U-M DATES WITH DUKE ARE TOP-NOTCH AFFAIRS

Chris Webber sat across the table, a plate of spaghetti in front of him. He wore a green sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, and he looked even younger than his age. He spoke about turning pro. This was last February, when he was still a student, still part of the Fab Five.

“I can’t imagine next year, when we play Duke, and me not being there,” he said. “I already know the date, Dec. 11. I can’t see myself with some NBA team, watching on TV. I’ve got to be there.”

Things change. Saturday is Dec. 11. And Chris Webber will not be there. His Golden State Warriors have a game that night in Oakland, Calif., against Utah. Webber will watch U-M from 2,000 miles away, on a big screen TV in his new house.

And then he will go to work.

“It’s going to be strange,” he said last week. “I know I’m going to start jumping out of my seat, yelling ‘Take him’ or something.”

He is smitten. It was against Duke that he had his first great moment as a college player — as well as his first big college disappointment. Remember?
. . .

DEC. 14, 1991 — Nobody expected Michigan to win, or even to provide much competition. Many Wolverines fans were more excited about Desmond Howard and the Heisman Trophy ceremony, scheduled for later in the day.

But those who came to Crisler got one of the greatest coming-out parties ever played. The freshmen-led Michigan players fell behind Duke by 17 points in the first half, then came back as if the last lights of their lives depended on it. Webber slammed on Christian Laettner, and scoffed, “I just dunked on you on national television. How’d it feel?”

Jalen Rose threw in driving leaners. Jimmy King hit a three- pointer. Juwan Howard fought for rebounds. You could feel the game sliding toward Michigan. Webber hit a bomb with under five minutes left, and Billy Packer, the CBS announcer, screamed, “That’s the stuff legends are made of!” The Wolverines had the lead. The whole country seemed to be pulling for the upset . . .

It didn’t happen. Webber made a young mistake in the final minute — he fouled Bobby Hurley as Hurley took a three- pointer. Three free throws. Overtime. Duke pulled away.

“We’ll be back,” Michigan fans seemed to say . . .

Rob Pelinka studies every night these days. He is in Michigan law school, up to his wavy black hair in books. One night, the other law students begged him to play intramural basketball. He said OK. He ran up and down the court, and even though he was, by his standards, out of shape, it was no contest.

Pelinka, former Wolverine, doesn’t have time for basketball now. He stays up until 1 a.m., studying. He writes outlines. Memorizes cases. He has not been back to Crisler Arena since he graduated.

But he’ll be there Saturday.

“I can’t miss the Duke game,” he said. “It was always so important. We knew we were measuring ourselves against the cream of the crop.

“Man, I hated losing to them . . .”

APRIL 6, 1992 — The national championship. The whole world was watching. Laettner played the worst first half of his life, and the Fab Five seemed to grow in confidence. At one point, Webber grabbed a rebound, raced upcourt and bounced a behind-the-back pass to Pelinka, who spun 180 degrees and laid it off the glass. The arena went crazy. The Wolverines took a one-point lead into halftime, and they jumped on each other, screaming encouragement . . .

They collapsed in the second half, Duke pulled away, won the title and cut down the nets.

“We got there once,” Michigan fans seemed to say, “We’ll be back . . .”

Juwan Howard has a strained right Achilles tendon. Steve Fisher has a thin bench. Jalen Rose has a thin mustache. They are older now, but they still burn — the same way Webber and Pelinka and the others still burn.

When the jump ball is tossed Saturday, they will all feel they can win. But they felt that last time . . .

DEC. 5, 1992 — Students slept outside Cameron Stadium for a week to get tickets. They were screaming blood when Michigan, ranked No. 1, took the floor.
“FIVE SOPHOMORES . . . NO TITLE!”
“FIVE SOPHOMORES . . . NO TITLE!”

The evening got away quickly. Duke snuck in front of U-M players for rebounds, drew offensive fouls, made fewer mistakes. Duke won easily; Michigan walked off the floor, embarrassed. On the plane home the next day, someone offered Rose a newspaper with the story. He read it for a minute, gave it back and pulled a blanket over his head.

“We’ll be back,” fans seemed to say. “Won’t we?”

There are games you look forward to, games you enjoy. And there are games that summon you, like an oracle, to the edge of the cave.

There is tip-off Saturday at 1 p.m., and from places all over the country, from Webber to Pelinka to Rose, there is something that ties them together and won’t let them rest until they come out on top. A headline writer had a good phrase for it after one of the losses last year.

He called it, “Tangled Up in Blue.”

Mitch Albom will sign “Fab Five” and “Live Albom III” tonight at 5:30 at B. Dalton, Livonia Mall, and 7:30 at B. Dalton, Southland Mall. Saturday: 11 a.m., Waldenbooks, 2900 State St., Ann Arbor; 4 p.m., M-Den, Briarwood Mall; 6 p.m., Borders Book Shop, Novi.

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