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.’”