For a brief moment in the early 1990s, Michigan's Fab Five, a quintet of ridiculously talented freshmen who arrived in Ann Arbor simultaneously, owned college basketball ... or, at least, thought they did. An entire generation of college basketball fans can reel off every one of their names: Jalen Rose. Chris Webber. Juwan Howard. Ray Jackson. Jimmy King. Although they didn't win a national title, they captivated the entire sports world in a way that few college basketball teams had before, and none have since. Their attitude, skill, fashion sense, swift ascent and sudden decline changed the face of the college game in both positive and negative directions. And 20 years later, they're still a topic of conversation.
Four of the Fab Five plan to attend Monday night's championship game, where the 2013-model Wolverines will face Louisville. The lone holdout? Webber, the team's centerpiece and, in many ways, the reason for the Five's disintegration. Easily the best player of the five, Webber nonetheless contributed, directly or indirectly, in two crucial ways to the decline and fall of both the team and Michigan basketball.
First, the timeout. In the closing seconds of the 1993 championship game against North Carolina, Webber, swarmed by a Tar Heel double-team, called a timeout Michigan didn't have, causing a technical foul that effectively ended any shot of winning. It was an understandable mistake; not only was Webber hung out to dry on the court by his teammates (why was he bringing the ball up, anyway?), but later replays showed at least one member of the Michigan bench making a "timeout" T-motion. Blaming Webber for that loss is like blaming a kicker for losing a Super Bowl; there's plenty of failure to execute that leads up to that moment.
The second mark against Webber runs far deeper. In 2002, Webber pled guilty to one count of criminal contempt for lying about his involvement with Michigan booster Ed Martin, who had been funneling cash to Webber since Webber had been an eighth-grader. Because of the scandal, which involved several other players as well as the IRS and Department of Justice, among others, Michigan vacated its entire 1992-93 season as well as the Fab Five's 1992 Final Four appearance. The banners from those seasons are locked away in a Michigan storeroom. Webber has also been prohibited from any official connection with Michigan until this year, though he could attend Monday night's game as a fan.
Will he? It's possible but doubtful. Webber, now a Turner Sports commentator and Atlanta resident, has mentioned in the past that the university's decision to separate itself from the Fab Five, given all they'd done for the school, was extremely painful. And he'll certainly face a barrage of questions over both the scandal and the timeout; indeed, as recently as Saturday night, Michigan faithful were reminding their team not to repeat Webber's mistake.
Rose, always the most outspoken member of the team and now an ESPN commentator, is making a public plea to get Webber back in the fold. He's taken to the airwaves of ESPN asking Webber to reconnect with his team. Here he is on fellow ESPN'er Bill Simmons' podcast making his case:
"While he loves us like brothers, and vice versa, there has been a communication separation that's taken place since we were teammates," Rose said. "I think he wants to disassociate himself with that moment (the timeout) and that school to rebuild himself mentally to say, 'My career started my rookie year in the NBA.' That's unfortunate."
Webber hasn't been silent on Michigan as a team, however; on Twitter he posted a get-'em message:
Michigan fans remain divided on Webber; some want him to return and reunite with his Wolverine family; others blame him for the damage he and others did to the program from which Michigan is only just now recovering. Either way, he remains a polarizing topic, and will remain so until (and, really, probably long after) he writes a new Michigan chapter by reuniting with the rest of his former teammates.
Updates forthcoming ... if there are any.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-
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