Leaders of the New School
A look back at the most impactful team in college basketball history.
While the Fab Five’s critics accused them of showboating—“too much with the French pastry and the hot-dogging!” proclaimed broadcaster Al McGuire—the fact is, they played solid, team-oriented ball. If you watch their games today—easy to do, thanks to ESPN Classic—you’ll see a confident unit playing great help D, running crisp sets and effortlessly improvising whenever necessary.
“We had pretty good game-time execution, which is often overlooked because of some of the players’ flamboyance,” says Jay Smith, then a Michigan assistant, now the coach of Central Michigan University. Indeed, from their very first tip-off, Webber, Rose and King in particular exhibited tremendous flavor to go with their savvy. Webber was a dominant post presence with supple hands and ferocious power. Rose was a cocksure point with maddening lapses but an uncanny knack for coming through in the clutch. And King was a tremendous finisher as well as a deadly three-point shooter and reliable defensive stopper. Howard, meanwhile, was rock solid in the post, making teams pay for collapsing on Webber, and Jackson was a steady hand who often came through with crucial baskets, boards and stops. All five turned in highlight-reel-worthy jams on a regular basis.
“There were times when we just played basketball, and it may not have been all that structured, but we often ran the passing game, which is really just fundamental ball: reading each other, setting picks and cutting,” says King, who, like Jackson, is now playing in the IBL. “We were able to do it well because of our knowledge and understanding of the game, and because we practiced it a lot.”
But much of the initial buzz about the Fab Five had little to do with fundamentals—or basketball at all. Gallons of ink were spilled about their flapping shorts, black socks and gleaming bald domes and their constant on-court chatter, as they endlessly jawed at both opponents and each other. If it seems hard to understand why such things would cause a furor, that itself is evidence of the Fab Five’s impact. Watch their games and you’ll see that while the Fab Five’s opponents look dated in their clingy unis, the Michigan youngsters—even now—look contemporary. “They completely changed the fashion of college ball,” says Ayers.
And while some critics blasted Fisher for allowing such freedom, the coach wisely used it as a motivational tool.
“Fish would let us do things like get bigger shorts and wear black socks if we practiced hard,” Webber recalls. “He was like, ‘You can wear what you want as long as you work hard, practice right and play smart.’”
The group first came to serious national acclaim in the fifth game of their rookie year, when they took defending champ Duketo overtime before falling 85-81. Most observers considered it a great moral victory, but the Michigan players were incensed they lost a game they could have won. But while the sight of Webber and Rose yapping in the faces of Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley delighted those who found the Dookies arrogant and insufferable, it also ruffled a lot of feathers. Columnists spewed and older Michigan alums stewed. Even refs weren’t beyond getting in on the act, as when Rose got T’d up for smiling.
The Fab Five seemed unbothered by any of it, however, finishing their freshman season 21-8 and ranked 14th in the nation, with a sixth seed in the Big Dance. In a fitting omen, the team ran into Muhammad Ali, the man who invented trash talking, at their Atlanta hotel the night before their first tournament game, against Temple. When The Greatest pulled Howard close and whispered “Shock the world!” in his young ear, The Fab Five had themselves a new rallying cry, which they rode to an Elite Eight battle with Big Ten champion Ohio State. The Jim Jackson-led Buckeyes had beaten Michigan twice already, but things had changed.
“They were a totally different team,” recalls Ayers. “They were physically stronger and they played smarter and with more confidence.”
Different enough to win a thrilling OT game, 75-71, catapulting them to the Final Four, where Nick Van Exel’s Cincinnati squad lay in waiting. After winning a nail-biter, the Fab Five had another date with Duke. Though they seemed unflappable, they came out for introductions lacking their usual fire, with nary a chest bump or holler. But if the rookies were a tad nervous, the reigning kings looked downright spooked. Perennial tourney hero Laettner sleepwalked through the first half, and the Fab Five clawed their way to a one-point lead.