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.

It didn’t last. At the six-minute mark of the second half, the roof caved in and Michigan suddenly couldn’t score or defend. They ended up losing by 20, sending Webber running off the court, his uniform pulled over his sobbing eyes. In the locker room, he and his teammates all pledged to never again feel such crushing disappointment. They were at least sure of one thing: there was always next year.

But the sophomore season wasn’t the same for any of the Fab Five. “The novelty wore off and people no longer seemed to like the confidence and swagger they carried,” says Smith. “It got to the point where you either loved them or hated them.”

And, indeed, many younger fans gave serious love. Though they were widely criticized in the press, baggy shorts, black socks and M logos became as ubiquitous as Nikes on playgrounds and in gyms from coast to coast. And the impact was felt throughout college ball. Opposing coaches began letting their players alter their uniforms, and the Fab Five’s fashion sense already seemed less radical. By the time they faced North Carolina in the ’93 title game, the Tar Heels shorts were even longer than theirs. But that was little consolation to a group of 19-year-olds who felt themselves being tarred and feathered as everything-that’s-wrong-with-sports-and-kids-today.

“It’s a good story to build someone up and it’s a good story to tear them back down,” says King. “I understand that now, but at the time we couldn’t understand how we went from being media darlings to the nation’s bad boys. We didn’t really do anything to warrant that.”

In truth, as sophomores, the Fab Five were sometimes a bit out of control. After a big win at Michigan State, several playerspretended they were defecating on the Spartans’ center-court S. And the team talked incessant trash before an early season rematch with Duke, with Webber saying he “wished Laettner would come back from [the NBA] so we can beat him too.” The Cameron Crazies had a field day heckling the team, as Duke pasted them by 11.

Still, the Fab Five righted themselves to go 25-4 and earn a No. 1 seed in the West regional. Now the attacks could really begin. Before the start of the tourney, Bill Walton called the Fab Five “one of the most overrated and underachieving teams of all time…who epitomize a lot of what’s wrong with a lot of basketball players.” It was the most vicious and well-publicized—but certainly not the only—assault on the team.

“We were just playing ball and having fun, and people said, ‘Just play, be quiet and don’t enjoy your wins,” says King. “But we weren’t putting on a show. We were just having fun doing what we love. We weren’t kicking people when they were on the ground like Christian Laettner did. But no matter what happened, teams like Indiana, UNC and Duke got only good press, because their coaches were perceived as being strong and in control, and we got attacked for taking over college basketball because we were perceived as being out of control.”

In the second round, the overrated underachievers pulled off the greatest comeback in Michigan history, coming back from 19 down to beat UCLA in overtime 86-84 on a King putback at the buzzer. After beating George Washington, the only thing standing in the way of a second straight Final Four was Temple, led by Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie and a bunch of less-talented tough guys. Chaney’s big men did everything but gouge out Webber’s and Howard’s eyes. On the verge of defeat, Chaney was finally T’d up for spewing profanities at both Fisher and the refs, had to be restrained by his assistant coaches and finally refused to shake Fisher’s hand—then went to a press conference and blasted the Fab Five for taunting.

“That kind of criticism was really bothersome all year long,” says King. “We just ignored it. In fact, we never even talked about how much less fun the second year was until Chris said it in a Final Four press conference. I remember thinking, ‘So it’s not just me.’”

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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.