by | Oct 27, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He has the long shorts. He has the bald head.

He has the French accent.

The French accent?

“Does this mean we call it The Fab Cinq?” we asked.

“Ahahaha!” he laughed. “I never heard this thing. Fab Cinq. Very funny! Ahahaha!”

If there was any doubt that this year’s Michigan basketball team is slightly different from last year’s Michigan basketball team, it was erased Tuesday on the crowded floor of Crisler Arena. Olivier Saint-Jean is in the house.

Sorry. A la maison.

“We were playing together the other day and he was guarding me,” said Jalen Rose, “so I started singing, ‘Comin’ To America.’ “

See? Already, he has turned trash talk to music.

Here is the most charming story of the college basketball season. A freshman who looks stereotypical — 6-feet-6, tightly muscled, graceful movements, a smile like Magic Johnson’s — yet he breaks all the stereotypes. In fact, it is hard to find anything typical about Olivier Saint-Jean, l’homme nouveau.

You grew up playing basketball, right?

“No, I began by playing soccer.”

You were heavily recruited by Michigan?

“No, my father called the school.”

You dream of playing in the NBA?

“No. First, education. I must get straight A’s. This is why I came.”

Wait a minute. Did I walk into the wrong building? Big jersey for big name

Here is a kid, age 18, from the Paris suburb of Versailles, who just two summers ago paid to see the Fab Five play an exhibition near his home. He sat in the stands. Nobody noticed him. The coaches didn’t even know who he was.

Had he not played with a French junior team — where a scout saw him and invited him to a U.S. high school basketball camp — Olivier would be in France right now. He would not be playing college basketball, because in France, they don’t have college basketball.

Ah, but fate. She is funny, n’est ce pas? Olivier came to that U.S. camp, where he promptly got pushed around by a guy so good, Olivier felt like a child. His legs hurt. He was gasping for breath.

“Who is that guy?” Olivier asked. It was Jamal Mashburn.

Despite that inglorious beginning, Olivier impressed enough coaches to be recruited — even though the phone calls were expensive, North Carolina was after him, and flew him in for a recruiting trip. But when the Tar Heels signed Rasheed Wallace, there was no room for Olivier Saint-Jean.

His father, who lives in New York, said: “If North Carolina wants you, you can play for Michigan.” He called Steve Fisher, who was open to suggestion. Several big-name recruits — the American kind, Avondre Jones, Charles O’Bannon and Sylvester Ford — chose other schools. Michigan had more holes than the Chevy Chase show.

“Bring him in,” Fisher said. Olivier came. He saw. He signed.

Now he is here, eating American food — “So much! So often!” — and mingling with students — “They always ask, ‘Say something in French.’ Why do they do this?”

Tuesday was media day. And there he was, being interviewed by more people than have interviewed him in his life. His maize shorts were down to his knees.

“These baggy shorts, I am not so excited by. But this” — he tugged on his jersey — “is very big, because it has my name on the back.

“In France, we do not have names on our uniforms. Now I know I have to work very hard, and do something big.” Lots to learn and teach

OK. Let’s be honest. Saint-Jean is not Saint-Shaquille. He may be no more than a role player this season. He is not used to the pounding of big-time college basketball. And no one — including the Michigan coaches — has ever seen him play in organized competition.

“You ask me what we’ve got,” Fisher said, “and I have to be honest: I have no idea.”

Still, the kid has promise. You can see that. And, more refreshing, he has this terrific attitude. You hang around college basketball long enough, you get tired of 18- and 19- year-olds who are already spending their NBA checks. Not this guy.

“I do not understand the American way,” Saint-Jean said. “You play basketball and everyone goes like this” — he puffed out his chest — ” ‘I am the tough guy.’ Why do you say this? If you play, and someone kicks your butt,

then you can no longer say this, right?”

Did he say, “Kicks your butt”?

Ah, well. It’s just a matter of time before he gets Americanized. In the meantime, Olivier will stand out on the Fab Four-led Wolverines. For one thing, he’s the only player taking French Lit. Also, none of them likes Brie.

But they will learn from him, and he will learn from them. That’s college, right?

“I’m gonna teach him how to trash talk,” Rose said.

“I will play them French rap music,” Olivier said.

This is gonna be some season, I can tell already.


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