NEW ORLEANS — They walked slowly into the breakfast room, their feet making no sound on the carpet. James Voskuil pulled at a dry biscuit. Juwan Howard poked at a plate of bacon. They joked softly about the night before, their first trip to Bourbon Street on their final night in New Orleans. For a few minutes, it was as if nothing had happened. Then someone mentioned a North Carolina player who was also there on Bourbon Street, surrounded by a cheering mob.

“Aw, that guy didn’t do nothing against us,” Howard said softly. “The dude who should be celebrating is Donald Williams. He played good.”

A few heads nodded. There was silence. Then suddenly, Howard banged a fist on the table so hard the plate jumped.

“DAMN!” he said.

And all was quiet again.

There will be moments like that for these kids of ’93, during breakfast, or a lonely car ride, or some boring class, devilish moments that will slip inside their brains and do an annoying dance. Suddenly, they will see it all again, the Superdome crowd, the cheering Carolina players, the end-of-the- world look on Chris Webber’s face as the officials signaled technical foul, give us the ball, it’s over.

The real pain of losing a national championship isn’t the time it actually happens.

It’s all the times it keeps coming back. Once more across the canyon

So as the Wolverines flew home, and as they gathered their luggage, even as they politely received the cheers of their schoolmates in Crisler Arena, they were still reliving those final seconds inside their heads. Shoulda done this. Coulda done that. Can’t believe we didn’t do the other thing. And somewhere deep beneath all that, a hook was being cast all the way into next year, the first Monday night in April. As of today, the Michigan basketball team begins the terribly hard task of reeling itself through the calendar one more time.

“Next year, baby,” a bellman said to Howard.

“You know it,” Howard said.

But nobody knows it. Nothing is for sure. The task of slugging through the regular season, winning enough games, avoiding injuries, getting a decent draw, then starting this maddening Russian roulette tournament in which one bullet kills you on any of six nights over three weeks — well, the odds are simply staggering. Even great teams succumb. Consider Duke and Indiana, good enough to beat Michigan, not good enough to avoid one fatal slip in March.

Which makes what the Wolverines did these last two years — reaching the championship final — like walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, then turning around and walking it again. Now imagine turning, and making another try. Sure, it can be done. But you look down, into the abyss, and you wonder how many times you can be perfect. A dream — forgone

“You know what’s weird?” Rob Pelinka said, heading toward his room to pack one last time. “Eric Riley told me before the game that he’d dreamt I would win it with a three-point shot from the left corner.

“And you know where I was when Chris brought the ball up? In the left corner. And I was open.”

He shook his head. The devil danced. Pelinka — who had lent his 1989 championship ring to Webber the night before the North Carolina showdown — is outta here now. So are James Voskuil, Riley and Michael Talley. What that means is the Fab Five are suddenly upperclassmen. What that means is they are truly in charge.

They could come back next year and treat the regular season like jury duty. Sleepwalk through it. Stumble often. Or they could be so angry, so determined to chalk up something on the board, that only a perfect season would suffice.

Whatever. This is certain: Next year will be the hardest thing they have ever tried to do. But then, wasn’t this year? When you really look at Monday night’s game, you see that Webber’s faux pas was only one of many: Jalen Rose turned the ball over six times; Jimmy King launched a late-in-the-game air ball; Howard scored only seven points; the team got to the free throw line only seven times all night. There are things to work on. These are ways to get better. If they are the players Steve Fisher professes they are, they will use the summer to do just that.

In the meantime, enough torture. Rather than close the season with a replay of Monday’s maddening final seconds, take with you instead these quieter scenes from a season gone by:

Howard, holding the coaches’ children in his arms as the Wolverines celebrated their win over Temple. Ray Jackson, laughing with his Texas friends who drove from Austin and slept in the car just to be there for him. King, his eyes bulging when he saw his father for the first time here — with a shaved head! Rose, delighting a ballroom full of reporters by saying, “If I were president there’d be no more wars — unless someone provoked us, and then we’d have to get ’em.” And Webber, the emotional man-child, ignoring the crowd, walking through a mall with his arm around his younger brother, looking to buy him a birthday present.

They are people first. Players second. Next year is third. It will be ridiculously hard. It will come soon enough. For now, for all they have accomplished, you can only tell these amazing kids to get some sleep, and hope their dreams are kind.

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