Twenty years and a day.
From the moment Michigan’s fabled Fab Five stepped off the court, dejected, in New Orleans on April 5, 1993, almost exactly two decades have passed before the Wolverines finally fought their way back here.
Two decades when the basketball program looked back, its unwavering focus resting only on a pair of Final Four banners lying dormant, abandoned in the basement of the Bentley Historical Library.
Two decades when pride still rested with those black shoes, those black socks and those banished banners — relics of a history shrouded in controversy, now collecting dust.
Two decades when the program’s finest memories were of the Fab Five: Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
They changed the game, you know. They captivated a generation, shocked the world, and held a nation in stunned disbelief when they buckled and collapsed with Webber’s phantom fourth timeout. They brought Ann Arbor to life, then they watched it all end — the spotlight faded, the talent pool faded and the powerhouse basketball program that had reached three national championship games in five years faded.
But this Michigan team has stepped out of those shadows and onto center stage. Suddenly, the only reason anyone is looking back is to compare legacies, to remember.
And now, somehow, with one more win over Louisville, we can finally say good night to the Fab Five as the face of Michigan basketball, and wish good luck to this revived program.
Three hundred sixty-four days ago, Trey Burke stayed.
He had a foot out the door, then he reversed course. “Those who stay will be champions,” apparently, and never has this well-worn, clichéd statement been truer than it is today.
“I felt like it was the best decision for me to stay my sophomore year and compete for a national championship next year,” Burke said that Monday, nearly a year ago.
It was reminiscent of what Webber, then a sophomore, told a crowd of 2,500 at Crisler Arena when Michigan arrived just 15 hours after its loss to North Carolina in 1993, just 15 hours after the phantom timeout.
“As I said last year, next year we’ll be back,” Webber said. “We’ll be back.”
He didn’t stay, of course. He left for the NBA and became the No. 1 overall draft pick a few months later. And, with him, Michigan’s championship hopes seeped out the door. Elite Eight once, Sweet 16 years later, but never beyond over the next two decades.
Until this year.
This team has a chance to do what the Fab Five never could: win a national title. It has faced a fiercer gauntlet in this tournament than the Fab Five ever did — in 1992, Michigan beat Nos. 11, 14, 2, 1, 4 and 1 seeds (average opponent seed: 5.5); in 1993, Nos. 16, 9, 12, 7, 1, and 1 seeds (7.7); in 2013, Nos. 13, 5, 1, 3, 4, 1 (4.5).
A four seed shouldn’t survive that schedule, especially after stumbling blindly into the tournament after losing six of its last 12 games. Like the Fab Five, many wrote off these Wolverines long before the tournament. No discipline, no poise, no experience … no chance. But Michigan coach John Beilein isn’t a babysitter, he’s a coach.
Beilein taught them the culture of Michigan basketball the day they arrived. He repeats that word again and again: culture. They understand that they’re playing for themselves and for family and for pride. But they’re also playing for Michigan; they know the block ‘M’ represents something bigger than themselves.
They’ve stayed, they’ve stayed together, and they’ve left Michigan different.
And there will be no dispute as this team’s banner is raised to the Crisler Center rafters.
That’s all that’s left.
As I pen this column, a dusty bound volume sits on either side of me. One that holds every copy of the Daily from the spring of 1992, the other every copy from the spring of 1993.
Two decades later, the yellowed pages still vividly replay the heartbreak. Back-to-back appearances in the national championship game, and back-to-back losses. But the pages also describe the elation that preceded the losses, the elation after the Final Four victories, the elation that brought Ann Arbor to life.
You might know the feeling now, because this program is captivating again, and Ann Arbor was alive again Saturday night.
It was alive as a policeman pointed a finger to a group on a crowded balcony, smiled and shouted “Go Blue!” … and as students climbed the oak trees lining the Diag to get a better view of the celebration … and as someone popped out of the sunroof of a red sedan to clang away on a cowbell on South University in the moments after Jordan Morgan’s dunk sealed the Final Four victory over Syracuse.
It simply doesn’t get any better.
Today, there will be a ring, or there will be tears.
For the Fab Five, it ended in tears. But we’re not here to reminisce in the heartbreak, we’re here to usher in the new face of Michigan basketball. This team has Michigan’s eyes on the future, not the past. And that future is a beautiful sight.
But somewhere the Fab Five will always linger.
Rose, now an analyst with ESPN, will be in the stands, sitting with King and Jackson as Michigan faces Louisville in the title game Monday night. Howard, a veteran with the Miami Heat, has a game Tuesday, but Rose anticipates he will attend.
“The elephant in the room has been Chris Webber,” Rose said on a Grantland podcast Sunday. “While he loves us like brothers and vice versa, there has been a communication separation that has basically taken place since we all were teammates.
“I think the timeout had a lot to do with it. Here’s what I mean: I think he wants to dissociate himself with that moment and that school.”
Twenty years and a day, Chris, and you live in Atlanta. The University’s self-imposed 10-year dissociation against Webber and three non-Fab Five players won’t be lifted until May 8, a month from tonight, but that doesn’t need to keep them away.
Don’t misunderstand: this Michigan team deserves its own legacy. The Fab Five is long gone, but I’d love to see a homecoming in Atlanta, but not for recognition. It’d be appropriate for the Fab Five to see a version of Michigan they knew, Michigan as king of the hill.
Perhaps, they can even see the Wolverines finish what the Fab Five never could. They deserve to see that much, I think.
And so to Burke for staying, to Beilein for teaching, to the Fab Five for starting what they did so many years ago, and to the rest of the players and staff for giving us all a reason to celebrate — thank you. We won’t forget this journey.
Good night, and good luck.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.