Commentary

Fab Five changed the game forever

Originally Published: March 12, 2011
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Here's a way to combine two of the week's hottest basketball topics in one sentence: I've seen a member of the Fab Five cry after an NBA regular-season game.

This wasn't sadness after a defeat, which is what supposedly set off the waterworks in the Miami Heat locker room Sunday. They were tears of joy and relief, as Chris Webber hugged fellow Fab Fiver Juwan Howard on the court in Cleveland after a victory over the Cavaliers on the last day of the 1996-97 season clinched a playoff berth for the Washington Bullets.

If they had known it would be the greatest moment any of the Fab Five would experience together in the pros, the tears might have turned to sobs. Webber and Howard didn't win a game during their first-round series with the Bullets that year, and never made the playoffs in Washington again.

Howard, the only member of the Fab Five still in the NBA, has never escaped the second round of the playoffs. Webber played in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals with the Sacramento Kings in 2002. Jalen Rose, who is now an ESPN analyst, reached the NBA Finals with the Indiana Pacers. As for the other two members of Michigan's Fab Five, Jimmy King played only 64 regular-season NBA games, and Ray Jackson never got drafted.

With the Fab Five documentary coming to ESPN on Sunday, it sparked a natural round of nostalgia, but also a sad realization that their athletic success peaked with those back-to-back trips to the championship game of the NCAA tournament in 1992 and 1993. There's something else I realized: College basketball peaked with them.

Michigan's Fab Five culminated a run of unforgettable college teams that started with the Georgetown Hoyas in the 1980s and, after a brief pause, crested with the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, the Duke Blue Devils and then the Wolverines. Players from that era who had successful pro careers, such as Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Grant Hill and Webber, still are strongly associated with their college teams. Not even the efforts of Michigan and the NCAA to disassociate themselves from the Fab Five, to have all their actual achievements removed or asterisked after a booster payment scandal, can eliminate those two seasons from our memories. Has any college team since had the stylistic impact of the T-shirt-wearing Hoyas or the black-socked, baggy-shorted Wolverines? Every basketball trend that's come afterward, from shoes to tattoos, has come from the pros.

It wasn't that the Fab Five assembled in Ann Arbor to give it a go. It was that they all came back to make another run the second season. That's the type of thing we'll never see again unless the NBA enacts a two-year wait out of high school for draft entrants in its next collective bargaining agreement.

Since then, the pipeline to the pros added additional tubes, with 10 years of the top high school players jumping directly to the pros, buttressed by the increased international influence on the NBA. The effect could be seen in this year's All-Star rosters, which featured five high school and four foreign-born players, part of the reason there were only four players whose names can prompt vivid recollections of their college careers: Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Deron Williams and Kevin Love. Even though the NBA now has a one-year wait out of high school, it doesn't allow players enough time to establish a collegiate identity. Last season's Kentucky squad, with five first-round picks in the same draft, had deeper talent than the Fab Five Michigan team, but those players never will have a collective stamp on our minds in the manner of Michigan.

The Fab Five were rock stars in their sophomore season. They were no longer upstarts, the anomaly of an all-freshman starting five competing for the championship. They were ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and they carried a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. At the Final Four in New Orleans, they were so big that the surging crowds at their hotel delayed their arrival for the Sunday news conference before the championship game.

They lost their two biggest games, and it almost doesn't matter. After they lost to North Carolina, someone asked Rose how it felt to make the championship game twice in a row only to lose both times, and Rose put it in perspective as only Jalen could: "I'd rather be the Fab Five losing two straight championships than the Fab Five at home cooking fries and watching them on TV."

We still talk about them nearly two decades later. They were more fascinating in defeat than their 1993 conquerors, the North Carolina Tar Heels, were in victory. We all remember Webber's timeout. At the end of this sentence, pause for a moment and try to name that Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. No Googling allowed. (It was North Carolina's Donald Williams.)

The Fab Five provided a player-powered revolution, the first of its kind in college hoops. Freshmen weren't allowed to play during John Wooden's dynasty days at UCLA. Dean Smith didn't let the North Carolina sports information department publicize freshmen. John Thompson didn't let the media talk to his freshmen during their first semester on campus.

The Fab Five never faced such restrictions. They were on the court their first season. Instead of being strictly limited to clocked minutes at a podium, they had casual time around the media, like Muhammad Ali in training camp or Joe Namath by the pool before the Super Bowl. Their personalities emerged: Jalen the jester, Juwan the serious one and Chris, scowling on the court and flashing a high-wattage smile off it.

It was during one of those informal times with the media that Webber shared the philosophy behind some of the brash statements he made: "My father always taught me to say what I believed in, as long as what you're saying is true."

They were themselves, and basketball was never the same. By their sophomore year, they had Duke talking trash. Think about that. After the Wolverines kept calling Bobby Hurley out in the buildup to their regular-season rematch in 1992, the little point guard hit 'em back with 20 points and five assists in an 11-point Duke victory, then said, "When you're beating them down the stretch, you're thinking about all the things they say to you. It's just fun to look back on it and know that you're beating this team, and you've beaten them three times already. I'm sure the next time, if we play each other, they'll talk again, and I'll laugh at them again when we're beating them again."

Can you recall one of Coach K's kids running his mouth like that before -- or since? That was a testament to the power of the Fab Five. They made others -- even their antithesis, Duke -- do things their way.

Their generation was the first generation to have hip-hop provide the soundtrack to their entire adolescence. You could hear EPMD booming in the Michigan locker room or see the players jump on the scorer's table and wave their arms like in Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray" video after a victory.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came up in a post-Fab Five world, so why wouldn't they be intrigued by taking the best talent on the market and assembling in one place? The difference is that the Fab Five embraced the role of the bad guy from the outset. After they beat Kentucky in the 1993 national semifinals to clinch a return to the championship game, on the long walk from the court to the locker room in the Superdome, Jalen Rose yelled out to no one in particular, "We're back! The villains are back!"

Now they're back again, in documentary form. If you look at the way players dress and act in today's game, you'll realize the influence of the Fab Five never left. They changed the narrative as college players, in a way no college team will do again.