- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Fab Five can blame Jerry Tarkanian for their three losses to Duke, and it is easy to find the delicious irony in that. Before they ever enrolled at the University of Michigan, five high school basketball stars shared one agenda as they watched a passion play staged by the titans of the college game.
"All five of us were pulling for UNLV to smoke Duke and win it all," Jalen Rose would say back then.
Rose and his classmates explained they could relate to the Rebels-with-a-cause style of Vegas, the team that had humiliated the Blue Devils in the 1990 national championship game before falling to them in the semis the following year.
But when asked why his teams went 3-0 against the Fab Five, including a rout of the Wolverines in the '92 title game, the Blue Devils' quarterback, Bobby Hurley, said the blood feud with Vegas left Duke too tough and too determined to back down to the recruiting class to end all recruiting classes.
"Michigan might've had a psychological edge over other teams because of the arrogance and swagger they brought to the floor," Hurley said by phone, "but that didn't affect me or [Christian] Laettner or Grant Hill or Thomas Hill.
"Most of us had already seen UNLV, so nothing Michigan did would ever intimidate us. UNLV was by far the best team we ever played in my four years at Duke. We just felt that nothing about Michigan's routine was ever going to shake our confidence. They weren't going to bully us."
The Wolverines and Blue Devils met again Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- a 73-71 Duke victory -- and they did so with the ghosts of their disparate pasts swirling noisily about them. ESPN's documentary "The Fab Five" about Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson tore open long-forgotten wounds, inspiring Grant Hill to author a stinging rebuke in The New York Times that assailed Rose for claiming Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski "only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms."
Hurley said he isn't comfortable joining a public dispute over race between African-American players, "but Grant Hill shouldn't have to defend how he was raised or his family background, and I'm not going to sit back while my teammates are getting destroyed."
So he doesn't sit back. Sure, Hurley gets the gist of the Fab Five criticism of Duke players, black and white. The Blue Devils are supposed to be suburban, soft, spoiled and, most of all, overrated.
As a child of Jersey City, Hurley wants to start with location, location, location. His father and Hall of Fame coach at St. Anthony High School, Bob Hurley Sr., spoke of his son's urban upbringing and maintained that "none of the Fab Five played in more playgrounds and rec centers than Bobby did."
"Jalen Rose doesn't know all of our backgrounds," said Bobby Jr., now an assistant under his brother, Dan, at Wagner College. "I grew up on the playgrounds in Jersey City. People liked that I was a white kid willing to play in that environment and play well, and that's how I earned respect. I was very accepted by the African-American community there."
In his first trip to the national championship game, as a freshman, Hurley was embarrassed by a UNLV team that sent him running for cover when he wasn't running to the bathroom with an upset stomach. The point guard secured his revenge in '91, won his first ring and then arrived in Ann Arbor in the middle of December looking to defend his honor if not his title.
Top-ranked Duke at 18th-ranked Michigan was the Fab Five's introduction to America, and the young and restless Wolverines overcame a 17-point deficit, took a five-point lead with 1:40 to play, and lost in overtime. Hurley scored 26, and made the three free throws near the end of regulation that saved the visiting team. The former Duke recruit, Webber, finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and one profound impression on Grant Hill.
"Can you imagine what those freshmen will be like if they stay together for a few years?" Hill said then. "It's scary."
Only deep down, Duke was never truly afraid of Michigan in the hours preceding their rematch for the national title. Hurley said his 26-point game against the Wolverines during the regular season "was largely based on anger." He didn't appreciate the bold quotes coming out of Ann Arbor, and he used the Fab Five's blind faith in themselves to fuel his competitive rage.
"I could tell they didn't think Christian or I were as good as people were saying," Hurley said, "and they said a lot of things in the media about how confident they were that they'd beat us, things I actually liked reading because they motivated me."
Laettner was dreadful in the first half of the big game, and Michigan held a one-point lead at intermission. Krzyzewski ripped into his team for failing to play with enough passion, and ordered his players to start taking the ball to the rim.
Duke outscored Michigan 41-20 in the second half, giving the Blue Devils their two-peat and leaving several of the Wolverines in tears. "We broke their spirit," Hurley said. "When you're playing an opponent that you feel doesn't respect you, it's great to see that look on their faces when they realize they're not going to win."
With Laettner off to the NBA, Duke met the Fab Five for the third and final time in early December 1992 before a manic Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd. Michigan made a late run to cut its deficit to six, but Hurley sank the biggest basket of the game, a 3-pointer that defined his 20-point night, to help the Blue Devils win without their graduated All-American center.
"Me, Grant, Thomas Hill -- we all wanted to win that one badly without Christian," Hurley said. "We wanted to make a statement in that game, and we did. In our three games with Michigan, Grant Hill was the difference maker. He was the most talented player every time we stepped on the floor in that matchup."
The same Grant Hill who just made a stirring debut as a Times columnist. Hurley read the column, savored every word of it, and thought his former teammate nailed the I-am-proud-I-never-lost-a-game-against-the-Fab-Five landing.
"Jalen Rose had a great NBA career, but he was never going to take my spot at Duke, I can tell you that," Hurley said. "I was playing at an extremely high level at Duke. Jalen would've had trouble getting on the floor for us at the 3 with Grant there. And Thomas Hill, at the 2, was one of the most underrated players in the country.
"Chris Webber? That's a different story. But the Fab Five obviously didn't like us, and that made them want to beat us more, and they still couldn't do it. Maybe they just can't get over it, but what we did stands on its own."
So does the fascinating story of the Fab Five, the greatest college team to never win it all.
The Michigan Wolverines changed the game. And yet all these years later, when the subject turns to Duke, they still can't change the final score.