We wanted to make sure that we had a legacy from when we played. That was one of our goals, talking about it amongst ourselves.
The Bentley Historical Library on North Campus is the depository for everything related to the University’s past. Simple registration and request forms will allow access to the annals of Michigan history, from Jonas Salk’s research to James Angell’s papers.
In the basement, though, are two classified, rolled-up pieces of felt a normal visitor can’t view.
The banners, which read “1992 NCAA Finalist” and “1993 NCAA Finalist,” were lowered from the Crisler Arena rafters after a self-imposed punishment in 2002 and remain confidential. Visitors must get permission from the Athletic Department to see them, and that permission has been granted just once – for an Associated Press reporter and accompanying photographer.
The banners were meant to celebrate Michigan athletic achievement. Fifteen years later, after scandal tainted those records, the University keeps their legacy completely out of sight.
That legacy, though, is inescapable.
The banners essentially represent the accomplishments of the Fab Five, Michigan’s freshman class of 1991 that, in two seasons, reached two NCAA Championship games and forever changed college basketball.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson comprised the legendary class that was the first all-freshman starting lineup to reach the Final Four. The class also included a top NBA Draft pick, three All-Americans and four NBA Draft picks.
It might be the most talented class ever, but that barely tells the story.
The Fab Five transcended the game. Three of their games still rank among the five most-viewed college basketball games of all time.
“Never before in the history of the game had there been five freshmen who were able to create that much excitement,” said Billy Packer, who has covered the last 34 Final Fours for CBS Sports.
But the NCAA banners represent much more than on-court achievements.
“I think for Michigan, overall, they have been an immensely positive image,” Athletic Director Bill Martin said.
Packer and other sports commentators, though, have a darker view of the feats marked by those banners.
“Had they won (a championship) and what transpired thereafter, they would have been remembered as one of the black marks in NCAA history,” Packer said. “They and Michigan are probably lucky they didn’t win that game.”
The banners represent the group’s lasting impact on college basketball and how, 15 years later, it is still misunderstood.
A new attitude
Before they played a preseason contest, the Fab Five already brought a different attitude to the game.
In practices, they would play “freshman against y’all” scrimmages with their teammates. Even on a Michigan team that returned four starters, they clearly were the five most talented players in the gym.
And if their teammates didn’t know it, the Fab Five would tell them about it – with trash talk, showboating and gamesmanship.
The rest of the world would soon learn about those exploits.
Rose and Webber, who were good friends in Detroit, were also recruited by straight-laced, traditional college basketball powers such as Duke, Kentucky and Indiana, where that kind of showmanship would have been unimaginable.
But because the duo came to Michigan together, their familiarity allowed their true personalities to shine through. The in-your-face persona the Fab Five’s leader and point guard, Rose, played with it at Detroit Southwestern High School came to Ann Arbor with him.
And the other three quickly embraced that style.
During media day of their freshman season, Howard proclaimed, “We are on a mission.”
College athletes rarely make those claims. For a freshman to do it is almost unheard of.
And with this “shock the world” mentality, they exploded onto the college basketball scene.
Their antics became famous: dancing on the scorer’s table, stomping on the opposing team’s center-court emblem after a road win, staring down opponents after dunking on them, talking to the television camera, exchanging words with an opposing team member about to shoot a free-throw.
“It’s a style a lot of people don’t agree with,” Webber said in an interview with The Ann Arbor News his freshman season. “The criticism is something I’m going to have to live with because I decided to play this way.”
The referees often disagreed with that style. Frequently charged as being too harsh on the Fab Five, the officials took offense to the antics. Veteran referee Ed Hightower, who has worked 11 Final Fours, is rumored to have called a technical foul on Rose simply because he looked at him. But Hightower has since changed his view. Now he describes Rose as “one of his favorite kids (to ref).”
“They were a great group of kids who loved to have fun,” Hightower said. “You can just tell it on the floor. . They brought a new excitement to the game of basketball. I’m not sure we were all ready for it at that time.”
While the referees took offense to the Fab Five, there was even a segment within the Michigan fan base, often referred to as the Old Blues, that didn’t appreciate the freshmen’s pace of play and showmanship.
“It was kind of a very creative approach to the game that was more akin to jazz – or to hip-hop – than to the more structured classical music,” said former University President James Duderstadt. “It was a completely different style of how to play basketball. Much different than anything they had seen before, and people don’t like to be challenged by change.”
These fans were unwilling to accept change or flamboyant behavior. The Fab Five were the opposite of what the Old Blues wanted to see in Michigan athletes.
