Revolutionary Fab Five still resonates

DETROIT – Blocks from where the Final Four was being played, in the VIP section of a trendy night club, the best team the NCAA claims never existed gathered.

They couldn’t get all five of the Fab Five together Saturday night, but most of the major principals of college hoops’ most enduring team of disrepute gathered to reminisce, relax and, perhaps, rub it in the NCAA’s face.

“You’ve heard the term, ‘The People’s Champ?’ ” Jalen Rose asked over the din of the club.

Rose is the first to note that the Michigan team that he, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson turned into an early 1990s cultural revolution never won a championship.

As an all-freshman starting five, they lost to Duke in the 1992 NCAA title game. As sophomores in 1993, they fell to North Carolina, a game most famous for Webber calling for a timeout the team didn’t have.

Still, the Fab Five resonates like few other college teams ever.

They wore black socks and baggy shorts, sported shaved heads and never apologized for being confident in their abilities. They impacted both the sport and the society while bringing a star aura to what is generally a conservative game.

They infuriated some fans, they drew in others.

Then they got caught up in an over-the-top scandal that caused the NCAA to wipe them from the record books, Michigan to pull down their Final Four banners, Webber to face federal perjury charges and the team to never enjoy the traditional reunions and jersey retirements of great teams.

Scandal has done little to cause their star to fade, though. If anything, it’s enhanced it, an outlaw club that at this point can only shrug off some youthful breaking of rules some of them never really agreed with in the first place.

Saturday they were mobbed by well-wishers, from old friends to star-struck fans. It made for a unique mix inside the high-energy Elysium Lounge. There were trendsetters in designer suits and miniskirts. And there were middle-aged Michigan fans looking to get a jersey signed.

It was more a bunch of college friends hanging out than much of an organized reunion, but the excitement was the same nonetheless.

“Ask people who won the title in a given year and unless it’s their team they won’t know,” Rose said. “The average fan remembers us, though. They all remember us.

“We’re infamous. You live longer in infamy.”

In the fall of 1991, coach Steve Fisher had delivered a tantalizing group of recruits to Ann Arbor. Fisher had taken over the Wolverines’ job on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament and promptly won six games for the national title.

Now he had something even bigger. The Fab Five didn’t just feature three of the top 10 recruits in America (Webber and Rose from Detroit, Howard from Chicago), they were a combination of flash, brash and bash. By midseason, all five freshmen (King and Jackson, both from Texas, rounded out the group) weren’t just starting but promising to shock the world.

At the time, coaches still held to the theory that the only good thing about freshmen was they became sophomores. Early entries to the NBA were still rare. Senior-dominated teams were the title contenders.

The Fab Five got to the final anyway. They lost to a great Duke team, but along the way captured the imagination of a different kind of fan, thrilling people across the country who had no previous allegiance to Michigan.

“What we brought to the table was a different mindset, a cultural shift,” Rose said.

The old guard couldn’t stand them, which made new fans love them even more. A year later, they were back in the final before blowing the game to North Carolina courtesy of Webber’s memorable gaffe.

Then Webber left for the pros. A year later, Rose and Howard followed.

The story didn’t end, though, as details of NCAA violations emerged. Ed Martin, a Detroit basketball booster who operated illegal lotteries out of area Ford plants, provided cash payments to Wolverine players through the years.

The case ended up under federal investigation, giving a rare stamp of authority to a college cheating scandal. It confirmed all of the critics’ worst assumptions – the feds found Webber alone took $280,000 from Martin. Both Webber and his father wound up indicted on charges of lying under oath during the investigation and pled guilty to the lesser charge of criminal contempt.

The NCAA called the case “one of the three or four most egregious violations” in its history. The NCAA placed the program on four years of probation, cut scholarships and banned the Wolverines from postseason play for two years. Michigan, once a juggernaut, experienced an 11-year tournament drought that didn’t end until last month.

It’s not a coincidence that in this void, Michigan State rose. The Spartans are set to play Monday for their second NCAA title since the Michigan scandal.

As for the Fab Five, the two Final Four banners were pulled from the rafters of Crisler Arena. Webber and others are not allowed to associate with the program until 2013.

Sixteen years after one of college hoops’ seminal teams disbanded, they’ve never gotten together in public. With the Final Four in Detroit, Rose and King figured it was the perfect time. By coincidence, Howard’s Charlotte Bobcats were set to play the Detroit Pistons on Sunday.

The planned reunion was disorganized, though. At one point, there was talk of renting out an arena for a big event. Then it was going to take place at a Detroit casino, but poor ticket sales saw it get scaled back to an appearance at a downtown hot spot. Then Ray Jackson couldn’t make it.

Rose said they’d get a real reunion going this summer. To the fans at the Elysium, though, this was good enough – better incomplete then never, better late then ever.

Even back in Ann Arbor, where the blue-blooded Michigan athletic department cringed for years in shame over the scandal, time has begun to pass. While regret remains, it’s been eroded by wistful remembrance.

While it wasn’t right, it sure was fun. Early this year, a reunion of the 1989 title team featured players complaining that even among U of M fans, they were eclipsed in history by a Fab Five team that never actually won it all.

Now fans wonder if the school will retire the players’ number en masse in 2013, when the NCAA ban is lifted.

At the very least, Rose will be honored at some point. Last year he paid to put up a billboard in his old Detroit neighborhood honoring the team. He said Saturday it wouldn’t be right if the Final Four came to Detroit and the team wasn’t involved somehow. Even fans clad in Michigan State gear that poured into the Elysium to drink and dance agreed with that.

Of course, technically, the Fab Five never existed. The NCAA folks who were running this massive event have deleted them from history.

The players laugh at that, of course. Everywhere they go they’re asked about the team. The group combined to play 45 seasons (and counting) in the NBA, yet they are best known for their redacted college exploits.

The style. The scandal. The shocking of the world.

“No one can take that away from you,” Rose said, looking around at the crowd and smiling. Who cares about the NCAA, right?

“In the end, it’s always about the people.”

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Apr 5, 2009