NEW ORLEANS — It ended with Chris Webber looking desperately for something he didn’t have — time, hope and a happy ending. He grabbed a rebound, his team trailing by two points, and he called for time, he screamed for it. The referee stared at him blankly. Confused, Webber muscled his way up court, almost traveling, probably traveling, but this one man-against-everything journey suddenly seemed to have everyone’s tongues tied, including the referees, and so here was Webber, still dribbling, pounding the ball with his giant hands, going past his bench, looking for time, wanting time, no one able to tell him “Chris, we don’t have any time-outs left.” Finally, he pulled up, stopped, like a man who realizes he is cornered by police. He made the “T” sign, looked at the ref, who made the “T” sign right back.
“This is much different than last year,” a dejected Steve Fisher said Monday, after his Wolverines fell for the second straight time in the championship game, losing to North Carolina, 77-71. “Tonight, we had a chance to win in the final seconds. Last year we didn’t. But we couldn’t get it done.”
They tried. They tried desperately. And when Webber grabbed that rebound, it looked like they would once again find a way to pull their destiny out of a hat. Instead, the final picture of this fascinating 1993 season will a depressing one: The Fab Five watching helplessly on the half-court line as North Carolina sank the free throws that would put this game out of reach. Ray Jackson was on one knee, praying for a gust of wind, no doubt. Juwan Howard looked like he’d lost a friend. Jimmy King had his hands on his hips, Jalen Rose had his head lowered and Webber, well, he was stunned. All he had done, all the slams, the monster rebounds, the steals, the time he took the ball himself the length of the floor and slammed it, his 23 points, his 33 minutes — all that gone in a simple, desperate mistake.
And let’s get that dealt with right now. Whose fault was that? Well, it depends. A coach must inform his players of the time-out situation. It must be drummed in their heads. Then again, players can forget. At the time of this writing, the question had not been answered, so blame should not be leveled. Suffice it to say it was a mistake, one mistake in a game spotted with many by the Wolverines — they turned the ball over 14 times — and it only seems the biggest because it happened last.
No time. No hope.
The odd thing about this loss is that for once, it seemed, people really figured Michigan would win. Critics had dished their chances against lesser teams, but the victory over Kentucky in the semifinal seemed to get everyone on their bandwagon. From Dick Vitale to Jud Heathcote, there was a feeling that talent and experience (last year’s) would win out. Emotionally, if not in Las Vegas, the Wolverines were favorites. Maybe that was part of their undoing. Maybe they thought so, too. They certainly didn’t emerge from the locker room like a prisoner given 24 hours to find the man who framed him. Their focus was distilled. They played tight.
And so the first half became a tug of war. North Carolina would break a man free, bang a shot, grab a rebound, hit free throws, look dominant. But when Michigan awoke, it ran off a string of points for a 10-point lead. Suddenly, the Tar Heels looked, well, sticky. But Michigan turnovers and North Carolina ability to draw a whistle kept the game close, and halftime ended with Michigan giving the ball over 10 times, North Carolina three, and the Wolverines waist thick in foul trouble, Ray Jackson with three, Howard, Webber and King with two.
The second half? What can you say. It went by quickly and it felt like forever. At times it had the feel of someone trying to push a refrigerator up the stairs. Minutes would go by without a good shot. The defenses were like soggy blankets, the rebounds like five giants launched from a cannon. It was less a game than a slugfest, one in which the referee just lets them go at each other, to the body, to the head, the body, the head, last one standing wins.
Still, when Pat Sullivan missed the second free throw with 19 seconds left, the Wolverines were perched on another great finish. A basket would tie it. A three-pointer would win it. But Webber was confused, and everything seemed to go in slow motion from there. At one point Jalen Rose could have told him there were no time-outs. Maybe he did. Webber kept going. It was the saddest of endings for a guy who called last year’s loss “the lowest moment of my life.”
You can only imagine how he feels this morning.
The Wolverines have plenty of critics, but only a truly hard-boiled person would delight in their defeat Monday night. Like them or not, they fought the good fight this year with the enormous burden of being one half shy of a national championship. From the first day of practice, way back in November, they had Monday night circled on the calendar, and it wasn’t the Oscars.
Last year, they were caught up in the event until the second half. This year they seemed to be weighed down by it. All that waiting, all that anticipation, sometimes makes the real moment almost surreal, you can’t get a fix on it, and before you know it, the moment is gone.
But don’t kill the season just because it ended badly. Michigan won 31 games, a school record, it beat teams it wasn’t supposed to beat and I can say this safely, I believe, it provided the most entertainment in college basketball.
It just didn’t have a happy ending. Instead it was Carolina, a well-schooled team with a very deliberate game plan, that cut down the nets and did a dance at half court. The Tar Heels are dull compared to Michigan, lacking in color and quotes. But they got the job done. They executed a swing- around offense when they had to, got the ball inside to Eric Montross, their 7-foot center, and got 25 points out of Donald Williams, many of them on critical three-pointers. Michigan knew it had to stop him to win. It didn’t. And it didn’t.
Just before the pregame meal Monday afternoon, Steve Fisher grabbed a pay phone to make a call.
“Hello coach,” he began.
He was calling Bo Schembechler.
“I wanted to call the man who made this all possible,” he told Bo. “Yep. Hopefully, we can win another one.”
What a long strange ride it has been for Fisher since that spring day in 1989 when Schembechler, then the athletic director, slapped the reigns of this prestigious program into his young hands. Fisher went from “anonymous assistant” to “miracle worker” to “national champion” to “lucky duck” to
“can’t coach” to “can’t-recruit” to “can’t discipline” to “can’t defend himself.”
Rarely was there talk of what he can do.
What he can do is get five kids who have all been told they’re the best thing to ever come down the pike to play together, to meld, to sacrifice, and to smile while doing it. People talk about all the laughing the Wolverines do on court as if it’s only disrespect. No one sees it as harmony. Hey. People laugh when they’re happy. Do you know how many programs couldn’t handle the egos of five top-flight recruits? Let alone the bruised egos of players like Rob Pelinka, James Voskuil, Eric Riley and Michael Talley, who were booted out of their chairs when the Fab Five showed up.
Think about the lack of dissension, the lack of back- stabbing, the lack of internal problems with this team, and you’ll have a small idea of what Fisher can do.
No doubt, he will get criticized again, for “too many turnovers by his undisciplined sophomores.” Or for not being able to beat a “system” team like Duke, Indiana or North Carolina. Or, most probably, the misinformation that confused Webber at the end. People remember what they want to remember. Unfair, but true.
But if you remember that, remember this: The celebration when U-M beat Kentucky, a win that was never supposed to happen. Or the comeback from the 19-point deficit to UCLA, which was never supposed to happen. Remember Webber and Rose and Jackson and Howard and King and Pelinka and Voskuil and Riley in happier poses. They are still kids. It is still a game. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes your dreams have to wait. The Fab Five will be upper classmen next time you see them, but that is not a curse. That, in fact, gives them hope and time, the two things they simply ran out of on a Monday night in April.