Their mission, they will tell you, was to shock the world. Their weapons were speed, height, a basketball — and the heart of a champion.
Close your eyes, and you can be with them again: Glen Rice shooting from the outer limits, falling to the floor, as the basketball kisses through the net; Terry Mills, rising like thunder, slapping away an enemy shot into the hands of a fast- breaking teammate; Rumeal Robinson, at the free-throw line, licking his lips — overtime, three seconds left, down by a point — he dribbles, he shoots . . .
Is that really the Michigan Wolverines up there, champions of the world in college basketball?
It really is.
“JUST DID IT. NO. 1” read the hat atop Rice’s head, after the Wolverines edged Seton Hall in overtime Monday, 80-79, to give Michigan its first ever
— and most unlikely — national championship. “I always told my teammates I would help us get to one before I left,” said Rice, grinning.
Just did it.
But who would have thought it? This way? This team? Under an apple-cheeked coach named Steve Fisher — a man we called “Who?” just last month? Steve Fisher? Uh-huh. The ultimate substitute teacher. Six victories, no losses, one
national title. Resume? That’s a career.
“They may have to take me out on a stretcher,” he said late Monday night, his voice hoarse, his eyes staring at the now- empty court where the Michigan miracle had taken place. “Wow. The kids were something else, weren’t they?”
Something else, indeed. Remember that 21 days ago, these same young men had walked through Detroit’s Metro Airport as if headed to an execution. They were hounded by reporters and TV cameras. How did it feel, people wanted to know, to be abandoned by their coach, Bill Frieder, a day before the NCAA Tournament? How would it affect them in Atlanta? Several players tried to hide in the coffee shop. Robinson kept his Walkman headphones stuffed in his ears, the music high, the planet shut out. He never said a word.
But something was stirring, in Rumeal, in all of them. The soul of this team. The determination of youth. “Let’s show them,” they said, the way an angry child might say it through his tears, “let’s win it all.”
And moment by moment, they rose to do just that, above the whispers, above the dirt, above the controversy, and soon, above their opponents — in Atlanta, in Lexington, in Seattle — higher, higher, until they were flying, a maize and blue comet across a basketball sky.
Michigan 92, Xavier 87.
Michigan 91, South Alabama 82
Michigan 92, North Carolina 87
Michigan 102, Virginia 65
Michigan 83, Illinois 81
Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79.
“WE’RE ON A MISSION!” they screamed after each victory.
And how they did it! Wasn’t it perfect? Each of them had a turn in the spotlight. Rice shooting the stars out against South Alabama — 36 points — until ball, net and rim cried out “Enough! We give up!” And Mills, coming to life against North Carolina, soaring for rebounds and bank shots, handling the great J.R. Reid like just another pretender. And Higgins — goofy, wild, free-spirited Higgins — dropping in that rebound against Illinois with two seconds left, racing around the court with his floppy arms over his head. “I did it! I did it! We did it!”
And Robinson, whose life is a tribute to the human spirit, taking that final pass from Rice in Monday’s championship game, dribbling the length of the court, past one defender, two defenders, three, four, past anything that would stand in the way of destiny, drawing the foul and all that pressure and saying later that was just the way he wanted it. “Too many times you come upcourt, pass the ball and hide while someone else has the burden of winning the game. I didn’t want anyone else to have to bear that.”
And Fisher, his past a blur, his future a question mark, gathering them together during the final time-out, asking for their hands, joining together this brand new family with his favorite code words: “Pride. Poise. Teamwork.”
Is this the same group that didn’t even have a band or cheerleaders accompany them for their first round? Is this the same group that cynics laughed at, saying, “All talent, no heart. North Carolina will beat them again — as usual.”
Rice was actually sobbing in Robinson’s arms when the championship game ended, a dry heave of glory, exhaustion, joy. Higgins was bent over, pounding the hardwood, trying to hide the tears because men, they say, don’t cry, right? Loy Vaught was leaping in the pile along with Mark Hughes and Mike Griffin, and Fisher and the subs and the assistants — one happy romp. Shock the world.
They cut down the nets and each took home a piece, a frayed souvenir that they can look at one day and say, “No, I wasn’t dreaming. That really happened.”
And that is what we say this morning. It really happened, didn’t it? Six games to glory? Two victories in the last three seconds? An interim coach? A deadeye shooting forward? A quietly strong point guard? A roster full of shaved heads and unbridled enthusiasm?
Here’s to the spirit it takes to rise above everything, to set your sights on a hoop and a dream and to never give up, no matter what critics say, until the last second is off the clock and you are safe in the arms of a sobbing teammate, tears of joy, tears of joy. Is that really the Michigan Wolverines up there, national champions?
It really is.
Mission accomplished. CUTLINE: Glen Rice raises his scissors and championship ring box to the roof Monday night after cutting down the Kingdome net in celebration of Michigan’s 80-79 victory over Seton Hall. Glen Rice (left) and Rumeal Robinson celebrate their national title.