Nothing dogged the Fab Five’s reputation more than trash talk. And never was there more trash talked than in the Michigan-Cincinnati game during the 1992 Final Four in Minneapolis.
The young Wolverines were already famous for jawing, and the Bearcats were pretty damn good, too. Cincinnati’s entire roster was made up of transfers or junior college players, which meant that — unlike the Fab Five — most of the Bearcats were not highly recruited. They were the leftovers. And they had something to prove. They flexed. They boasted.
“Chris Webber will not dunk on me,” Terry Nelson, their bald forward, bragged to the media. “He’ll be looking up from the floor before he dunks on me.”
Oh, boy. Here we go.
Before the game, Webber — who had read the quotes — was already fuming. He was waiting for Nelson. During warmups, Chris was practicing free throws when a another Cincinnati player, a reserve named B.J. Ward, walked past and mumbled, “Yeah, you better practice those free throws.”
And Chris went ballistic.
“Who the hell are you?” Chris said.
He turned to Jalen Rose. “Jalen, who the hell is this guy?”
Jalen looked at the guy’s back.
“No. 32,” he said.
“No. 32?” Chris said. “Was he on the scouting report? Juwan, was this guy on the scouting report?”
Juwan Howard shook his head, playing along. “No, he wasn’t.”
“You ain’t even on our scouting report?” Chris said to Ward. “We just spent an hour on your team and your name didn’t even come up. You must be the 13th man or something. You must be a scrub.”
“I ain’t no scr–“
“You must be a scrub, you gotta be, ’cause we didn’t even hear your name!”
Ward sneered. He mumbled something, but Chris was too hot, he was going off on him now, right here, center court, in the Minneapolis Metrodome, with the crowd filing in. Several Wolverines stopped their dribbling and watched.
“You’re weak, man!” Webber yelled. “You’re just weak. Don’t you criticize my game. Don’t you even — you know what, you know what? I don’t even wanna see you again until you write me a 10-page paper on why you can’t play.”
“I ain’t writing you no–“
“And send me a highlight tape! You send me a highlight tape of you playing, just a tape of you playing in the park! And after me and my friends review it, we’ll let you know if you can play! You ain’t nothing but a scrub.
“Now get outta here. I got nothing to say to no scrub.”
Ward forced a laugh and slinked away. Webber’s eyes were daggers, his lips pursed in anger.
“Man, I don’t know if this is good,” Rob Pelinka whispered to a teammate.
“He’s getting too charged too early.”‘
As it turns out, it was only the icebreaker. As the Michigan and Cincinnati players circled for the opening jump, Webber finally found Terry Nelson and slid within earshot.
“I’m gonna dunk on your butt all night long,” Chris said.
“You try it, and I’ll break your legs,” Nelson countered.
“That ain’t funny.”
” ‘Cause I got a future — and you don’t.”
Gee. You almost hated to see the game start. Summer vacation
Trash talk was simply a part of the game. Jalen Rose was a master of it. Juwan Howard was very good. Chris, well, Chris just enjoyed the banter — even against players who were better and more famous than he was.
That summer, for example, Chris found find himself in sun- drenched La Jolla, Calif. — a town so chic it doesn’t allow parking meters — as part of an elite group chosen to work out the Olympic basketball squad known as the Dream Team. The spotlight fell on the NBA stars, but there was plenty left for the collegians. And the 19-year-old Webber, the youngest player there, was getting plenty of ink. He signed autographs in open-air lobbies, he hung out by the gleaming swimming pool. One day he went golfing with Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler. One night he went to dinner with Scottie Pippen.
So he was feeling good. Big time. He had been nervous, until that first night, when Larry Bird, the Celtics’ legend, stepped into the elevator with Chris and several college players.
“Hey, fellas,” Bird said, pushing his floor’s button. “Y’all better get your sleep tonight, ’cause we’re gonna run your butts off tomorrow.”
Chris blinked. He couldn’t believe it.
“Listen, Larry,” he quipped, almost instinctively, “your back’s already hurt. Maybe you better relax tomorrow.”
“Really, Larry, you need your rest, man.
“Don’t hurt yourself.
“Leave the heavy stuff to us.”
