SEATTLE — I’ve been trying to call Rumeal Robinson for days. His agents have been trying, too. He reportedly flew from Argentina to Atlanta — he took part in the Pan Am Games — and nobody has heard from him since. You call his house, the phone rings and rings.
Lately, Rumeal has been in Louisiana, with a CBA team, the Shreveport Crawdads, trying to whip up the dust of what’s left of his basketball career. He was supposed to be a star, remember? The Hawks chose him in the first round of the 1990 NBA draft, ahead of Loy Vaught, Terry Mills and Cedric Ceballos. They gave Rumeal a big contract. He washed out. Now, even his agents can’t get him on the phone.
He wasn’t always so hard to find. In fact, on this very weekend, six years ago, Rumeal was right here, center stage, the Kingdome, standing at the free throw line, the loneliest man in the world, as he bounced the ball and eyed the basket with the national championship hanging in the balance.
“Rumeal was cocky, he knew he was going to make those free throws,” Mills recalls. Steve Fisher wasn’t so sure. He stood on the sideline, holding that cup of water which he never let go, his security blanket, as he waited for the end of a miracle.
“I knew if I fainted, the water would revive me,” Fisher says.
Will there ever be another college basketball finish like 1989? Can you come to Seattle and not think about that? Here, in this perpetually moist and green city, we witnessed a thunderclap of circumstances. Old coach leaves team. New coach takes over. Wins his first six games. Takes national championship.
“When did it all begin?” I ask Fisher. We have gotten together to talk about those three weeks of insanity.
“Well, I got the phone call about 7 a.m. It was Bo Schembechler. Come to his office. He gave me that scowl. He said, ‘Fisher, can you coach this team? Because Bill Frieder is not!’ “
So it began. Fisher was a Michigan man
Everyone remembers Schembechler’s press conference. He pounded on the podium and barked, “A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Frieder had flown to Arizona State, accepted the job, then flown back to Ann Arbor, planning to finish the season by taking the Wolverines to Atlanta for the first round.
Forget it, Schembechler said.
Suddenly, the team belonged to Fisher, who, most people didn’t realize, was going through a career crisis himself. After all, his mentor, Frieder, was headed for the desert.
“I could have gone with Bill,” Fisher says. “But just as he left, the Western Michigan job opened up. I had been there a few years, so I was interested. And then Illinois State, my alma mater, opened as well. I would have ended up at one of those two schools if, you know, what happened didn’t happen. . . . “
Here’s what happened. Six yellow bricks in the road.
And something you might not have known about each one: ROUND 1: Michigan 92, Xavier 87.
The day before the game, Fisher had allowed Frieder to secretly visit the team in the hotel. Schembechler would have blown his top, but “I think any man with a degree of compassion would have done the same,” Fisher says.
Frieder was in tears. He said how sorry he was that he couldn’t coach the team. One player remembered Frieder sweating and crying so hard, his white T-shirt was soaked.
“It was good for our guys,” Fisher recalls.
But it was no guarantee. With 10 minutes to go in the tournament opener, Michigan was still in a dogfight, and the win was not sealed without the help of a little-used sophomore guard named Demetrius Calip, who scored a career-high nine points. U-M barely survived its first test.
“I remember we had rented a band for that game, because we didn’t bring our own,” Fisher says. “So the Georgia State pep band was playing our songs. When I came out, the first thing I saw was someone waving a sign, “Rent a Band, Rent A Coach.”
You’ve got to admit, it’s clever. ROUND 2: Michigan 91, S. Alabama 82.
This marked the start of the Glen Rice show. He scored 36 points and missed only six shots. He would continue like that throughout the tournament.
“I was on a mission,” recalls Rice, now with the Miami Heat. “At one point, I told the team, we’re gonna shock the world.”
It was shocking enough that they passed Round 2 and were coming home to Ann Arbor still alive. Fisher returned to his house, only to find the neighbors had decorated the lawn in appreciation. ROUND 3: Michigan 92, N. Carolina 87.
By this point, Western Michigan and Illinois State were seriously interested in Fisher. He spoke with them during the week. But after knocking off Dean Smith’s Tar Heels — “You beat one of my best teams,” he told Fisher after the game — the new coach started to set his sights higher.
“That was a great North Carolina squad. When we won — and I may be crazy here — I felt I was going to get the job at Michigan.” ROUND 4: Michigan 102, Virginia 65.
The only blowout in the whole three weeks. Fisher had seen something during warm-ups, the way Virginia’s players kept looking over at his Cinderella team.
Mills saw it, too.
“They’re scared of us,” Mills announced in the pregame locker room. “You can see it in their eyes! They’re scared! Let’s get on them right from the start.”
Exactly what Fisher was thinking. And it worked. Blowout.
They were in the Final Four. ROUND 5: Michigan 83, Illinois 81.
By now, people were thinking seriously about Fisher as a head coach. The interest from the other schools continued to perk. Meanwhile, sophomore Sean Higgins — who was never shy around a microphone — told a newspaper he thought the players should have some say in who got to coach the team next year. He even made a few suggestions.
“Higgins, if you don’t like it here, you can pack your bags!” he screamed during a “pep” talk to the team. “Your papers will be on my desk tomorrow morning!”
Needless to say, Higgins scored the winning basket against Illinois, a soft
follow-up with two seconds left. And who was one of the first people to hug him when he ran off the floor?
Schembechler. ROUND 6: Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79.
It seemed that Michigan had the game won, but it went flat and allowed Seton Hall to tie it at the end of regulation. The Wolverines were down. Fisher saw it in the huddle. So instead of calling plays, he told them a story.
“There was this guy I knew who was in California. I hadn’t seen him in years. Before the tournament, he called me and said, ‘I had a vision. You’re going to win the national championship, and Mark Hughes will be the hero.’
“I said this and Hughes was smiling, figuring, all right, I’m gonna be it.”
Well, right team, wrong guy. It was Robinson, who took the ball late in the overtime and drove downcourt and was fouled with three seconds left. He went to the line and hit the first to tie, then the second to win.
What most people don’t know is that Robinson was trying to pass to an open teammate when he got fouled. The teammate?
“Mark Hughes,” Fisher says.
He smiles at the memory. And why not? He got the Michigan job, of course, along with a championship ring and a story for the ages.
You look around the Kingdome here, the great teams — UCLA, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma State — and it’s hard to predict what will happen. But whatever it is, it will not be like the last time. Maybe nothing ever will.