DAYTON, Ohio — The heads were shaved and the color of the socks matched the color of the shoes, a serious shade of black. Nostalgia? Of course. But for longtime fans of the Michigan era once known as Fabulous, the best news was this: When the game started, the seniors were playing like freshmen.
So no legends would die tonight, right? No way. This was the good old stuff, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, who may not have been everything people hoped for during the season, but were a human scrapbook on Thursday in the raucous Dayton Arena. Midway through the first half, they began to run the court like two greyhounds just let off the leash. Slam. Jam. Steal. Convert.
No way they lose, right?
No way. . . .
They lose. In the bittersweet tradition of the Fab Five era, the Wolverines exited the tournament badly, weirdly, and in a way that will give their fans something to talk about for weeks. How did they blow this one? How did they go from a crushing 14-point lead to a tie game at the buzzer, to a nearly scoreless overtime and an 82-76 defeat? How did the best night of Jimmy King and Ray Jackson’s senior year turn into the worst? Good God. Who’s writing this script? Hannibal Lechter?
Must be someone with a sicko sense of tragedy. And someone with no heart for Texans.
“It just hasn’t hit me yet, that I’ll never be playing for Michigan again,” Jackson said after Western Kentucky sent the Wolverines home after the opening round of the tournament. “I never thought about losing.”
Who had time? Here were King and Jackson, who dedicated themselves to one last push, the two oldest Michigan players, grabbing rebounds, motoring downcourt, behind-the-back passes, slam! Stealing the ball, motoring downcourt, hanging until the defender falls, slam! The Fab old days? There was so much nostalgia in the middle 30 minutes of this contest, you almost expected to hear a disc jockey saying, “And now, let’s go back to the year 1992. Remember this one. . . .”
Remember this one? King’s grabbing the ball off the glass and putting it back, as he once did to win a tournament game against UCLA? Jackson’s sneaking behind a back screen for an alley-oop jam, as he once did against Texas in the Big Dance.
At one point, Michigan went on a 19-3 run — and every point was scored by the seniors.
But the Fab group was always better at middles than endings. Their legacy includes a second half in the championship game against Duke, Chris Webber’s time-out against North Carolina, and now this Thursday night against Western Kentucky: With 9.1 seconds left in the game, a blond-haired kid named Michael Fraliex launched a three-point shot that seemed to take all his strength just to reach the rim.
Unfortunately, it was also straight as a tightrope.
Tie game. An the good-bye song began.
“This is not how we scripted it,” coach Steve Fisher said after the first first-round tournament loss of his career. “Things don’t always go the way you want them to.”
You can say that again.
End of an era.
Of course, most people came to Dayton ready to say good-bye to the Fab Five story. It began with such a thunderous introduction, it could never go out quietly. Greatest class ever recruited, five freshman starters, first to ever reach an NCAA championship final, only to lose, come back, reach the final as five sophomore starters, only to lose it again, on Webber’s time-out that wasn’t. To some, they will always be the near-miss kids, too brash, too loose, too distracted to get over the final hurdle. For others they were bigger even than their record, a symbol of brash and brilliant. There is no right or wrong on this. There are simply a lot of other teams wearing long shorts these days.
“I’ll be able to tell my kids one day that I was part of the Fab Five,” King said. “That will always mean something.”
Even the harshest critics have to see a little sad irony in Thursday night’s collapse. Jackson had 28 points. King had 23 and career highs in rebounds (17) and assists (eight). The Texas connection that came here four years ago and waited all this time to lead the team, finally had the joint performance of their careers.
And they lost.
“Maybe the best thing you can say about tonight is that Ray and Jimmy went down firing,” Fisher said. “They may have gone down, but there weren’t any bullets left in their guns. . . .”
But they still lost.
When you look at this game you will see much of Michigan’s season inside it. Spurts of brilliance, keeping it close, but as Fisher put it, “Lacking a sense of closure.”
What you didn’t see all year, but saw Thursday night, was the unified excellence of King and Jackson. They played as if the last lights of their lives were hanging on the scoreboard.
What a particularly sad ending for King, who had been fighting the demons of expectations his entire career. As Chris Webber, then Jalen Rose, then Juwan Howard all took their turns in leading this team, King lay back, languid in that Texas sprawl-on-the-couch way he has, waiting his turn, figuring it would come. “We’ll be great one day,” he would say. “My time is coming. . . . “
But when it showed up, King didn’t. His stats this year were pretty good, but pretty good was never what he was after. He averaged more points than ever, 14.5 per game, but he shot worse than ever, and his three-point range was nearly nonexistent.
But Thursday night, in the regulation, he turned back the clock and was simply brilliant. There was nothing he couldn’t do, no part of the game he didn’t own. Rebounds. Steals. Assists. Three-pointers. He had it all.
Except the finish. The Wolverines went nearly eight minutes without scoring a point. The defense collapsed, they made mistakes. And all the nostalgia in the world won’t make up for that.
“How do you feel about the whole Fab Five era at this moment?” someone asked King.
He thought for a moment. “It didn’t end on and up-tick, did it?”
The press conference ended and King and Jackson walked off the stage for the last time in their yellow uniforms. There was no applause. There were no tears. Just the words “it didn’t end on an up-tick” hanging in the midnight air.