Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 at 11:45 am  |  16 responses

Leaders of the New School

A look back at the most impactful team in college basketball history.

With the regular season wrapped up and teams punching their tickets to the Big Dance, what better time to take a look back at some of the best and most entertaining college teams of the past few decades? First up, we have a Fab Five story from SLAM 52 (June ’01) written by long time contributor Alan Paul. The Fab Five will forever be remembered by fans and critics alike, both for their on- and off-court antics. Meanwhile, this year’s edition of the Wolverines, led by the backcourt duo of Tim Hardaway Jr and Trey Burke, are co-Big Ten champs and have Michigan fans hype heading into March. Enjoy this look back at a classic piece, and expect plenty more to come as the NCAA Tournament approaches.—Ed.

by Alan Paul

“The Fab Five was once in a lifetime! What they achieved will never, ever happen again.”

The familiar voice of Dick Vitale booms through the phone line, scratchy and emphatic. He may be a bit less frenzied off the air, but Vitale can’t contain his excitement when the subject turns to the Fab Five, the heralded freshmen who drove Michigan to consecutive title games in ’92 and ’93. “This story deserves special acclaim,” Vitale says. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear coaches say, ‘We can’t win because we have two freshmen in our rotation.’ It’s absolutely accepted wisdom and the Fab Five turned it on its head. I think what they did is absolutely unique in the history of basketball and doesn’t get the play it deserves.”

Vitale’s statement is accurate but stunning nonetheless. How could the Fab Five be underrated when, despite never winning a league or national championship, they still managed to change the face of college ball? The concept would have been unfathomable nine years ago when Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King were garnering countless headlines and being covered in a manner more MTV than ESPN.

“They were greeted like rock stars,” recalls Rob Pelinka, a role player on those teams and now an agent whose clients include Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson. “We sometimes needed police escorts because  our bus would be surrounded by people.”

And just like every new sensation from Elvis to Eminem, there was debate about whether the Fab Five represented something creative and wonderful or arrogant and destructive. Their brash confidence, in-your-face trash talking and hip-hop fashion sense were both embraced and attacked like no college sports team before or since. The debate continues to this day, especially in Ann Arbor, where the basketball team struggles along under a cloud of impropriety that dates back to the Fabs’ recruitment. But one thing is beyond debate: The Fab Five represented something entirely new, an entire class of blue chip recruits covering every position, each of whom lived up to their top billing.

Power forward Webber was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball and the nation’s top recruit. Howard, a 6-9 center, and the 6-5 shooting guard King were the top players in Illinois and Texas, respectively, and Rose was a 6-8 pg who had led Detroit’s Southwestern High to two state titles. Jackson was the only one of the five who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but the 6-6 Texan was one of the nation’s top small forward prospects. And while serendipity and coach Steve Fisher’s intense leg work certainly played huge roles in landing such an esteemed class, the Fab Five also recruited themselves.

“Juwan is responsible for the whole thing,” says Webber today. “Jalen and I had talked about going to school together since we were 12, but Juwan is the one who got it going. He made us believe that we could create something great together.”

Explains Howard, “I started a chain reaction. Jimmy and I met on our visit and decided to go to Michigan. Then I called Chris, because we had become good friends through the All-Star games, and started working on him. I persuaded him and he got a hold of Jalen, which is exactly what I wanted. I was looking to win a national title or two, instead of just going somewhere and being assured of being the man.”

It didn’t take long for the dreams to come to fruition; all five recall that the chemistry was immediate. “The day we all met, we played a pickup game outside our dorm and it was just there,” says Webber.

Nonetheless, it takes a huge leap for a memorable pickup squad to become an NCAA title contender. Most great college teams result from a slow blending of talents, with experience trumping nearly everything else. The Fab Five turned that formula on its head. Juniors Pelinka, James Voskuil, Michael Talley and Eric Riley were key contributors, but clearly support players to the five freshmen, a seemingly impossible situation deftly managed by Fisher and his staff.

“It takes freshmen a while to grasp the college game,” says Randy Ayers, a current Sixers assistant who was the head man at Ohio State at the time. “A high school star has an adjustment period learning to accept sacrificing for the good of the team. That almost always takes a year or two, but the Fab Five found their niches immediately. Chris, Jalen and Juwan were the go-to guys and the Texas kids were the defenders. And they played off each other beautifully.”

Adds Vitale, “These guys truly enjoyed each other’s company and responded as a unit, with the emphasis on the team rather than individual stats. They were a very unselfish team that blended extremely well.”

And, the players all say, they made each other better on a daily basis, filling one another with their trademark confidence. “As a group, we always felt invincible,” says Webber. “Individually, you always have fear and doubt, but we never did as a team. I felt that together we could accomplish anything.”