So much for intimidation. Webber quickly realized that the rules with the Dream Team were closer to a summer night in St. Cecilia’s gym than a rigid practice in Crisler Arena. So the next day, Chris dunked on a startled Charles Barkley and fought for rebounds with Karl Malone and tried to muscle inside against Patrick Ewing.
“Hey, lemme know when Webber’s coming to the NBA,” Malone said after practice, “so I can retire.”
By the end of the week, Chris felt larger, older, puffed- up, even bold enough to trash talk a little with his idol, Magic Johnson.
“Hey, Magic,” he teased one day after practice. “The only reason you got the record for assists is ’cause you were throwing it to Kareem all those years.”
“Yeah?” Magic answered, flashing that world-famous smile. “Well, I got me five rings. Do you have five rings? Do you have any rings?”
Magic looked around. “Where’s Bobby Hurley at?” Hurley was quickly found.
“Hurley, show Chris how many championship rings you got. He needs to see them so maybe he can go out and win one this year.”
Webber laughed. But deep down that comment stung. Chris could trash talk all he wanted, but he still didn’t have a Final Four title. Hurley did, and he didn’t. Webber promised himself he would get one of those rings this year, his sophomore year.
This year would be different.
Of course, not everything that happens on a basketball court is as innocent as talk. Especially not when you come from the hard corners of the inner city, where Chris, Jalen and Juwan grew up. This was proven very succinctly during a summer league playoff game in downtown Chicago, 1992, at the Malcolm X Academy gymnasium.
Juwan Howard, who grew up in Chicago, shot warmups at one end of the court with his teammates.
Rob Pelinka, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, shot warmups with his teammates across the gym.
The place was hot, crowded, a typical boisterous summer basketball crowd, anxious to see a game that pitted two homegrown stars against each other. The fans cheered wildly when the players were introduced. Everyone had a good sweat going. It felt like a good, intense summer game coming on.
Only minutes into it, however, a foul was called, and during the free throw, Rob glanced over his shoulder and saw a group of fans racing onto the court. “What’s this?” he thought. “Are they playing around?”
Then he saw their frightened expressions and heard two quick popping sounds. “GUN!” someone yelled. And everyone ran. Juwan dove toward the bleachers and landed hard on the floor, wood-burning his knee so badly that he still has the scar today. Other players dashed for the exits but changed directions when the mass of people clogged the available doorways. Confusion. More popping sounds. Screaming. Crying. Pelinka was the worst kind of frightened, the out-of-his- element kind, and at first he jumped between the bleachers and lay flat, head and belly down, then, when more shots were fired, he raced toward the bathrooms and pushed though the door marked “ladies,” where several other people were also inside, hiding.
Rob found lockers in the back and climbed inside one and shut the door. He stayed there, listening to his own breath, for at least 10 minutes. He wondered about his parents, who had been in the stands. He wondered about Juwan.
Juwan, at the moment, was hiding in another bathroom, alongside an old woman and two children. The children were crying. He tried to calm them down. He stayed there until the noise died, then ventured out, found his bag and looked for his friends. People were still crying and pointing, walking gingerly, as if a footstep might start the whole thing over. The game was canceled. Everyone was sent home.
“What happened?” they all asked, but all anyone knew was that a man had started shooting.
Eventually, Rob found his way out to the court, and he saw Juwan. “You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, you OK?”
“This is for real, Rob.”
“When this bleep happens, it’s for real.”
Juwan shook his head. “Man!” he said, exhaling. “Man! We coulda died playing basketball! We coulda died playing the game we love. That’s bleeped-up!”
“I gotta find my folks,” Rob said.
He went out to the parking lot, where five black men, friends of the basketball program, offered to walk him to his car, just to be safe. He accepted, and, ringing him like a hula hoop, they moved together, black and white, until they reached his car and found Rob’s mother and father there, his mother in tears. She grabbed his wrist so hard her fingers met one another. And in her grief and fear, she refused to let go.
“Mom, please, that hurts,” Rob said.
Months later, when they looked back on it, Juwan and Rob would shake their heads, maybe even laugh at the way they dived for cover. But it helped bridge a gap between them. It made Rob, who drove back to the suburbs that day, understand a little of what Juwan had grown up with, and it made Juwan, who always thought rich white people behaved differently, understand that fear knows no color or economic status.
As summer school went, it was pretty educational.
No trash talk necessary.
WEDNESDAY: Jalen Rose gets a message from his long lost father.