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.

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.

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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.