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Daniel Wasserman: Trey’s eternal legacy

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 14, 2013

On the eve of last week’s national title game, ESPNU aired its network’s 30 for 30 documentary, “Fab Five.”

Shortly after 10:00 p.m., near the midway point of the film, the storyline reaches the first of the team’s two championship-game losses, a blown first-half lead to top-seeded Duke.

“First half, we played good basketball. We stayed in the game, we were executing, playing hard,” said Jalen Rose in the film. “In the second half, they just smacked us. They just took it up to another level. They played like champions play.”

It was an eerie foreshadow of what was to come 24 hours later, at 10:18 p.m., when, after trailing for 19 of the game’s initial 20 minutes, top-seeded Louisville entered the locker room with only a one-point deficit and all of the momentum.

While the Cardinals’ run came just before, instead of after, halftime, the similarities between the games run parallel. Louisville, like Duke, was the tournament favorite with its roster full of veterans and Final Four experience, coached by one of the game’s best.

The Wolverines, in each case, were the young, inexperienced team who shocked the world with championship runs.

The futures of each teams’ brightest star was a near certainty following the losses. And here the storylines, the parallels, ultimately go astray.

Headlined by Chris Webber, the stars of the former team all returned, making a run to the ensuing title game in a year where a championship wasn’t a goal, but the expectation.

“I felt like we at least did lose to a better team and that was hard to swallow, but I felt like we’re going to get a couple more cracks at it,” Rose said. “Everybody says that, but I really believed it.”

But since he decided last April to return for his sophomore season, Trey Burke’s fate following the conclusion of Michigan’s next season — whenever it came — was all but certain.

On Sunday, he confirmed that, announcing he plans to enter the upcoming NBA Draft.

“It’s always been a dream for me to play in the NBA,” Burke said. “I think it was just the right time for me.

“Now that it’s here, I’m definitely fortunate and blessed. … I just feel like it was the best decision for me.”

The future of three more starters — Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary — currently hang in the balance. If all three return, the Wolverines will unquestionably be a preseason top-15 team. If all, or even any, of them go, it could thrust next year’s team into uncertainty.

****

A year after the Duke loss, the seasoned Fab Five squad made the expected championship-game run, only for it to end in the most infamous way imaginable. Trailing by two with 11 seconds left, Webber called a timeout his team didn’t have, sealing a win for underdog North Carolina.

Minutes after the game, Rose told then-Michigan coach Steve Fisher that, “We’ll be back.” Webber even told fans at a Crisler Arena pep rally the next day that he’d return for his junior year. But many around him already knew that the most recognizable starting five in college basketball history was to be no more.

“You want to leave as a champion but also you don’t want to go through it again,” Webber said a week later.

Nearly a month after the timeout, on May 5, 1993, Webber’s time as a Wolverines formally came to end with a decision he called “necessary.”

“There’s no concrete reason why I should stay,” he said in his statement.

A year later, after third-seeded Michigan was upended by eventual-champion Arkansas in the regional final, Rose and Juwan Howard left. It would be the final Sweet 16 for the program until this year, 19 seasons later.

“Everybody figured the story of the Fab Five was over,” said former Detroit News sports writer Bryan Burwell in “Fab Five.”

Obviously, it wasn’t.

A year and a half later, as the Ed Martin scandal began rearing its ugly head, Fisher was fired. At a press conference on Oct. 12, 1997 announcing his departure, Fisher said he had “tremendous pride” in his legacy.

“We have taken a basketball program and built it into one of the elite programs in the country the right way,” he said, then for added emphasis, repeated once more, “the right way.”

It had been four years since the timeout, four years since Webber left Ann Arbor, but unbeknownst to any at the time, it was closer to the start, not the end, of the legacy Webber had left on the basketball program.

After what amounted to a five-year investigation, the banners were removed, wins were vacated and while Webber was enjoying an NBA All-Star season, the Michigan program — at this point in shambles — was barred from future postseason play.

***

Two coaches removed from Fisher, John Beilein inherited a near-abysmal program. Playing in front of empty crowds in a gloomy arena — one of the conference’s shoddiest facilities — his first year with Michigan, 2008, was its 10th-consecutive season without an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Just five years later, that year — really, that program — is a distant memory.

In Beilein’s second season, the Wolverines made a late-season surge to finally end their March Madness drought. Two more tournament bids and a Big Ten Championship — the team’s first since 1986 — followed. Tens of millions of dollars later, Ann Arbor is home to one of the country’s top basketball facilities.

It was a core of gritty, hard-nosed, unheralded recruits — David Merritt, C.J. Lee, Stu Douglass and Zack Novak — that helped the program climb out of the hole left by Webber.

But it was Burke who ultimately closed the door on a tarnished past, ushering in a new, nationally-recognized brand of Wolverine basketball.

Beginning halfway through his freshman season, while the assistant coaches would huddle together during pregame player introductions at Crisler, Burke became a staple of the conversation.

“The coaches kind of hang together and they’d go around and say, ‘Thank God for Trey Burke,’ because he was basically making everything work,” said assistant coach Jeff Meyer. “It was just like, ‘Thank God for Trey Burke.’ ”

Standing less than fifty yards from where Webber announced his departure 19 years earlier, Burke announced last year that he’d return to Michigan, to return the program to a championship level.

A championship — like the Fab Five in their return — wasn’t his goal, but his expectation. He meant it, and he backed it up all the way to Atlanta, winning 30 games and every major individual award he could win in the meantime.

So on Sunday — under the same roof where Webber said goodbye to Michigan for one final time, a Michigan that was thought to be clean, thought to be sustainably elite, thought to be a championship contender for years to come — Burke said his own farewell.

“Some decisions are like eternity,” said assistant coach Bacari Alexander. “You never know when your influence is going to stop.

“Success always leaves footprints.”

An emptiness in the Crisler Center rafters, left by the ousting of the 1992 and 1993 banners, the ones Webber was largely responsible for both raising and removing, will soon be filled by a new one.

The 2013 Final Four banner, Burke’s, will soon hang in place of Webber’s. And in the coming years, it’ll be greeted not by controversy, but by the company of new banners. New banners that signify that though Burke is gone, Michigan basketball is back, and this time, it’s not going anywhere.

But one more banner belongs, one with a white backing, blue embroidery outlined by maize stitching. It should bear the No. 3 beneath the name, “Burke.”

“For what he has done for the program, I’m sure that’ll get a lot of consideration,” Beilein said. “I certainly would be in favor of that.”

I would too.

Daniel Wasserman can be reached at dwass@umich.edu or on Twitter @d_wasserman


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