“I thought it did divide the Michigan fan base a little bit, but the shear joy they played with ultimately overshadowed it,” said Bob Wojnowski, a Detroit News columnist. “I used to hear from Michigan basketball fans all time, ‘This is embarrassing.’ “
The Old Blues preferred to see the selfless Michigan Men who put the team first. These fans didn’t appreciate it when the Fab Five stomped on the Spartan logo after winning in East Lansing.
Despite this resentment, the style is still popular in college basketball – and even more popular in pick-up games.
“That’s what you see today,” Duderstadt said.
In their freshman year, the Fab Five had two coming-out parties.
The first, a nationally televised overtime loss to Duke in December, marked the first time the entire country saw this flamboyant freshman class.
Webber scored 27 points in a performance Parker described at the time as “the stuff legends are made of.”
It was a game of contrasts: the brash Wolverines against the by-the-book Blue Devils.
For the college basketball world, the Duke game might have been the group’s introduction, but not for the Fab Five themselves.
In their minds, they didn’t officially make it until coach Steve Fisher finally put all of them in the starting lineup.
Fisher at first played the balancing act of using his most talented players while not isolating the rest of the team but finally relented in a February game against Notre Dame.
The Fab Five started each game from then on, but it wasn’t until the NCAA Tournament when the “shock the world” mentality took over.
It was only fitting that, on the night before their first NCAA Tournament game, the Fab Five met the king of that mindset, Muhammad Ali, in their Atlanta hotel.
Ali used this attitude to get inside his opponent’s head and to motivate himself for fights. The Fab Five followed suit.
For the next month, that was their motto as they made an improbable run as a No. 6 seed all the way to the finals. Along the way, their attitude rubbed some the wrong way.
“They beat Temple (in the first round), and (Temple coach) John Chaney really went off on them,” Wojnowski said. “He thought they were doing a disservice to college basketball and to young black athletes. He really took them to task.”
Just as shenanigans got to Ali’s opponents, the same thing worked for the Fab Five until the finals.
It was a rematch with the Blue Devils. With less than five minutes remaining, the Wolverines had the lead, but a call went against them. They couldn’t recover and eventually lost by 20.
Changing the game
The Fab Five revolutionized college basketball.
They redefined the fashion. The Fab Five popularized the baggy shorts sported by players from the IM Building to the NBA.
Before the Fab Five, basketball players wore shorts so short they would probably violate the dress code at most high schools. To feel more comfortable in their up-and-down, free-flowing brand of basketball, the Fab Five asked Fisher to add a few inches of fabric to the shorts.
“At the time, coach Fisher said that if we win games, he’ll do whatever we wanted,” King said. “So, that was the condition.”
And they fulfilled their side of the bargain. In their freshman season, the Fab Five jumped out to a 10-1 start and No. 11 in the national polls.
Soon, they became cultural sensations.
“There was nothing cooler than the gold shorts with the ‘M’ emblem on them,” said ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb, who was playing high school basketball in Tustin, Calif., at the time. “Who didn’t have those?”
College basketball traditionalists didn’t share Gottlieb’s enthusiasm.
“I personally think there should be a rule about the length of shorts with that,” said Jim Stupin, who has been a college basketball referee for more than 30 years. “It is what it is. That’s what the kids wear with the baggy pants. But I’m a dinosaur about all of that stuff.”
The shorts were just the beginning.
At the beginning of their freshman year, the Fab Five talked about other ways they could distinguish themselves. It came up that Jackson had worn black shoes and black socks during high school.
That look debuted in their first matchup against Duke.
Even something as innocent as different colored socks drew intense resentment. Duderstadt recalls the time when university president whose team had lost to Michigan called him to say he was offended by the Wolverine’s sock color.
Looking at the knee-covering shorts worn in nearly every basketball game today – pick-up to professional – it’s clear which side prevailed.
Ending on heartbreak
For many college basketball fans, one moment – a singular ill-considered action – will be the lasting image of the Fab Five.
Trailing by two with 15 seconds remaining in the 1993 NCAA Championship game, Webber rebounded a missed North Carolina free throw. As he turned to take the ball upcourt, he first thought of giving an outlet pass to his point guard, Rose. But Webber pulled the ball back and dragged his pivot foot. The referees overlooked the obvious travel, and Webber continued across midcourt, dribbling the ball into the corner in front of the Michigan bench. Two North Carolina defenders converged on him with a trap, and that’s when it happened.
He picked up the ball and put his hands perpendicular to each other – the timeout signal.
The only problem was Webber didn’t have any timeouts to take.
“I guess he just panicked,” said Stupin, who was the trailing referee on the play. “He thought he was going to get trapped and called the timeout. It was kind of totally unexpected because everybody knew they didn’t have any timeouts.”
