The buildup had been picture-perfect.

A week after the release of ESPN’s highest-rated documentary ever, one that put the Fab Five on display as poets and revolutionaries of college basketball, rehashing old feuds and sparking an old rivalry, there was Zack Novak and Stu Douglass and there were black shoes, black socks.

The symbol seems feeble, maybe, to someone who hadn’t felt that buildup: The 0-6 stretch at midseason. The meeting called by Darius Morris. The close defeats. Then, the win streaks, the late-season victories, the dominant performance in the first round of The Big Dance.

But the Fab Five represented something for Michigan basketball that many probably wouldn’t understand. For those of us who were too young to remember them ourselves, they were a myth — a sign of when Michigan basketball was named in the same vein as the Kansases, the Dukes, or the Kentuckys.

No one will make the mistake of comparing the two teams. Obviously, Howard/Rose/King/Webber/Jackson were in their own class of greatness, cultural icons if you will. Novak/Douglass/Morris/Hardaway Jr./Morgan seemed like the definition of ragtag.

But as they walked out of the tunnel on Sunday afternoon, the slightest tinge of that Fab Five swagger — something Michigan has been searching for since the Ed Martin Scandal — came onto the floor in Charlotte.

These guys weren’t ragtag at all. These guys felt like heroes, giant killers.

They were taking on the Yankees, the Lakers of college basketball. Not many people will tell you they root for the Duke Blue Devils unless they have some ties to the team or the university. And they were going to kill the giants with the swagger from their old giant days.

At halftime, I reread Grant Hill’s piece in the New York Times; a well-written letter that took a sophisticated and well-thought-through approach and handled the situation with class. It was a publicist’s dream of a letter.

Until that last line.

“I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And, I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

Sure, he didn’t call the Fab Five “Uncle Toms” or insult them like they probably insulted him on the court during their meetings in the early 1990s. But that one line was enough to feel the swagger boiling back up a little bit.

Juxtaposed with the documentary, those black shoes, black socks were a reminder — probably an unintentional one — that the Fab Five are more than a myth. And that this loss will be the last time for a while that Michigan comes in as the consummate, overwhelming underdogs.

And just like the Fab Five, their run has had its fair share of heartache. The shoes and socks couldn’t transform this year’s team into a Fabulous copy of their 1992-93 counterparts. It wouldn’t make Darius Morris’ final teardrop basket roll in.

Watching Chris Webber walk off the court following his errant timeout call, you felt the uncensored heartbreak. And watching Darius Morris collapse on the court felt very much the same. But there’s something different this time around.

Morris may not be quite Fabulous yet. Hardaway might not be either. And who knows if Novak, Douglass or Morgan will ever be there.

But they’re different. They’ll presumably be back together next year. All five of them.

And in the brief glimpse we got at the Fab Five, we were never able to say that for sure. We felt the swagger, we saw the talent, we embraced the villainy. But it was always fleeting, and that final timeout against North Carolina was the end.

Morris’ missed jumper is not the end. And maybe these guys will never have the pedigree or the swagger or the iconic status of the Fab Five. But something is on the horizon, a new age of Michigan basketball feels like it’s about to start.

And it’s looking awful fabulous.

—Kartje can be reached at

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