The NCAA tournament begins in earnest today, so you’d expect a certain level of excitement. But, truthfully, can you say there is a single team that the whole country is anticipating? A group of talent or arresting personalities that many have heard of but few have seen?
There was a tournament like that once. It started 29 years ago to the day. Which is a coincidence, because Saturday is when Michigan basketball’s Juwan Howard coaches his first NCAA tournament game. What makes it a coincidence is that Howard was part of that team 29 years ago that had America’s attention.
A big part.
Howard was the first big name recruited to the class of Michigan freshmen that would forever be known as the Fab Five. After he came, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King came. After they came, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber came.
And in March of 1992, for the first time in history, five freshmen — those five freshmen — were going to start a NCAA tournament game.
So on Wednesday, in a zoom call, I asked Howard what he remembered about that moment.
“Well, if you look” — he touched his scalp — “there’s many gray hairs that’s on top of my head. Many gray hairs on my goatee. So that means yes there’s wisdom, but I’m aging. So that means my memory is lost. … So I don’t recall what happened during that time 29 years ago.”
He paused. “I’m just kidding you.”
Meeting with The Greatest
He had to be kidding, because nobody could forget that weekend in Atlanta. It began with the Wolverines in the Omni hotel, hanging over the balconies and yelling to a guest who was standing a few floors below. That guest was Muhammad Ali, who happened to be staying at the same hotel. Recognizing the already famous freshmen, he beckoned them to come down.
Next thing they knew, the Wolverines were in Ali’s suite, where they spent at least an hour talking, marveling, joking, and, of course, trash talking.
“I hear Tyson said he coulda whupped you,” Rose cracked.
Ali lifted his head and stared at Jalen. His voice and mannerisms were slowed by Parkinson’s disease, but not his wit.
“I wish … I was a dog …” Ali said, “and you … was a tree.”
Everybody cracked up. When they went to leave, the players shook Ali’s hand, one by one. When Juwan got close, Ali pulled him in and whispered in his ear, “Shock the world.”
They would. Infused with Ali’s message, the team was pumped for greatness. Webber and Rose decided to shave off their hair, and arrived for the first game with smooth scalps.
“It was a very exciting time for all of us,” Howard recalled Wednesday. “being that it was our first NCAA tournament. We looked forward to that moment back in October when we first started. … Fast forward (through) all the adversity … and we ended up in Atlanta.
“Yes, we met Muhammad Ali which was an amazing time … hanging out in his room. And then leading up to the first game versus Temple. Temple was called as the favorite to win that game (with their) matchup zone, but we did an amazing job of competing from start to finish. There was excitement, nervous energy — but when that jump ball started the game took off … all that nervous energy went out the window. It was all about embracing the competition.”
The Wolverines would win that first game, 73-66, exactly 29 years ago Saturday, despite Temple’s crazy defense, its tough reputation and its loud and spirited coach John Cheney, who afterwards wasn’t all that impressed.
“They overcame mistakes tonight,” Cheney said of the Fab Five, who scored all but two of the baskets for U-M, “but I don’t know if they can overcome those same mistakes against an equally talented team.”
Well, he was slightly off. The Fab Five went all the way to the championship game, when they lost to to Duke. Before and after — and sometimes during — the tournament games, Juwan could be seen clenching his fists, pulling his arms tightly and shouting, “Shock the world!”
Now he tries to do it again.
Learn from history
What’s funny is, with all that history in his satchel, Howard doesn’t dip into it. “I haven’t talked about my experience playing in the tournament at all,” he admitted.
And when I asked star freshman Hunter Dickinson if he had asked his coach, at this fortuitous moment, to tell him when he went through as a freshman center in his first tournament game, Dickinson replied, “That’s a good question. I haven’t really asked him anything about playing in the national championship or really much about his run. I probably should. That’s good. Thank you for reminding me.”
Uh, you’re welcome.
Ah, well. it may be that memories mean more to those who watch than those who play. And Howard, who has done a magnificent job this year, knows better than to live inside a past that his players — who weren’t yet born during the Fab Five run — can hardly relate to.
But history smiles, even when ignored. Saturday, Howard will try to do what he and his famous teammates once tried to do — kick in the doors of college basketball’s biggest event and march all the way to center stage in his very first try.
It won’t shock the world this time — Michigan is, after all, a No. 1 seed — but it would definitely, as his old team did 29 years ago, make a big impression.