In “Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream,” Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom chronicles the triumphs and disappointments of the five University of Michigan freshmen who shocked the college basektball world with their talent and their braggadocio. Today’s excerpt, the first of five in the Free Press, deals with U-M’s desperate pursuit of high school stars Juwan Howard and Chris Webber — and others’ questionable attempts to get Webber to play elsewhere. “Fab Five” is published by Warner Books; 359 pages, $21.95.
Steve Fisher held the phone to his ear. His eyes darted nervously. Let’s hope the kid is home, he thought. Rinnnng! Come on. Be home. At least the phone was ringing. Sometimes the mothers or fathers got fed up and took it off the hook, or the jealous younger brother pulled the cord out of the wall.
Around the corner from Fisher, in the other Michigan basketball offices, Brian Dutcher, Mike Boyd and Jay Smith, the assistant coaches, were also on the phone, talking to recruits. As they spoke they made notes and checked 3-by-5 cards for references. Their voices all had the too-interested tone of someone trying to sell you something. If you eavesdropped from room to room, it sounded like a time-share pitch for condominiums.
“We sure would love to have you.”
“This could be a great place for you.”
“You’ll love it here, the others do. . . .”
It was another black-coffee night in the Great Recruiting Chase, and a sense of desperation was evident. The 1989-90 Wolverines did not win a conference title or go very far in the NCAA tournament. The current team did not look good. Fisher was worried. Every program has a dip now and then. But if you dip too low or too long, suddenly they’re taking your name off the door.
Back in the office, a breakthrough.
“Hello?” the young voice said, answering the phone.
Fisher leaned forward. Success!
“Coach Fisher here, Chris. Just calling to see how you’re doing? . . . Uh-huh. . . . Getting ready for the season? . . . That’s good. . . . How’s school going? . . . Uh-huh. . . . Talked to your dad last week, told him how much we wanted to have you here. . . . So, are you still thinking about signing early? . . .”
Fisher did his best to sound upbeat. Never let them hear your frustration. Never sound too desperate. As he spoke, he happened to glance at the office wall, a photo from the greatest basketball night of his life, the 1989 national championship. There he was, holding his blond-haired sons, Mark and Jonathan, and standing next to his wife, Angie. Fisher’s own hair was sweaty, his smile a mile wide. The picture was so real that when he looked at it, he could almost hear the noise coming from the background . . .
“MICHIGAN WINS! MICHIGAN WINS! THE WOLVERINES ARE NATIONAL CHAMPIONS! .
That was the peak. He was a brand new coach with six victories, no defeats and a national championship ring. People rushed him. The nation embraced him. Time of his life.
But times change. The Wolverines lost the first game of the next season, and the last game, and six more in between. They were eliminated in the second round of the 1990 tournament by a little-known, hotshot squad from Loyola Marymount.
And Fisher, like a pageant queen who surrenders her crown, was suddenly in search of an identity. He was no longer the Best in the Business. He was just another coach trying to get there.
He had to do something.
With a year-to-year contract — Michigan has never given any coach a long-term deal — and with a weak team coming back, he was scared. He knew that patience was thin in big-time sports programs. He also knew what every other coach in America knows: The fastest way to improve your lot in college basketball is to improve your personnel.
So there was one thing and one thing only that could save Fisher, get him back to the nirvana of the 1989 snapshot. The best recruiting year anyone could imagine.
The Greatest Class Ever Recruited.
“We need players, we need players!” he implored his staff.
And the most important would be the first. Fall 1990: Swallow and hope
“These look good, Ms. Howard,” Brian Dutcher said, staring at his plate. A smile was plastered on his face, the Official Recruiting Smile, and even though the plate was full of watery greens with a rather pungent smell, you couldn’t wipe that smile off with sandpaper.
“Collard greens,” Jannie Mae Howard said, chomping her cigarette. “You mean you ain’t never had no greens before?”
“Well, you gonna have some tonight.”
She laughed, and so he laughed, and they all laughed — Dutcher, Fisher, Boyd, Lois Howard (Juwan Howard’s aunt), Richard Cook (Juwan’s high school coach), Donnie Kirksey (his high school assistant coach), Juwan himself and most important, Jannie Mae Howard, his grandmother, the woman in charge, the woman who could Sway the Decision. In recruiting, there was always one person who could Sway the Decision, and without that person, you were dead.
“Yeah, coach, you gonna have some greens tonight.”
“Coach Dutch gonna have him some soul food.”
Dutcher laughed. A devoted member of Fisher’s staff, with Kurt Russell looks and boundless energy when it came to recruiting, he pawed a forkful of the greens, chewed and made a happy face, like out of a soup commercial.
“Hey, these are great.”
“He likes them greens, Grandma.”
“Of course he likes them. I made ’em.”
Dutcher was thrilled. Things were going so well! Juwan Howard, the tall, neatly dressed kid with the thick eyebrows and the Fu Manchu goatee, well, he could be The One! The big name Michigan signed to get the ball rolling! He was 6 feet 10, with a deep voice and a sweet jump shot, and was ranked the No. 1 high school center in the country. Dutcher had spotted him when he was just a sophomore, playing in the Chicago summer leagues.
“Steve, this kid can play,” Dutcher reported.
