported by any evidence. As a result, the federal judge assigned to the Webber case granted my motion to prohibit the government from even mentioning that figure had the case gone to trial. For some reason, and Webber deserves some of the blame for this for failing to discuss the issue in public, everyone has always accepted that number and essentially ignored the facts.

    If you are interested, I will email you a copy of my original motion and my reply to the government's response. I don't know if it matter after all these years, but you appear to be a serious journalist who would probably like to have all the facts.

    One other thing: A number of people have told me since the showing of the documentary that they were impressed with Mitch Albom's comments regarding Webber having no money while at U-M. I was impressed with that too - 9 years ago when we were preparing for trial. Unfortunately, Mitch was not quite so forthcoming when I attempted to contact him and put him on my witness list. Instead, I was forced to file a motion to compel him to testify when he (through his lawyer, of course) claimed some type of privilege. That motion, which makes for pretty entertaining reading, is also available if you are interested.
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  • 3/25/2011 4:08 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
    Mr. Fishman,

    Thank you for your interesting and informative letter. You're right: I had no direct knowledge of the $280,000 figure, but got it from published sources. I would be happy to see any documents you have that would help me understand more of this case -- because there is one thing the past couple weeks have made patently obvious: the legend of the Fab Five is here to stay. We'll be discussing this again down the road, I'm certain.

    Again, thank you.

    Reply to this
  • 3/25/2011 6:49 PM Jonathan wrote:
    John - a terrific, thoughtful piece. I did not follow them closely at the time, but am impressed now with what you say.... and will look with a jaundiced eye at Fisher and Webber from now on.
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  • 3/26/2011 7:37 AM Wm Wilson wrote:
    Good God, Bacon, give it up will you? Has Webber not been vilified enough? Shouldn't you by now have gained enough perspective to realize that there are larger economic and social issues here which you should be using your pulpit to address? The most important one that for many years (pre-dating the Fab Five), college NCAA basketball & football have been a business which requires its' principals (the "talent" - the entertainers) to work for free -- when those entertainers are largely black and poor kids? (Every kid in America knew the Fab Five, but Fisher and 100 other employees of the UM Athletic Department were the ones driving "free" loaner cars? -- go figure)
    Besides, do you see any holes in your shopworn theory here when Jalen (for whom I have great respect) now admits he took some money? It's time for UM fans to grow up, face the real world, and stop lynching Webber at every turn. And if I were Webber, I'd set up a foundation to fund getting a lawyer for every black H.S."recruit" school in the state, to protect their rights as employees, and their intellectual property rights to their name and appearance. Your theory here panders, but shows you're locked in 1996. Try taking a look at the big picture lessons.
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    1. 3/27/2011 6:10 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
      Mr. Wilson,

      Your letter raises some important issues, but also misses the points I’m making, and accuses me of things anyone who has read my work regularly would know to be false – including my piece a couple weeks ago which addressed Jim Tressel and the inherent corruption in a governing body that is both sheriff and saloon keeper. So, please, save the sanctimonious rant until after you’ve done a modicum of homework – like reading two columns below this one.

      I have also said and written many times that there needs to be a viable alternative route to the NFL and the NBA for those players who do not want to be college students, who want to be paid, or should not be on college campuses – which both baseball and hockey have -- which would solve the basic conflict of amateurs making money for universities. I am well aware of the bigger issues at play here, and have researched and written about them often, and have created a course at the University of Michigan to explore them.

      But none of this excuses Chris Webber for breaking the NCAA rules by taking money, and U.S. law by not paying taxes on that income and apparently lying to a grand jury. Those are not small things. You’ll note in my piece the only thing I’m criticizing him for is an unwillingness to apologize – which would take all of thirty seconds, and cost him nothing – for the damage those decisions did for the university, and the innocent players and coaches who followed him but had to pay the price for his mistakes.

      Friendly advice: do not invoke race or accuse someone of ignoring it unless you’re certain of your charges and can back them up – especially when I am far more critical of Steve Fisher (and indirectly, the athletic directors and presidents above him), who did far too little for these players, than I am of Chris Webber – let alone my growing admiration for the other Fab Fivers. And no one should use the term ‘lynching’ unless they are talking about lynching – something that occurred 2,314 times from 1882 to 1930 alone. It is too serious and too charged a term to use casually.

      Thank you for signing your name, which contributors are required to do when they write the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, to curtail irresponsible rants. I have gotten lackadaisical in my enforcement, but your letter is a good reminder to be more vigilant on that score.

      I hope this clears up any confusion you might have about my message, my background, and my beliefs.

      And to the rest of our contributors, please always sign your name. It makes for far more intelligent and responsible discourse – something too often lacking in blogs and sports radio.

