Chris Webber trudged through the bowels of the Louisiana Superdome with his head hanging, chin firmly planted on his chest.
The unthinkable had just happened. Michigan’s best player and brightest star had called for a timeout that didn’t exist, earning a technical foul and costing the Wolverines the 1993 national title.
This wasn’t the plan. The previous year’s championship loss was different, a mere stumble from five cocky freshmen destined for greatness. But now the Fab Five’s goal of winning an NCAA title before taking off together for the NBA had been shattered.
Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — the upstarts who revolutionized college basketball with their trash-talking, freewheeling streetball style and polarized the American public with their bald heads and baggy shorts — wouldn’t play together again.
A few weeks later, Webber went first overall in the NBA draft. The Wolverines reached the Elite Eight the following season before Rose and Howard left for the pros, with King joining them a year later.
But the Fab Five’s story was still only half-written. 20 years after breaking up, their complicated legacy continues to hang over Ann Arbor.
At long last, Michigan basketball is rising from that team’s ashes.
After revelations surfaced in 1996 that Webber had been accepting money from booster Ed Martin, the university and the NCAA combined to take down the Fab Five’s Final Four banners and apply sanctions that left the program in disarray.
But this January, the Wolverines sat atop the national rankings for the first time since that 1992-93 campaign. And with the school’s 10-year dissociation from Webber set to expire on May 7, the campus is abuzz with possibilities of welcoming back their most beloved team.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm of basketball topics to make us relevant again,” says King.
That excitement, though, is shrouded in uncertainty. Simply put, nobody knows what to expect from Webber. Apart from defensive remarks made when the scandal first broke, Webber has pretty much kept silent on anything Michigan-related.
Wolverines athletic director Dave Brandon has repeatedly hinted that Webber will have to accept some responsibility before the school officially makes amends with the Fab Five, but with the 15-year NBA veteran supposedly miffed at the way Michigan has treated him it’s uncertain whether he has any interest in burying the hatchet.
In the meantime, a long-suffering fan base must wait a little longer for closure. The Fab Five may have divided America with their cocksure showmanship, but they were rock stars in Ann Arbor.
Although some more traditional alumni were appalled by the brash, inner-city image projected by Webber et al, the vast majority of fans spent two years engrossed with the group’s improvisational playing style and larger-than-life personalities that extended beyond the court.
“As Michigan fans, those were our guys. We loved them,” says Nick Baumgardner, beat reporter for MLive.com. “When [the scandal] came to light, it was heartbreaking for a lot of people.”
Today, that generation of fans has grown into a group of alumni with a voice at Michigan — and it wants to reclaim its past.
Those feelings appear to be mutual. Pass through campus these days and you’ll find two fractured lovers working to rekindle their old romance. Rose whoops it up on stage at a campus fundraiser with current players Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, claiming he wants a Fab Five reunion when the current team reaches this year’s Final Four.
King embraces Brandon courtside after a game at the Crisler Center. Wolverines coach John Beilein tells his radio audience that Howard is aching for a return to campus. Never mind that the university can’t engage in formal dialogue with the Fab Five for another couple months — the make-up process is well under way.
“A lot of mending has happened,” says Baumgardner. “Michigan being good again reminds people more and more that those guys have never gone away.”
It’s still unclear how the school would reconnect with the Fab Five.
“Everywhere I go, people ask me, ‘What about the sanctions? Are the banners going to be put back up?’” says King.
Rose leads the charge for that cause, but it remains unlikely — Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman says she doesn’t want to put them back up, while Brandon doesn’t even know if it’s possible.
Although King misses the banners as much as anyone, he’s not making them the focal point of his mission: “I just want to have an open discussion,” he says. “The more dialogue we have between ourselves, faculty, students, alumni, the better. I think we’ll be able to hash something out. Our style of play, our love of the game, our changing and having an impact on the culture — it’s a legacy that should be cherished.”
The Fab Five first arrived on campus with plans to shock the world – - now, they just want reconciliation.
The players keep saying the right things, the athletic department seems willing to at least negotiate, and fans salivate over re-embracing their old heroes.
Only Webber remains a mystery.
Twenty years ago, the kid with the 1,000-watt smile walked out of the Superdome and away from Michigan University in tears. On May 7, he’ll have a chance to bring the Fab Five’s legacy full circle.
But until he speaks, a community collectively holds its breath.