In “Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream,” Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom chronicles the triumphs and disappointments of the University of Michigan freshmen who shocked the college basketball world with their talent and their braggadocio. “Fab Five” is published by Warner Books, 359 pages, $21.95
The last big recruit Bill Frieder signed before bolting to the Arizona desert was a Detroit kid named Michael Talley. At the time, Talley was quite a prize.
Now, two years later, he was about to disappear.
“Mike T,” as they called him, had droopy eyes, a shaved head and a frequent pout. He grew up 40 miles and a galaxy away from Ann Arbor, on the northwest side of Detroit, where a stray bullet is as likely a cause of death as a car accident. His father left when he was young, his mother raised him. Mike avoided trouble mostly by hanging around a gym.
When he reached junior high, coaches noticed his speed, shooting and dribbling skill. After heavy recruitment, Talley chose Cooley High, one of the best basketball schools in the city. A starter from his freshman year, he led Cooley to three state championships. In his senior season, he was voted Mr. Basketball. When Frieder snagged him, stardom was predicted. Michael Talley would be the next great Wolverine.
Then Frieder left.
Then came the Fab Five. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
The Greatest Class Ever Recruited.
Now, Talley, a junior, was on the bubble. He had started this season until injuring his hand against Duke. He missed the next game. Then, during the Red Lobster Classic, he came off the bench. He was upset. He immediately asked to meet with coach Steve Fisher.
“How come I’m not starting?” Talley said. “I was injured. You shouldn’t lose your starting job to injury.”
“You won’t,” Fisher told him. “You’ll get a chance to start again.”
Talley did, but his time was gradually decreasing. The freshmen guards, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose, saw more and more action. Talley was nervous, out of sync, he would be ineffective, get yanked, fret about getting yanked, be ineffective and get yanked again.
“I’m thinking about starting Jimmy King,” Fisher finally told his staff before the Northwestern game. The coaches nodded.
On a cold Wednesday night, before another sellout crowd at Crisler Arena, Fisher benched Michael Talley for King, giving him four of the fabulous freshmen in the lineup.
And Talley went berserk.
“Bleep this!” he told himself. “I can’t even start now against bleepin’ Northwestern? Hell with this place.”
He fumed on the bench. He bit his lip. He went straight home after the game and skipped the next practice. Didn’t call. Offered no explanation. This infuriated Fisher. A meeting was scheduled. Talley and his mother came to Fisher’s office.
“Why weren’t you at practice, Mike?” Fisher asked.
“It didn’t feel right after Northwestern,” Talley said.
“Not starting is no excuse for missing practice.”
“You told me I wouldn’t lose my starting position.”
“I didn’t say that, Mike.”
“Yes, you did! Yes, you did!”
Talley began to shake. In his mind, that’s exactly what Fisher said. In Fisher’s mind, he had said Talley wouldn’t lose his position to injury. The tension was fierce. Talley would later say of that meeting, “There was no loyalty or trust between us anymore. I felt that was the end of it. . . . It was like a sledgehammer across my head — boom! We had meetings after meetings and still Coach could not come out and say, ‘I wanna start the Fab Five.’ Just say it. ‘I wanna start the Fab Five.’ We all knew that’s what he wanted to do.”
Talley sat there, pouting. He thought about transferring, running away, he thought about how unfair it was to bring in five freshmen and displace everyone else. Why couldn’t they wait, as he had waited? Why couldn’t they wait?
“Mike, I’m not taking you to Notre Dame Sunday,” Fisher finally said.
“You’re staying home.”
Talley stared at him, without a word, and tried to imagine a way to fly out of the room.
‘Who says I’m afraid?’
Sunday, Feb. 9, 1992, was an historic day in the sports world. In Albertville, France, the XVI Winter Olympics were under way. In Orlando, Fla., Magic Johnson was returning to the spotlight in the NBA All-Star Game.
And in South Bend, Ind., before a national TV audience, the Fabulous Freshmen of Michigan were causing people to poke each other, sit up in their chairs and rub their eyes.
All five were coming out to start a basketball game.
No one knew how long it had been since a major-college program tried this. Five freshman starters? Fisher was doing it. Taking the plunge, starting five — just days after he had finally consented to four. He was inspired by, of all things, a phone call to his father.
“How’s that team look?” Howard Fisher had asked his son before the Notre Dame game.
“I don’t know, dad. We’re a little flat.”
“Maybe you ought to start Ray Jackson.”
“He’s not ready yet.”
“I think he is. I like the way that kid plays.”