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      1. 3/28/2011 3:50 PM Wm Wilson wrote:
        John thx much for your reply, some good points. Mine was a little glib, if only bec dictated on the fly, and was probably a little sharp, though it's bec I think you are known as having a good balance wheel, sufficient to see the big picture. And my bias is that UofM is about intelligence and leading the way - and UM athletics (DBrandon, MSC) - and its' rational observers, like you - need to get out front on these issues of "ersatz amateurism".
        Several notes: 1) I might not know your predilections, bec I havent read all, so point well-taken; 2) I didn't criticize your Fisher analysis; 3) Fishman's commments are eye-openers (I had heard rumors to this effect before), and,taken with Albom's note that CWebb never seemed to have money back then, support my long-held positive view of Webber -- bec it now appears that (with Jalen's recent rather coy admission that he got money back then) there is much more evidence that Webber's "take" was not substantially different from Jalen's or others. Webber (as is true of so many protagonists, heroes, tragic characters) may have been -- while lying to the feds -- one of the most honorable of characters in the scenario -- he knew that other friends, teammates were getting money. And he has never named any, and, since, has "never complained, never explained." Is CWebb flawed? Is much of this out of the Godfather movie? Yes, but we're all flawed, and the NCAA (members) have a Godfather's strangle-hold on its' tsunami of money. CWebb's "wrongs" happened a generation ago, he's served his punishment --and he's still a whipping boy for every "amateur-sport" apologist. (Was UM so "sorry" about it all that it gave gave back all the millions in revenue from the Fab Five's efforts?) 4) I despise the race card popping up in every microcosm. But in the NCAA macrocosm, the racial numbers so staggering they make one choke -- in suggesting substanttial de facto economic "imbalance" in what is a multi-billion dollar system. The bald truth is (as the federal courts long-ago stated) that the NCAA is a monopoly which restrains trade; it's also clear that its' entire framework has substantial de facto negative impact on one race. As that mother of one of the the OSU/Terrelle "Five" so eloquently said, (paraphrase): "my boy's working his tail off there in Columbus, and everyone -- except him - is running to the bank." Once college sports was an "amateur" avocation for students. Now, its' players meet almost every garden-variety legal test (IRS, Worker's Comp, Unemployment) for "employee" status. 5) My comments might be seen as high-minded, but not sanctimonious -- which is "feigning piety". Sanctimonious is Mark Emmert of NCAA, or Jim Tressel mouthing zany platitudes about the sanctity of an "amateur" sport, but not only do they not work for free as "amateurs', but they pull down millions.
        Remember the NCAA's implicit credo: "there is no nonsense so errant that it cannot be embodied in an NCAA Bylaw.
        Reply to this
        1. 3/28/2011 7:24 PM John U. Bacon wrote:
          Mr. Wilson,

          Thank you for your letter. It sounds like you actually do agree with one of my favorite principles, that it's possible to disagree without being disagreeable -- a good place to start in any discussion, and a rarity on sports blogs and talk shows.

          You raise some good points here, including the strong likelihood that Chris Webber has been singled out for scapegoating - although I would maintain he surely brought some of that on himself.

          There is no question that you do not need to be hypersensitive on questions of race to see more than a few threads in this case -- starting with the utterly appalling letters Fisher and the players received, from U-M alums, no less, proud to sign their names. Stunning.

          Likewise, I felt Mitch Albom made a good point about 12-year old kids in Detroit who need winter coats. You're not likely to be overly worried about NCAA rules at that moment -- and nor would any reasonable person expect you to be.

          For the record, I believe Albom when he says he didn't see any signs of ill-gotten gains when following the team around during those years. A few hundred bucks here or there is pretty easy to conceal, Jalen Rose's car speaks for itself, and as we've recently learned, Webber's alleged haul of $280,000 figure might have been greatly inflated.

          My (very brief!) point in the documentary was that, after the Fab Five left, discretion seemed out of fashion. It was not hard to figure out what was happening in 1996.

          As for the NCAA, I find it as necessary as it is hypocritically run. It richly deserves the great majority of criticism it receives.

          Bacon Theory #214 states, once again, that the only way to solve this conundrum is to create alternate routes for anyone who wants to play pro sports -- then they can decide if they want to remain amateurs in exchange for a scholarship, or get paid elsewhere.

          Thanks for your clarifications. I hope mine are equally helpful.

          Reply to this
          1. 3/30/2011 7:36 AM Wm Wilson wrote:
            John Your #principle (disagree with civility) is #1 for me. And I think I mis-spelled 'errant', I think it should have been arrant, but I might be wrong. Give 'em hell Bill
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  • 3/26/2011 11:31 AM Edward wrote:
    Steve Fisher is a liar for telling the players that Bill Cosby faxed him that the Fab Five would be in The Bill Cosby Show if they beat Cosby's college team, Temple. But how idiotic was the lie? "Beat my college and I will reward you."!!!

    "Semifinals" is correct for there are two games in the Final Four; "Finals" should never be used when referring to an event (or single series) in one year. NBA Final or NCAA Final is correct for the championship series or game; NBA Finals or NCAA Finals is incorrect, for a single series or single game is one entity.
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  • 3/26/2011 11:47 AM TR wrote:
    Great succinct thought. I was a UM Freshman the same fall they arrived and lived down the hall in South Quad from Chris & Jalen. The difference between the actual and occassional interaction with the players in the dorm or on campus and the "public persona" they had nationally and in the media was incredible. Juwan Howard was a very nice and smart guy and Jimmy King was just a normal kid. Jalen was funny and a prankster and Webber often said nothing. I can't believe 20yrs have passed since that time but love the documentary and the fact that everyone still knows the names of the starting Fab Five!

