The Fab Five: Then and Now
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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
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
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
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
What a difference twenty years
Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon
Copyright© 2011, Michigan Radio
Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnubacon