HOUSTON — They came out like a famous rock group on opening night of the tour. Chris Webber was first man called, and to a roar of applause sauntered to mid-court, looking mean, ready to roll. Next was Ray Jackson, who slapped his arms around Webber as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.
“ALL RIGHT!” Ray hollered over the din of the crowd. Juwan Howard followed, the man in the middle, greeted with another tight hug. Then Jalen Rose, who took the cake, the class clown, strutting with his palms bent backwards, Egyptian style, nodding and almost singing, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” He cracked them all up. Then bent over in laughter.
By the time Jimmy King, the last starter, was introduced, they were back in the mood, where they left off last year, the Shock The World Band. The reserves joined in — Eric Riley, Rob Pelinka, James Voskuil, etc. — and they huddled up on The Summit floor in the great big state of Texas, these guys, this team, with fingers raised, they began a steady dance back and forth, group hug, Michigan Wolverines, all together, rockin’ in rhythm.
It was nice. It was fun.
And then the season began.
So much for the fun part. It’ll be a long time before the Wolverines enjoy that sort of innocence again. What happened Tuesday against the Rice Owls is the kind of thing that is going to happen night after night, game after game, week after week during this sophomore installment of the Fabulous Program. From here on in, the Wolverines are not a bunch of basketball players, they are a measuring stick, a chip on the bully’s shoulder, something other teams use to judge themselves, to earn their bragging rights, to face in battle then go home and tell war stories to their friends. “You should have seen me. I shot one of them down. They weren’t so tough.”
Welcome to Great Expectations, Part II.
No fun to be the hunted
“It was different out there tonight,” Pelinka admitted, after this 75-71 terribly close opener with Rice, an unranked team. “You can feel that, wherever we go, people expect us to win by 20 points. Teams want to get us now.”
Look no further than Tuesday night. Rice began the game in respectful awe, as befits a team better known for its graduation rate than field goal percentage. But as the minutes passed, as the Wolverines made a sloppy pass here, a bad shot there, suddenly, the opponents grew in stature. And in courage. They stopped defending. They began to attack.
And soon, despite the collection of highlight moves by the Wolverines — Webber blocking a shot, catching it, and making a behind-the-back pass, or Rose racing down the lane, floating in mid-air and dropping in a jump shot, soft as a Nerf ball — despite all that, the Owls were able to get easy, overlooked baskets, to grab funny rebounds, to keep pace. Next thing you know, the Wolverines are at halftime, trailing 31-30, and some college kid wearing a grass skirt is waving a stick and pointing to his semi-naked body as they walk off. Two words are painted on his chest: “FAB WHAT?”
Then the second half, when it gets no better, when U-M’s defense seems to break down and the shot selection seems hurried and slapdash. On one telling exchange, the Owls hit a three-pointer to grab the lead, the crowd exploded, and Rose, in response, heaved a court-length pass to Webber for an alley- oop attempt. A showboat play. But Rose heaved it without much thought, as if his birthright was to make that pass, and Webber’s to catch it. But the ball had no such memory, it was thrown poorly, it went nowhere near Webber, and was turned over.
And slowly, in the annoyed and aggravated expressions of the Wolverines, you could see a familiar look in sports. It was the look of the hunted. It is no fun. No fun at all.
Remember the hug at the start
But this is the way it will be for Michigan. They are magnificently talented, but they are improvisers, and some nights, the music is going to sound better than others. Some nights it might not sound good at all. And every night, the enemy will be ready.
“Doesn’t matter,” Webber said in the post-game locker room. “Doesn’t matter if we win by half a point, three-quarters of a point. As long as we win.”
“Did you ever think you might lose?” Rose was asked. “Nope,” he said. He scowled. “Come on, how can you ask me that question?”
Well. Such are the Wolverines. They will win games, blowing teams out, and they will win games, coming from behind, and they will lose games, too, but they won’t believe they lost them, they will believe they gave them away, or they were robbed. Losing will not enter their minds, but it may enter the record books. And it won’t matter, if they win at the end. And if they don’t?
. . .
Well. Such is life when you go from hunter to hunted. There will be better nights than Tuesday for the Wolverines, and there might be worse. But it will be nice to remember that picture at the start of the game, the hugging and the dancing, the happy teammates, bopping in rhythm. With all the pressure on them, that may be the last time, until some Monday night in April, that they really feel like kids.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book Live Albom III Thursday night, 7:30 at Jocundry’s bookstore in East Lansing.