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  • 3/26/2011 8:40 PM David wrote:
    Steve is a well respected lawyer and by reputation one of the best. Interestingly however he doesen't say what Webber did receive. If Weber wants to put the speculation to rest he should come out and admit what he received. If he received nothing he would not have pled guilty.
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  • 3/27/2011 10:24 AM Mike wrote:
    One of the best columns anywhere on what one learns from "Fab Five." John, I completely agree with your conclusions and came away with great respect for the foursome of Rose, Howard, Jackson and King. The proof of the matter is how each one has conducted himself over the past 20 years. Are we looking for a definition of a "Michigan Man"? Start with these 4 guys. Go Blue!
    Reply to this
  • 3/27/2011 3:18 PM Dan wrote:
    I'm curious about the $280K figure as well. Weren't there rumors that Martin was giving out money to a lot of other players, who were never named? Could it be that the NCAA couldn't account for the rest of the money and just attributed it to Webber?
    Reply to this
  • 3/28/2011 10:33 AM Paul Rodman wrote:
    To Chris Webber's attorney and his defenders on this site, John and the rest of us are left to specualate because Webber has never been a man and stepped to admit what he did. He is no more a victim than what Terrelle Pryor and his buddies are doing at OSU. Chris came to Michigan knowing the rules and did not abide by them. Years ago he should have come clean and then wrote a check out to Mott Hospital for the money he took, then all would have been forgotten.
    Reply to this
  • 3/28/2011 6:54 PM David '89 wrote:
    John, I always enjoy your perspective and on this issue I could not agree with you more. I was interested to hear Albom's perspective that Weber apparently did not have Martin's dollars while in school, but I am inclined to believe there was something inappropriate about his behavior. He was indicted for perjury which is pretty serious, and I have no evidence from Chris to contradict the NCAA finding of culpability. Nothing would please me more than a full vindication of Chris Weber! But absent that vindication, I think he should apologize. We are also owed apologies from the players that came later and violated NCAA regulations. The difference between Chris and those other players is the powerful connection we had as a university to the Fab Five and all they brought to our school. If Robert Traylor never apologized I would not miss it. But from Chris . . .

    As for Steve Fisher, he can hardly be excused for not knowing the cars his players were driving!

    Both Chris and Steve will always be Wolverines to me, and I will always value them for all of the tremendous contributions they made. But they owe our Michigan family an apology.

    As for the other four, I have always been proud to call them fellow Wolverines. Jalen, in particular, has impressed me because he was so publicly demonized as a college player and he never let himself be defined by that image. He was still a kid when public commentators were saying he represented all that was wrong with our society! That is quite a burden, and I could not be happier for him that he made himself into the sort of citizen that represents so much of what is great about our society.

    That team was so special. They are still among best passing and defensive college teams I have seen and I miss the days when basketball was played like that. It is a shame that the legacy is still tarnished by this story, but I honestly believe that a simple apology would go a long way to repairing that legacy. Pete Rose could have been in the Hall of Fame. And our banners could be hung again.

    Looking forward to your next book!
    Reply to this
  • 3/29/2011 5:08 PM Steve wrote:
    I just read your article on the Fab Five in the Detroit news, and I thought it would be interesting to read a similar piece by you on Frank Beckmann's recent comments (on Facebook) about the the Fab Five, which I found to be very offensive.

    Here is the quote, which you probably have already seen :

    "I got called off vacation to broadcast the Michigan hoops games in Charlotte...M/Duke should be great....This M team is the antithesis of the Fab 5, unselfish, always plays hard, no sense of entitlement, respects opponents, and no racists...We should thank Jalen Rose for reminding everyone why we never want another group like the Fab 5 at Michigan, or any other school!!"

    As I said above, I personally found this quote to be very offensive, and I was interested in hearing your take on it. I my opinion, an old white man judging the behavior of a group of young African American men's actions from 20 years ago while praising our current, white dominated basketball team is a really hairy situation to have put himself in. He also slams home some stereotypes about African Americans in his descriptions of the players. Regardless of his intentions, I took his comments to be offensive at a minimum. To compound matters, he openly wished that Michigan, or any other team, will never have a team like that again, and specifically called Jalen Rose out. After reading your article, you clearly would love to see another player like Jalen on the court for Michigan, and so would I.

    I feel that his comments were clearly alluding to something more than what was written, and it is my assumption that what he was alluding to is a general animosity toward outgoing African American players that became bigger than "his" Michigan. The were African American players that weren't going to behave as old white men like he would want them to. In my opinion, the comment definitely comes across as racist, though I am sure that he doesn't believe that he is.

    Anyway, I think that it would make a good topic for an article, and I am interested in your thoughts.
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