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Wednesday, March 19, 2003
Phenom five

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

When they were Fab, the Five had us thinking about style: shorts that swayed with a brash, supple cool, low black socks that said fierce and lean, and a game that put a premium on fun and flow.

Some of us bought oversized shorts, trying to imitate their look and their laid-back, bad-ass swing. Some of us cringed at the thought of it. One way or the other, we thought about it.

Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber
The Fab Five's swagger was infectious.
They had us thinking about age, too. After all, weren't they too young to do what they were doing? Didn't they lack the necessary experience and wisdom? And if they didn't have those things, exactly what secret magic were they bringing to the table instead, what kind of unfettered spirit and smarts was it that coursed through their veins?

Team was on our minds, as well. They came in as one. They played, fought, won, lost and hung together. Like members of a tree-house club, with hand shakes on the down-low and loyalty from sun-up to sundown, the Fab Five were a family, and they both echoed and altered tried-and-true definitions of what it meant to be a team.

We thought about personalities and chemistry, about opposites -- Jalen the street baller and Chris the preppy, Juwan the talkative post man and Ray the stoic stopper -- that seemed to attract and inspire each other.

And we thought of fear and fearlessness -- of battling nerves, of the thin line between a confident swagger and a cocky, showboat strut, and of the stout, carefree heart it takes to be great.

Some of us respected them, some of us judged them, but for two remarkable years, we were all thinking about them.

We thought winning -- back-to-back runs to the NCAA title game in '92 and '93.

And losing -- short-falls on each of their two big nights.

And in those thoughts, The Five were somehow both over- and underdogs to us. Too bold and unbeatable to love. Too hungry, human and vulnerable not to.

When we watched them, we were thinking power, too, as in: Does it rest in the hands of the coach or the players? And as in: Is it in the old-school seats, like Carolina and Duke, or is it taking a seat in some new schools, like Michigan?

Chris Webber
For two years, Chris Webber had everyone talking about Michigan.
And we were thinking tradition and history, because the Fab Five's very existence was a radical break with the past. Five freshmen (and later sophomore) starters was unprecedented. Five freshmen starters who played it stone-cold smooth were previously unimaginable. And five freshmen starters who took chances, and were willing to fail some to succeed, were a lace-em-up-and-run challenge to the conventional college hoop wisdom about what works.

To some folks they were the free, fresh air of a new day dawning, a five-man flying wedge come busting through the old guard. To others they were a slap in the face, a storm on the horizon, a sign of the decline of Western BBall Civilization.

But to everyone, they were worth thinking about.

That's the heart of their story, really, the thing that endures about them.

It's not in last year's hints and allegations surrounding Ed Martin's largesse and Chris Webber's double-speak. It's not in the combination bliss and disappointment of two almost-championships. And it's not even in whether and how their experience has affected the college basketball scene in the 10 years since they broke up.

It's in the captivating energy and defiant edge they brought on the floor every night. It's in the way that edge energized and polarized the populace.

The game itself -- questions of style and strategy -- was on display and at issue in their game. The culture -- what you wear, what you say, who you align yourself with and who you take-on -- was all wrapped up in their attitude.

Watching them meant taking stock of your own stakes, reflecting on what mattered to you and why. It meant deciding whether they were the beginning or the end of something, and deciding what difference it made to you.

The Fab Five made college ball relevant. They made it crucial. If you weren't paying attention, you were missing something, about what had come before and what might come next. If you weren't paying attention, you were a poorer fan, and a poorer citizen of sports nation, for it.

Maybe their tourney-time brilliance had you rethinking what you thought you knew about senior leadership. Maybe the drama of their final-game failures reinforced your long-held assumptions, but made you a little sorry they were true.

Maybe you thought the drawers and socks were hip, maybe you thought they were cheeky. Maybe you thought these guys were no-good punks. Maybe you saw yourself in them. Maybe you thought their thing was a black thing and you wouldn't understand. Maybe, somewhere deep down inside, you wondered if you could pull off such a look yourself.

In the end, all the thinking you did about and through the Fab Five morphed out of the brain and into the heart and soul, it became a feeling for the game. A feeling for the idea that the game counted, that it seeped its way into scattered corners of your life, and helped shape your take on ideas big and small.

Jalen Rose
You knew something special was about to happen when the Fab Five took the court.
Is that too much to say? It's only basketball, after all. Am I under the sway of nostalgia? Might be. But it never felt like it was just basketball with these guys, and with the way folks reacted to them. And besides, even if I am being nostalgic, can you blame me?

It's been 10 years since Webber's timeout against UNC, and the subsequent breakup of the Five. In that time, there's been nothing like the heat and flair of the Fab Five in the college game; nothing like the tension between their freewheeling approach and the more conservative tactics of programs like Indiana and Duke; nothing like the intensity of the bond between them; nothing like their united-front ferocity; and nothing like their self-aware sense of the forces working for and against them.

A friend of mine asked the other day what their legacy is. For me, it doesn't really register in terms of legacy, it registers in terms of loss, in terms of something unique that came once and might not ever come again. I told him I don't know about the legacy -- that the game might be too different now for us to really judge that; that maybe the Fab Five set the new college hoop world in motion, but then again, maybe they were the last brilliant phase of the old world. I tell him all I know is I miss the thinking, the feeling, that seemed to gather around the game when they were on the floor together.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.