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Getting to know the Fab Five

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The Fab Five - From left to right, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard.

A lot of this story, you already know:

Five super-talented freshmen come to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines become the first team in NCAA history to start all five freshmen. They get to the final game of March Madness before losing to defending national champion Duke. The next year, they make it to the finals again, but lose to North Carolina when their best player, Chris Webber, calls a time-out they don’t have. 

Along the way they make baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and import rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playground to the mainstream of college basketball.

It’s been that way ever since.

They stirred up a lot of controversy, but at the time the two most sympathetic figures were Steve Fisher, a genuinely nice guy who seemed to be a hapless victim of his own recruiting success, and Chris Webber, the most polished of the bunch, thanks partly to his private school background. 

To many fans, the rest of the Fab Five were just a bunch of clueless, classless clowns who didn’t belong on a college campus. 

The Fab Five surely had its vices, but selfishness wasn’t one of them.

In the history of college basketball, few starting fives have worked better together than the Fab Five did, mainly because they truly didn’t care who scored.

When they left for the pros, I started writing stories about them, and discovered they’d known all along what they were doing, and did most of it simply to gain a competitive advantage.

That doesn’t make all of it right, but it dispelled the popular notion they were out-of-control kids from the ‘hood just seeking attention.

They weren’t that needy, and they definitely weren’t stupid. 

I found the ones I spoke to – Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Jimmy King -- to be unfailingly polite, respectful and helpful – something their NBA coaches and teammates and even the beat reporters told me they would be. 

Rose finished his degree by writing papers in the backs of planes, and three of the Fab Five were once among the NBA’s top five charitable givers.   

It also turned out Steve Fisher really could coach, and he wasn’t a victim, either.

I learned that on a cold Sunday morning in 1996 – a year after the last of the Fab Five had left -- when my editor called me to find a new players’ Ford Explorer that had rolled over on M-14, near Plymouth. 

After I tracked down the truck, a car dealer told me it cost about $35,000.  The secretary of state said his grandmother bought it, and the records showed the car cost twice as much as her home.

Within 24 hours, we found several other Michigan players were driving cars they probably couldn’t afford, either.  You didn’t have to be a genius to see something was fishy.

The investigation that started that day resulted in two coaches getting fired, two banners being brought down, and the entire program on probation. 

But I had to wonder: If we reporters could figure all this out in about 24 hours, why couldn’t Steve Fisher connect the dots over several years?

They say he wasn’t part of the payola plan, and that’s probably true.  But you’d have to be blind not to see its effects in 1996. 

When Fisher was fired, he said they’d built an elite program and “done it the right way.”

That’s simply not true.

To this day, Fisher has never accepted any responsibility for what happened on his watch, and Chris Webber has never apologized for taking over a quarter million from a booster.

Fisher now coaches San Diego State, while those who followed at Michigan paid for their mistakes.

Twenty years ago, I thought the leaders of the Fab Five were Steve Fisher and Chris Webber.

But it turns out the real leaders were the other four, who have impressed me as thoughtful, successful and honest men, committed to their communities and their families.

I’ve come to have great respect for them – and very little for their so-called leaders. 

What a difference twenty years makes.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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