And with that, the Fab Five’s hopes of winning a championship ended. They never captured a Big Ten title either.
But even if Webber hadn’t called the timeout, North Carolina probably would not have allowed Michigan to get a shot off.
“What I think a lot of people don’t remember is that North Carolina had one or two fouls to give before Michigan was in the bonus,” Stupin said.
Had Webber not called the timeout and North Carolina not fouled to prevent Michigan from shooting, the Wolverines still would have needed to score on a tough Tar Heel defense.
People who say Webber lost the game for Michigan overlook all this.
If Webber had been in that same situation a year earlier, the play might have continued. The NCAA had started putting emphasis on calling the excessive timeout technical foul instead of simply ignoring it.
“That year, it came into being that officials were not to ignore the timeout,” said Hightower, who refereed that game.
While most in college basketball believe the Fab Five were years ahead of their time, they were – in one way at least – a year late.
Unlike many athletes who choose not to talk after game-changing gaffes, Webber faced the media after that game. He blamed himself for the loss, almost in tears as he answered questions from the media. Howard, next to him in the press conference, tried to comfort his teammate.
“I just thought it was the most unfitting way for the Fab Five run to end,” Wojnowski said. “It was the opposite of brashness and defiance.”
That was the end of the Fab Five at Michigan. Webber left for the NBA after that season, and even though the team reached the Elite Eight the next season, the Fab Five era closed in 1993 with that loss to North Carolina in New Orleans.
A soiled memory
In 1996, Mateen Cleaves was a coveted basketball recruit. Some recruiting services had him as one of the top 10 players in the country.
After he along with Michigan players, got in a car accident on the night of his recruiting visit, Duderstadt went over to Cleaves’ parents at the Michigan-Indiana game the next day.
“I went up and apologized to his parents for the accident that had happened and hoped there hadn’t been any harm,” Duderstadt said.
In many ways, that recruiting visit shifted the balance of power in college basketball in the state of Michigan for more than a decade.
Cleaves went on to a prolific career at Michigan State, leading the Spartans to the 2000 NCAA Championship. Michigan State is now one of the premier programs in the country.
For Michigan, the weekend also marked the beginning of a slippery slope into uncovering a scandal-ridden era in Wolverine basketball.
The late-night car accident on M-14 launched newspaper and NCAA investigations into why the players were out that late, why the recruit was so far away from campus and to whom the car belonged.
The paper trail led back to basketball booster Ed Martin, who attached himself to talented high school basketball players, giving them favors, money and even cakes in hopes that they would remember him when they made it big. He also ran a numbers racket out of the Ford Rouge plant.
Six years later, Martin was charged with money laundering. The report said he gave over $616,000 to Michigan basketball recruits, including Webber.
As part of its self-punishment in 2002, the University erased records from all games the implicated athletes played at Michigan and severed contact with Webber until 2013.
A common misconception among college basketball fans is that the entire Fab Five received money from Ed Martin. It was just Webber. That notion has tarnished the legacy of Rose, Howard, Jackson and King.
“It is unfair to them,” Duderstadt said.
He likes to tell the story of how the University had to receive special dispensation from the NCAA to purchase Howard a winter jacket because he couldn’t afford it on his own.
Even though those four were not implicated in the scandal, the University has done little to make amends with them.
“They really do, to a certain degree, short-change the fans,” Wojnowski said. “Because that was a memorable time for Michigan basketball fans, one of the few memorable times they’ve had in 15 years.”
Recently, the University had tried to reconnect with those players.
Jimmy King has starting doing commentary on the radio broadcast of Michigan basketball, the program celebrated Jalen Rose Day to honor his contributions to the Detroit community he grew up in, and Howard’s son attended the Michigan basketball camp.
But it took nearly 15 years for this to happen.
The longed-for reunion
When Rose returned in February for Jalen Rose Day, he addressed the crowd at halftime.
“Every time you see the black shoes, black socks and baggy shorts, the Fab Five lives,” Rose said.
But every time you look up at the empty Crisler Arena rafters, fairly or unfairly, the Fab Five also lives on.
The last time the Fab Five were on a basketball court at the same time was when they walked off the floor in New Orleans in the 1993 Championships game.
But King plans to be on the Crisler Arena court again with his teammates, the same court where they revolutionized the sport, redefined the role of freshmen and shaped their legacy.
“So, eventually, whenever the sanction is lifted or it’s over, we’ll all be back,” King said. “Whatever that day is. If it’s not that day, the next event or even if it isn’t an event, we’ll make an event to come back that day.”