Michigan’s Fab Five started their first game together two years ago Wednesday. A lot of changes have taken place since then — from the Final Fours, to Chris Webber’s departure to the recent incident involving Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. As a reminder of how it all began, the Free Press offers this excerpt from “Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream,” written by columnist Mitch Albom.
Sunday, Feb. 9, 1992, was a historic day in the sports world. In Albertville, France, the XVI Winter Olympics were under way, the men’s downhill race highlighting the schedule. In Orlando, Fla., at the NBA All-Star Game, Magic Johnson, stricken with the AIDS virus, was returning to play one last time.
And in South Bend, Ind., before a national TV audience, the Fabulous Freshmen of Michigan were causing people to poke each other, sit up in their chairs and rub their eyes.
All five were coming out on the floor.
To start a basketball game.
No one knew how long it had been since a major college program tried this. But U-M coach Steve Fisher was doing it. Taking the plunge, starting all five — just days after he had finally consented to start four. He was inspired by, of all things, a phone call to his father earlier that morning.
Howard Fisher, the fundamental-loving volunteer coach who made Steve shoot free throws before dinner back in Herrin, Ill., and who was so serious about Michigan basketball he stopped coming to games after a visit in 1989 when the Wolverines lost — Howard blamed himself, for distracting the coaches — and who now watched every game instead via a satellite dish back in Herrin, and then reran it on the VCR, making notes and sending them to his son, well, Howard had an idea about the lineup.
“How’s the team look?” he had asked Steve before the Notre Dame game.
“I don’t know, Dad. We’re a little flat.”
“Maybe you ought to start Ray Jackson.”
“He’s not ready yet.”
“I think he is. I like the way that kid plays.”
“I’m already starting four freshmen.”
“So? Don’t be afraid to start all five.”
“I’m not afraid. Who says I’m afraid?”
“All right, I won’t tell you your business.”
“Just don’t be afraid to start all five.”The switch
On the bus ride to the arena, Fisher watched his players, their headphones in their ears, their eyes gazing out the windows. They had won five and lost four since the Big Ten opener. Maybe his father was right. Maybe this was just the move for some new inspiration. Notre Dame didn’t count in the conference standings, so it wasn’t like risking a truly important game. And these freshmen loved to get up for national television, that he knew for sure.
It was gonna happen sooner or later. . . .
At the arena, Fisher pulled James Voskuil aside.
“James,” he said, “I’m starting Ray today. I just made the decision. Stay ready. Stay focused. You’ll get your minutes off the bench.”
Voskuil was stunned. He had heard his fellow upperclassmen predicting doom, saying their days were numbered; he had even seen what happened just a few days earlier with Michael Talley. But as long as he was starting he hadn’t believed it. He thought he was different. Now, suddenly, he was out, too. He felt burned and embarrassed, like he’d put his trust in the wrong advisers.
During the pregame speech, Fisher made no special announcement; he simply went through each starter’s assignment. This was how he broke the news:
“Juwan, you’re starting on No. 20, LaPhonso Ellis. He’s good, we all know it.
“Jimmy, you’re on Elmer Bennett, No. 12. He’s fast, so watch for that.
“Ray, you start on Daimon Sweet.”
When Voskuil heard the words “Ray, you start on Daimon Sweet,” he felt his belly churn. He couldn’t look at anyone. He kept his eyes locked on the blackboard. Later he would say, “If I could have transferred right then, I would have. I felt humiliated.”
The Fab Five, on the other hand, felt like a singing group that had just gotten its first record contract. Chris Webber actually smiled when he heard Fisher say Jackson’s name; the rest of them played it low-key until they broke for warm-ups. Then they gathered around Ray, locked arms in a tight huddle, like children planning a secret meeting in the tree house.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Chris said, his head half-buried in Jalen Rose’s armpit.
“Our time,” answered Jalen, bobbing up and down.
“We all together now,” said Jimmy.
“Show the world, baby,” said Juwan.
“I’m with it,” said Ray.
“All right, dogs.”
“We ain’t freshmen.”
“Show ’em now.”
“Let’s do it!” The debut
And from the opening tap, they did, with an energy that hadn’t been felt since a pickup game in October back at Crisler Arena. Their feet were jumping, the sneakers squeaking sharply, their eyes darting from corner to corner, the ball moving in crisp, clean passes. Ray took a feed from Juwan on the first possession and made a blind dish to Chris coming baseline for a slam. Chris was fouled, and the freshmen slapped hands. A few minutes later, Ray stripped possession from Sweet and started the fast break, speeding down the left side, then lofting the ball toward the hoop, alley-oop. Webber soared, caught it one-handed, and — SHUMMMMP! — slammed it home, a perfect feed. The crowd went crazy — and this was in Notre Dame! Chris grabbed Ray’s head on the way upcourt, unable to suppress his laughter.
“YEAH, BABY!” Chris yelled.
“UH-HUHHHHH!” Ray answered.
Like children running down a steep hill, the five of them were thrilled with their own sudden speed, and they used it not only for spectacular fast breaks but for rebounds and defense, sliding to help out, denying shots, poking passes.
The unbridled enthusiasm that often looked mismatched with some of their more patient upperclassmen looked harmonious now, like complementary colors, all in the same mood, all of the same mind. They made sense together.
And they took over the game.
Juwan sank one jump shot after another. Chris slammed so hard the rim bent and would not snap back. On a fast break in the second half, Jalen came down the right wing, scooped the ball to Ray, who whipped it to Jimmy, who fed it back to Jalen, who pulled up and buried a four-footer. Good!
Even Fisher half-grinned. They were in sync, in rhythm, a jazz quintet locked on a riff, drum, bass, piano, sax, trumpet, joining forces, making one untied, swinging sound, and if you turned down the volume and just watched the picture, you still would hear it. The reaction
If you had your volume up, however, as most of America did, you heard something else: You heard Al McGuire, the former coach turned star NBC analyst, chiding the freshmen for their flamboyant behavior.
“You can tell they’re freshmen, they go too much with the French pastry, too much with the hot dogging.
“Every play with them gets to be like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, every play has to be a large explosion.
“I never would have recruited five freshmen. I’d have thought it would cause too much of a problem.
“It’s too early for jivin’, men, too early for jivin’!
“There goes another Harlem Globetrotter pass from Webber. No reason for that! It’s French pastry!
“Remember, Michigan fans, these are just kids. They’ll give you thrills, but they’re also gonna give you Elvis Presley, Heartbreak Hotel.”
There was no Heartbreak Hotel on this day. Michigan won, 74-65. And the Fab Five scored every point. Every point? By freshmen? That’s right. Chris had 17, Juwan had 14, Jimmy had 19, Jalen had 20. Ray had two baskets, three rebounds and several steals in his starting debut.
Still, many Americans agreed with McGuire’s opinions (especially when he kept repeating them). Why so much showboating? Why all that fist waving and mouthing off? And why did it always have to be an alley-oop or a reverse slam? Bobby Knight’s teams wouldn’t do that!
It didn’t help that Notre Dame is America’s college when it comes to sports, and the Fighting Irish’s four starting seniors had just been whipped by five upstart freshmen.
French pastry. Hot dogs. The rap would shadow them forever. America loves youth but hates impunity. And, thanks to their behavior — and broadcasts like McGuire’s — the Fab Five were now synonymous with both.