Those are the magic words.
The pursuit began. Letters. Phone calls. Dutcher called almost every day during Juwan’s junior year, just to say hello, talk about life, school, girls, whatever.
“Michigan would love to have you, Juwan.”
“You could do great things here.”
Dutcher also mailed Juwan at least two handwritten notes a week. He sent articles that spoke of Michigan’s excellent academic reputation, and cut up make-believe headlines on mock USA Today sports sections:
(signed) Coach Dutcher
Watching in silence
Still, the most important part of the Great Recruiting Chase was to let them see you. In person. So, during the 30-day visitation period in the summer of 1990, Dutcher watched Juwan play 28 days in a row, and, under NCAA rules, he wasn’t even allowed to speak to him.
So here was Dutcher, in his shorts and very noticeable Michigan T-shirt, standing like a sentinel on the side of the court, watching Juwan, smiling at Juwan, winking at Juwan, never saying a word.
“That’s the way the game is played,” Dutcher would say, sounding like a devoted salesman. “Don’t waste time on kids who don’t want you, and don’t waste time on kids who don’t have the grades. But if you find a kid who can play, and he wants you, and you want him . . .”
Go after him like a bloodhound.
And know his biggest influence.
For Juwan Howard, the report read, “Grandmother.”
“You think I could have some more of these, um . . . greens, Ms. Howard?” Dutcher said, now, holding out his plate.
“Coach,” she said, laughing, “you like ’em so much, you go on and help yourself.” Saved by love
Jannie Mae Howard, the daughter of sharecroppers in Belzoni, Miss., had four babies by her 19th birthday, so she knew about motherhood. When her teenage daughter Helena came home one night complaining about nausea, Jannie Mae sighed.
“It’s that food down at the restaurant where I’m working, Mama,” Helena said. “The smell of it makes me sick.”
“It ain’t the food, Helena. You’re pregnant.”
The doctors confirmed it. Helena quickly married the father, Leory Watson Jr., a phone company worker who had just come back from the Army. They lived for a while in the upstairs room at Jannie Mae’s place on Chicago’s South Side. But when Juwan was born, it was obvious the responsibility was too much. Helena was only 17, a junior in high school. When she brought the child home from the hospital, they didn’t even have a crib for him. Jannie Mae told them to use the chest upstairs, open it up, get a pillow and a blanket.
For the first week of his life, Juwan Howard slept in a drawer.
Over the years, although his mother visited, Jannie Mae raised Juwan as her own. And he adored her. He sat by the kitchen table and watched her cook. He curled on the couch and fell asleep in her lap. She would tap her leg just enough to rock him to sleep, then light another cigarette and rub his head.
Jannie Mae Howard saved Juwan from an otherwise desperate street life, and she did it with love. For his grandma, Juwan went to school. For his grandma, he worked at his game. Jannie Mae was Juwan’s guiding light.
And if she liked a college, Juwan liked a college.
Brian Dutcher knew this.
Not everyone was so smart. When Lute Olson and the Arizona staff came to
Chicago to recruit Juwan, they mistakenly thought he and his coach were the only important people in the room. They directed the conversation toward the men. Jannie Mae, feeling ignored, went out on the porch and smoked cigarettes until they finished. On their way out, Olson asked whether she had any questions.
“What the hell you asking me now for?” she said, blowing a cloud of smoke. “You ain’t asked me a damn thing the whole night.”
Their mouths fell.
They were dead. Bending a rule
Jannie Mae wasn’t Juwan’s only influence, however. There was also a fast-talking, round-headed marketing major named Donnie Kirksey, and getting him on your side took more than smacking your lips at his cooking. An opportunist from his loafers to his cellular phone, Kirksey had attached himself to Juwan early, joining the staff at Chicago Vocational High School, as an unpaid assistant coach, and befriending young Howard when he was a freshman. Kirksey had been a player at CVS, too, back in the early ’80s. But he never had Juwan’s kind of talent.
“You gotta be smart, Juwan,” he would say. “You can’t mess with no bad influences.”
Donnie declared that he was a good influence, and so, in addition to coaching Juwan, he let Juwan stay at his house, which was close to the school. And when Juwan got a driver’s license, he let him use his car. This goes on all over America, outsiders attaching themselves to high school basketball talent, hoping to ride their coattails to the big time.
“Kirksey is really influential,” Dutcher had warned Fisher. “We need to have him on our side.”
So they recruited Kirskey as well. They phoned him. They encouraged his dreams of getting into the college coaching business. At one point, Fisher would actually interview him for an assistant coach position at Michigan — even though he was nowhere near qualified for the job.
In the summer between Juwan’s junior and senior years, Fisher hired Donnie Kirskey to work at his basketball camp in Ann Arbor, and paid him well. Would he have hired a volunteer assistant coach from Chicago under other circumstances? Of course not. But there was a plus with hiring Kirksey.
With the money they gave him, he paid for Juwan.
And suddenly, the prize recruit was on the Michigan campus.
This is not really illegal — it has been done before — but it shows how far coaches, Fisher included, will go in pursuit of the Next Great Recruit. Maybe years back, Fisher would have frowned on this practice. But that was before the Monday night in Seattle, 1989, when his whole life changed, when he drank from the Holy Grail, an