The past two Sundays, ESPN has been running a documentary called “The Fab Five,” about Michigan’s famed five freshman basketball players who captured the public’s imagination twenty years ago. It’s not quite journalism – four of the Fab Five produced it themselves – but it is a pretty honest account of what those two years were all about. And it is undeniably compelling. The first showing reached over two million homes, making it the highest rated documentary in ESPN’s history.
A lot of this story, you already know: In 1991, five super-talented freshmen came to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines were the first team in NCAA history to start five freshmen. They got to the final game of March Madness before losing to the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils. The next year, they made it to the finals again, but this time they lost to North Carolina when Michigan’s best player, Chris Webber, called a time-out they didn’t have.
Along the way they made baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and imported rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playgrounds to the college courts. It’s been that way ever since.
They stirred up a lot of controversy, but at the time the two most sympathetic figures were head coach Steve Fisher, a truly nice guy who seemed to be a hapless victim of his own recruiting success, and Chris Webber, the most polished of the bunch, due partly to his private school background. To many fans, the rest of the Fab Five were just a bunch of clueless, classless clowns who didn’t belong on a college campus.
The Fab Five certainly had its vices, but selfishness wasn’t one of them. In the history of college basketball, few starting fives worked better together than the Fab Five, mainly because they really didn’t care who scored.
I started writing stories about them after they left Michigan, and quickly discovered they’d known all along what they were doing, and did a lot of it merely to gain a competitive advantage. That doesn’t make all of it right, of course, but it dispels the popular notion they were just a bunch of out-of-control kids from the ‘hood simply seeking attention. They weren’t that needy, and they definitely were not stupid.
I found the ones I spoke to – Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Jimmy King – to be unfailingly friendly, respectful and helpful. At one point, three of the Fab Five were listed among the NBA’s top five charitable givers.
It also turned out Steve Fisher really could coach – witness the masterpiece over Kentucky in the 1993 NCAA semi-finals – and he wasn’t a victim, either. I learned the latter on a cold Sunday morning in 1996 – a year after the last of the Fab Five had left – when my editor called me to find Maurice Taylor’s Ford Explorer that had rolled over on M-14, near Plymouth.
After I tracked down the truck, a car dealer told me it cost about $35,000. The Secretary of State told me Taylor’s grandmother bought it, and the records showed the car cost twice as much as her home. Within 24 hours, we found several other Michigan players were driving cars they probably couldn’t afford, either. It didn’t take much to smell something fishy.
The investigation that started that day resulted in two coaches fired, two banners brought down, and the entire program put on probation for years.
But I had to wonder: If the press could figure all this out in about 24 hours, why couldn’t Steve Fisher connect the dots right under his nose over several years? They say he wasn’t part of the payola plan, and that’s probably true. But you’d have to be willfully blind not to see its effects by 1996.
When Fisher was fired, he said they’d built an elite program and “done it the right way.” That’s not true – and by the time he was fired, he knew it. To this day, Fisher has never accepted any responsibility for what happened on his watch, and Chris Webber has never apologized for taking over a quarter-million dollars from a booster. Fisher now coaches San Diego State, which played in the Sweet Sixteen last night, while Webber is a very wealthy TV commentator. Those who followed them at Michigan paid the price for their mistakes.
Twenty years ago, I thought the leaders of the Fab Five were Steve Fisher and Chris Webber. But it turns out the real leader was Jalen Rose, who finished his degree by writing term papers in the back of NBA team planes. He and the other three have proven to be thoughtful, successful and even honest men, committed to their communities and their families. I’ve come to have great respect for them – and much less for their so-called leaders.
What a difference 20 years makes.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and ESPN Magazine, among others. He is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller, and “Third and Long: Three Years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines,” due out this fall through FSG. Bacon teaches at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009.