Fisher’s ‘Fab Five’ resonates with Aztecs

TUCSON, Ariz. – Inside a room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, five college students sat rapt in front of a big projection screen. San Diego State’s basketball team takes one on the road in case it needs an impromptu film session, and while this qualified, it was a far different sort of film than the team usually watches.

Steve Fisher's Aztecs got a glimpse of the coach's rise to fame thanks to the documentary "Fab Five."
(Chris Morrison/US Presswire)

Earlier in the day, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher made an off-handed comment about how he secured an advance copy of the new documentary on the “Fab Five,” the transcendent group of Michigan players whom he’d recruited and coached nearly 20 years ago. Immediately, the Aztecs asked to watch it, and since none wanted to crowd around a laptop, they begged video coordinator Dave Velazquez to borrow the big screen.

Velazquez told the players they were supposed to be in study hall. Forget study hall. They needed to see this. Now.

They knew the boilerplate Fab Five facts – the baggy shorts, the black socks, the hype before hype was currency. They wanted the unfettered, unfiltered story, and if the Fab Five’s legacy ever was in doubt, they need not worry: Two decades later, kids who weren’t even born when they were playing still want to learn about them, to see Jalen Rose peg black players who go to Duke “Uncle Tom” and his teammates call Grant Hill and Christian Laettner “bitch.”

In the hotel room were D.J. Gay, Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard, a future first-round pick, each an integral piece of the Aztecs team that Fisher has coached to a 32-2 record and No. 2 seed in the West Region. Along with them was Brian Carlwell, the backup center and team clown, and between laughing at Fisher’s clothing and assistant coach Brian Dutcher’s sunglasses, Carlwell couldn’t help but find himself inspired by the whole thing. Here was the coach who later that day would lead the Aztecs into the Mountain West Conference tournament, and he was the puppeteer behind the most famous college basketball team ever.

“Right there,” Carlwell said Wednesday, “I thought that we’re going to watch this before we go to win championships.”

San Diego State beat Utah that day, UNLV the next and avenged two losses to BYU the day after, and Fisher took the final snip on the net at the Thomas and Mack Center as architect of perhaps the unlikeliest powerhouse in the country. On the 5 1/2-hour ride back to San Diego that night, the Aztecs loaded into the bus and needed something to kill time. And you know exactly what they asked to watch.

“I think I’ve seen it four times already,” Carlwell said.

The Steve Fisher of then – handed the job by Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler when Bill Frieder was fired on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament for talking with Arizona State about its coaching gig, only to win the whole thing – isn’t much different than the one today. He still wears tracksuits, albeit ones without fluorescent flourishes. He still has the slender face and the measured gait. His hair is whiter and his eyes need glasses – he has something of a John Wooden look.

How a 65-year-old can go into inner-city homes and connect with players is almost directly because of the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons with the Fab Five. When Fisher was recruiting Aerick Sanders about a decade ago, Sanders asked the coach to sign a Fab Five book. Fisher knew he had Sanders, who became an All-MWC player.

Fisher was no coaching genius then. He understood that no team in college had a greater collection of talent than Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, so he let them play how they wanted to and be who they were.

And that was a group with swag. Georgetown may have started the current era of basketball with Patrick Ewing and Co. in the mid-’80s. The Fab Five perfected it. Georgetown was the MP3 player and Michigan the iPod: Plenty of substance, sure, but style over it all. Style is what sells. Style is what people remember.

Style is why ESPN commissioned “The Fab Five,” why everybody involved but Webber participated. The revelation that he accepted $280,000 from booster Ed Martin tarnished his time there. Fisher was fired when an investigation revealed he knew of Martin providing extra benefits. He still answers questions about Michigan willingly, though, harboring no ill will, and was happy to participate in the documentary.

“I smiled,” Fisher said. “It brought back a lot of memories. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a good portrayal of who they were, what happened.”

What has happened since last week continues to make headlines. Rose is standing behind his comments. Hill fired back Wednesday with a column in The New York Times that ends with a swing of the scalpel: “I am proud of my family. I am proud of my Duke championships and all my Duke teammates. And I am proud I never lost a game against the Fab Five.”

It’s like Rose says in the movie, though: Nobody remembers who was on the North Carolina team that beat Michigan by six points in the 1993 championship game, and even with Hill and Laettner and Bobby Hurley, the ’92 Duke team finishes second in resonance to that first incarnation of the Fab Five.

“To see a bunch of kids from the inner city, like us, make it that far and become big-time basketball players – that’s what we want to be,” said Thomas, a senior forward. “When I was growing up, all I heard was the black socks and they were all freshmen. Everybody remembers the Fab Five, and they didn’t even win a national championship.

Brian Carlwell and his teammates have taken to watching the documentary as a good luck charm.
(Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire)

“My favorite part is when he calls him a bitch. I’m not saying I agree what he said. I just like that he spoke his mind.”

All of the players, Carlwell and Thomas said, enjoyed the Duke scenes the most, perhaps because they encapsulate the Fab Five the best. The words and images always mattered more than the deeds. The Fab Five have done more than anyone besides Magic and Bird to commercialize college basketball. They showed that a team can be a product, one with the shelf life of a Twinkie.

“I told Jalen it must’ve been good because you made Bobby Hurley mad again,” said Dutcher, now Fisher’s lead assistant. “They’re still creating press after all these years.”

And still making fans. “The Fab Five” first aired Sunday night and pulled the highest ratings of a documentary in ESPN history. It showed that the five San Diego State players who piled into that hotel room were onto something. The DVD still is making the rounds among the Aztecs, though Carlwell has held off on his fifth viewing for Thursday morning, a few hours before San Diego State faces 15th-seeded Northern Colorado.

“If we watched it and won a conference championship,” he said, “might as well do it again and win a national championship.”

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. 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 Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 17, 2011