“I’m already starting four freshmen.”
“So? Don’t be afraid to start five.”
“I’m not afraid. Who says I’m afraid?”
On the bus ride to the arena, Fisher watched his players, their headphones in their ears, their eyes gazing out the windows. They had won five and lost four since the Big Ten opener. Maybe his father was right. Maybe this was just the move for some new inspiration.
At the arena, Fisher pulled junior James Voskuil aside.
“James,” he said, “I’m starting Ray today. I just made the decision. Stay focused. You’ll get your minutes off the bench.”
Voskuil was stunned. He had heard his fellow upperclassmen predicting doom, saying their days were numbered; he had even seen what happened just a few days earlier with Talley. But as long as he was starting he hadn’t believed it. He thought he was different. Now, suddenly, he was out, too. He felt burned and embarrassed.
During the pregame speech, Fisher made no special announcement; he simply went through each starter’s assignment. This was how he broke the news:
“Juwan, you’re starting on No. 20, LaPhonso Ellis. He’s good, we all know it . . .
“Jimmy, you’re on Elmer Bennett, No. 12. He’s fast, so watch for that
. . .
“Ray, you start on Daimon Sweet . . . “
When Voskuil heard the words “Ray, you start on Daimon Sweet,” he felt his belly churn. He couldn’t look at anyone. He kept his eyes locked on the blackboard. Later he would say, “If I could have transferred right then, I would have. I felt humiliated.”
The Fab Five, on the other hand, felt like a singing group that had just gotten its first record contract. They gathered around Ray, locked arms in a tight huddle, like children planning a secret meeting in the tree house.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Chris said, his head half-buried in Jalen’s armpit.
“Our time,” answered Jalen, bobbing up and down,
“We’re all together now,” Jimmy said.
“Show the world, baby,” Juwan said.
“I’m with it,” Ray said.
“LET’S DO IT!”
And from the opening tap, they did. Their feet were jumping, their sneakers squeaking sharply, their eyes darting from corner to corner, the ball moving in crisp, clean passes. Ray took a feed from Juwan on the first possession and made a blind dish to Chris coming baseline for a slam. Chris was fouled, and the freshmen slapped hands.
A few minutes later, Ray stole the ball and started a fast break. He streaked down the left side, looked, then lofted the ball toward the hoop. Webber soared, caught it one-handed and — SHUUMMMMP! — slammed it home. The crowd went crazy — and this was Notre Dame — and Chris grabbed Ray’s head on the way upcourt.
“YEAH, BABY!” Chris yelled.
“UH-HUHHHHH!” Ray answered.
Like children running down a steep hill, the five of them were thrilled with their sudden speed, and they used it not only for spectacular fast breaks but for rebounds and defense, sliding to help out, denying shots, poking passes. The unbridled enthusiasm that often looked mismatched with some of their more patient upperclassmen looked harmonious now, like complementary colors, all in the same mood, all of the same mind. They made sense together.
Even Fisher half-grinned. They were in sync, in rhythm, a jazz quintet. If you turned down the volume on your TV set, you could still hear them.
If you had your volume up, however, as most of America did, you heard something else: You heard Al McGuire, the former coach turned star NBC analyst, chiding the freshmen for their flamboyant behavior.
“You can tell they’re freshmen, they go too much with the French pastry, too much with the hotdogging . . .
“Every play with them gets to be like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, every play has to be a large explosion . . .
“It’s too early for jivin’, men, too early for jivin’ ! . . .
“There goes another Harlem Globetrotter pass from Webber. No reason for that! It’s French pastry! . . .
“Remember, Michigan fans, these are just kids. They’ll give you thrill but they’re also gonna give you Elvis Presley, Heartbreak Hotel . . .”
There was no Heartbreak Hotel on this day. Michigan won, 74-65. And the Fab Five scored every point. Every point? By freshmen? Chris had 17, Juwan had 14, Jimmy had 19, Jalen had 20. Ray had two baskets, three rebounds and several steals in his starting debut.
Still, many Americans agreed with McGuire’s opinions (especially when he kept repeating them). Why so much showboating? Why all that fist-waving and mouthing off? And why did it always have to be an alley-oop or a reverse slam? Bobby Knight’s teams wouldn’t do that!
French pastry. Hot dogs. The rap would shadow them forever. America loves youth, but hates impunity. And thanks to their behavior — and broadcasters like McGuire — the Fab Five were now synonymous with both.
TUESDAY: The world discovers the Fab Five — and trash talk.