LEXINGTON, Ky. — The buzzer sounded like a classroom bell, and all five of them jumped like school kids sprung for the summer. The fans were screaming and the band was blasting and the scoreboard, baby, the scoreboard was on their side. Chris Webber punched at the noise and did one of those mid-air leg kicks that threatened to carry him up through the roof of Rupp Arena and all the way to Minneapolis. Which is where they’re going, by the way.
Fab Five. Final Four.
“DO YOU BELIEVE US NOW?” Webber screamed at the crowd, after the young Michigan players had done what few people save themselves expected them to do, beat Ohio State 75-71 — in overtime, no less! — to advance to the promised land of college basketball. “DO . . . YOU . . . BELIEVE US NOW?”
How could they not? After all those passes? All those slams? All those blocks and steals and elbow-clearing rebounds as the Buckeyes’ crowd threatened to smother them in noise? It wasn’t just beating Ohio State, who had knocked off Michigan twice this season. It wasn’t just that Michigan’s five freshmen scored all but two of U-M’s points. No. It was how they did it. With poise. With confidence. With defense. With a late comeback. It was so, well, so adult.
“DO YOU BELIEVE US NOW?”
What a moment this was! Webber flapping his arms at the crowd like a giant pterodactyl, and Jalen Rose locked in a bear hug with Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson dancing at midcourt as the Michigan band pumped out “The Victors.” The Final Four? These kids who were in high school last year, watching that event on TV and telling friends, “Yeah, one day I’m gonna be there.” Even Steve Fisher, the coach charged with molding all this raw and dangerous talent, looked a little stunned.
“Honestly. Are you surprised?” someone yelled at him, as his kids began to cut down the nets.
“Honestly?” he yelled back, grinning. “I am surprised. But” — he pointed to his players — “they’re not.”
Fab Five. Final Four. Stopping the stars
And when the happy smoke from this weekend clears, what Fisher said is what will stand out the most. Never mind the critics. These kids expected to do this. Nowhere during these past two weeks did Michigan act like a young team ready to lose. If anything, the Wolverines made their opponents — including favored Oklahoma State and Ohio State — look like lesser teams, held their star players down. Byron Houston of the Cowboys was made to look awful Friday. Jimmy Jackson of the Buckeyes — who some felt was the best player in college basketball this season — was rendered merely mortal Sunday, 20 points and nine turnovers.
“They played extremely well,” Jackson admitted.
“They would never let us get a good look at the basket,” sighed Randy Ayers, his coach.
You hear that, critics? Defense? It’s not just a dunk-a- thon with these guys, you know.
Although there was plenty of that. Especially from Webber (a game-high 23 points), who bounced back from a foul-laden Friday night to play in the clouds Sunday afternoon, muscling inside, slamming down one swooping jam after another, until the biggest mystery was not how many points he would score but what face he would put on after each hoop. Once he came out screaming like a man having his toenails ripped out. Another time he raced upcourt with a monster-like glare at the back of Lawrence Funderburke, who was trying to guard him. There was no stopping Webber this day. There was no stopping Rose
(six points in the overtime), who dribbles and shoots with such veteran excellence that he scowls whenever he misses, as if they’re all supposed to go in.
“Today was 45 minutes of hard battle,” Rose said, “and it was about what team wanted it most.”
He left no doubt as to which team that was.
Fab Five. Final Four. Unforgettable weekend
Out on the Rupp Arena floor now, they were squeezing into a group photo, players, coaches, cheerleaders. Each Wolverine had a piece of the net in his hands, or his teeth, and each was wearing a hat that read “Final Four.” Someone took a head count and noticed only Jimmy King, the leaping gnome of a guard, was missing.
“JIMMY! YO! JIMMY!”
And here came King, out of the stands, and he ran across the floor and did a head-first slide into the group, landing in their laps and flipping over with a smile as the cameras flashed . . .
Nice. They looked like a team.
Snapshots? You want snapshots? Take these from this rites- of-passage weekend: Rose galloping downcourt, looking left to Webber, drawing the defender, then dishing blindly to King, was was wide-open for the slam. BANG! Or center Juwan Howard, dropping in those short jumpers and racing off the floor Friday night screaming, “WE’RE GOING TO SHOCK THE WORLD!” Or Ray Jackson, the unsung freshman, sticking to Jimmy Jackson like glue, playing the last 7:19 with four fouls and still shutting down Mr. Everything. Or junior center Eric Riley, who had to swallow his pride when these young bucks arrived, giving up his starting position, yet saving their necks against Oklahoma State, coming off the bench for 15 points and a big man’s night.
“Honestly,” Riley was asked, “when did you stop thinking of your teammates as young?”
“First day of practice,” he said.
And he wasn’t kidding. Let’s face it, folks. This is not normal, five freshmen starters going to the Big Dance. (It’s never happened before.) But these are not normal players. They have all been through big-time pressure in high school (some, like Webber, saw their decisions to sign with Michigan trumpeted across the front pages, as if they had won a presidential primary). And from the day they arrived in Ann Arbor, they made a pact that they would rise to become all they could be, as fast as they could get there.
Now they are racing through this tournament the way a child might race through the neighbors’ hedges. “Hey, all you adults! Come on! This isn’t as hard as it looks!”
“Where were you last year at this time?” someone asked Ray Jackson after the game.
“I was in high school. I remember watching the Final Four with my homeboys, and I said, ‘I’m gonna get there.’ And, you know, they’re my boys, so they said, ‘Yeah, we know you are, Ray. We know you’re going.’ “
They just didn’t know how soon.
Fab Five. Final Four. For better or worse
And now, onto Minneapolis, where they will face Cincinnati on Saturday. Suddenly, not only are they in the Big Show, but the Wolverines are favored, as the Bearcats are an even bigger surprise. What we are saying is this: Michigan. Monday Night. Championship Game. Could Happen.
Now. Some feel this is good for the school but bad for the players. So much success so early could make sophomore and junior years difficult, full of letdowns and anticlimaxes. As the song goes, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?”
But while there may be some validity to that, what are you going to do? Tell them to lose? If these kids are talented enough to win it all their first year, well, that’s their destiny. They will deal with the problems later.
“Part of us wants to win it now because we are freshmen,” Rose admitted.
“We know we won’t ever be freshmen again.”
“Tomorrow is promised to nobody,” Jackson added, philosophically.
And so we have this: history in the making. Michigan beating Temple, East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State and Ohio State, following the 1989 championship path, through Atlanta and Lexington (Fisher joked that the hotel room here which he has used both times should be hermetically sealed until Michigan returns).
And yet, while there are parallels to the ’89 team, this is different. It’s like watching the Beatles in their first recording session. Like watching Edison playing around in the lab with wires. You know something big is coming. It’s just a matter of time.
And the time may be getting closer.
“DO YOU BELIEVE US NOW?” Webber yelled once more, as the team disappeared into the tunnel.
We saw it. And seeing is believing.
Fab Five. Final Four.
This is really some story, isn’t it?