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  • 23

    funny how much recognition this team still gets. i always thought they under-achieved when you look at their talent. i know they were freshmen and at that time freshmen wouldnt play. but still, talent is way more important than age. they never won a chip, yet they are one of the most celebrated teams in all of college sports. especially when people dont consider any pro athlete great until he wins a ring. sure webber dunked like an animal, and rose was a “magic esque” pg. but they never won a chip. and they broke ncaa violations. AND their best player made the BIGGEST MISTAKE in college basketball history! but yeah they wore slightly longer shorts and black socks, so they are cool! smh

  • 23

    before i go on let me just say i think this michigan team was one of the most talented ever in college bball hisotry. but i think it was better before them, when freshmen had to EARN their playing time over the course of a season. and not just awarded starting spots at the start of the season. now we get alot of undeveloped pros because they dominate in high school, so college coaches dump the hardworking juniors for a STAR freshman who leaves after one season……

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/tray24 T-Ray

    Honesty I don’t see where they under-achieved. They lost to two great programs and they were only freshmen when they played Duke. Their recognition is deserving because they started 5 freshmen that’s crazy and was unheard of at that time. They dealt with race issues and the longer shorts and black socks had a big part for those race issues they faced. Great read I would also recommend the 30 for 30 segment it goes more in depth.

  • 23

    judging from the way jalen rose spoke about duke players in that 30 for 30, i dont think that the racism was one sided….
    heck id even argue that duke has dealt with many racist issues. the terms “fake black” and “oreo” are still thrown around by some people when reffering to duke players. but yet that michigan team plays the victim.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/tray24 T-Ray

    Oh by no means was it one sided at all. I never said that. I think the reason why they played the victim was because the spot light was on them at that time. Do I think it’s right? No but it’s a reasonable claim as well as duke players facing the same race issues if not more.

  • 23

    i guess i can see why theyre celebrated. but i just wonder how a TEAM can be celebrated when they never won. but i suppose this one is one of those things thats “bigger than basketball”?? i dont know. i think theyre like the allen iverson of college basketball.

  • http://www.slamonline.com TADOne

    If being the Allen Iverson of college bball is supposed to be an insult, then insult away. The Fab Five were unprecedented and will never be duplicated. At the time they played the NCAA was in the midst of being very top heavy with Duke, UNC, UNLV, etc and most teams never stood a chance in the tourney. So I’m not surprised they didnt win it all. However, it was very surprising, especially at that time, that a team so young could challenge for a championship.

  • http://www.slamonline.com TADOne

    People also celebrated the Utah Jazz teams that never won, the Seattle Sonics, the Denver Nuggets, the Run TMC Warriors, the Chris Webber led Kings, etc.

  • Yann Blavec

    Excuse me, I’m white, (and French :) ) but this is malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • http://www.acb.com A l a n

    Great story. And to win, it also takes a little bit of luck, and they only had 2 chances. It took Jerry West 8 finals to win 1 for example.

  • 23

    first of all the iverson comparison wasnt an insult. just pointing out how iverson was looked down upon by some people because of his image, just like the fab 5. and secondly, im not gonna sit here and pretend people dont bring up those teams time and time again, but answer me this… which team is talked about more, the jordan pippen bulls or the stockton mailman jazz? run tmc, or the kobe/shaq dynasty? the kemp – payton sonics, or the bird mchale celtics? my point is that even tho some franchises are celebrated without winning a chip, its kept to a minimum. not held to as high a standard as champs. but this fab 5 team is one of the most celebrated teams in ncaa bball history! they are talked about more than joakim noahs gators and arguably more celebrated than the duke team that beat them.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Wayno

    Co-sign T-Ray, the 30 for 30 piece about the Fab Five was fantastic, a must watch.

  • LA Huey

    23, I hear what you’re saying but I think a part of the reason folks love this team so much is that they simply connected very strongly with so many fans. Penny Hardaway still has a huge cult-like following despite never winning any trophies (sans the Rookie game) or rings. And like TADOne mentioned, that was a very unique group of individuals that came together in a unique way.

  • bike

    Yeah, that 30 for 30 piece was a gem. The only thing about this team that I found unlikable was their notion (especially Webber’s) that they should have been compensated for the b-ball paraphernalia their fame generated. They got full scholarships—nothing to sneeze at. It was their choice to forgo the diploma for NBA riches.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Alan Paul

    Very happy to see this up here. I went to UM and was not an impartial observer of the whole thing. The team could be frustrating, but they were great fun – and five frosh going to the Champ was really incredible. The Kentucky semis game against Mashburn et al their second year was the best of the bunch. I’d love to watch that again.


    A bunch of great points… Yes the Fab 5 story is about talent, race, winning, and all the things mentioned in the thread but most importantly whether you like it or not they were a collective that created cultural change. They totally changed what college basketball is on a cultural level. You can like it or dislike it but know that to have the type of impact that group had it takes all that you like and all that you hate to shift the paradigm and they did it. And being a dude who played ball and hailing from Michigan, I’m a proponent of them being worthy of the praise and hype.