Leaders of the New School

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.”