- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2007

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Fab Five’s tangible accomplishments are rolled up, wrapped in plastic and tucked away in the basement of the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

A blue banner with “1993 NCAA Finalist” in maize lettering was unfurled earlier this week for an Associated Press reporter and photographer for the first time since it was taken down from Crisler Arena’s rafters in 2002.

Chris Webber knows that banner and one from 1992 are out of sight because of the school’s self-imposed sanctions, but insists the Fab Five never will leave the public consciousness.

“You can’t think of Michigan without thinking of us,” Webber said.

Michigan’s Fab Five went to their first of two straight NCAA championship games 15 years ago, when the freshmen’s style and swagger transcended the basketball court.

Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson set trends with fashion and turned heads and dropped jaws with a brash style of play not seen before. They captivated younger generations of fans and disturbed some older ones by strutting, shouting and slamming like they were on a playground, not playing before thousands in arenas and millions on TV.

“We were so much either loved or hated and judged by the way we looked,” Rose said. “Back then, it was ‘Oh, look at these hoodlums, these thugs, these gangsters,’ because we had big shorts, because we had black shorts and black socks. But then once Michael Jordan and the Bulls started wearing them, once mainstream America started to wear them and corporate America embraced it, then I guess it became cool.”

Instead of using the Fab Five’s legacy to boost its now-lackluster basketball program, Michigan awkwardly avoids the tarnished era that led to what the school president called a “day of great shame,” on Nov. 2, 2002, when self-imposed sanctions were announced.

The NCAA added more program-crippling punishments later, including forcing the school to disassociate from Webber and three non-Fab Five players for 10 years, after a federal investigation revealed that now-deceased booster Ed Martin gave them more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes.

Athletic director Bill Martin said four of the Fab Five players not involved are welcome back, but that doesn’t appease Jackson.

“If they don’t accept Chris, they don’t accept any of us because without Chris, there is no Fab Five,” Jackson said. “The fact that we can’t even be embraced by our own university puts a black eye on everything for me.”

And it hasn’t been good for the current basketball program at a school and in a community that makes football the first, second and third priorities. Michigan hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, and the tournament drought will be extended if it doesn’t close the season strong.

“We can’t bring back all of our glorious past and wonderful days of Michigan basketball that so many people identify with,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “Those unfortunate circumstances haven’t helped us.”

Freshman forward DeShawn Sims agreed.

“It hurts the basketball program that a guy like Chris Webber can’t come back because we look up to him,” Sims said.

These days, Webber is only an hour away from campus. The five-time NBA All-Star signed with the Detroit Pistons last month, and the center has rejuvenated his career by complementing a contending team with his shooting, savvy and passing.

Howard is a key player for the Houston Rockets, averaging nearly 10 points a game. Rose is a seldom-used reserve for the Phoenix Suns after being a double-digit scorer for other NBA teams the previous eight years.

While Webber, Howard and Rose will earn more than $300 million during their NBA careers, so far a championship has eluded them just as it did in college.

King, who had a brief stay in the NBA a decade ago, is a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch in an office two miles from Crisler Arena. The player known for his spectacular dunks at Michigan stays lower to the ground in the South Oakland Men’s Winter League.

Jackson runs a moving company and Rise Up Inc., a not-for-profit organization that assists children socially, educationally and on the basketball court.

“It took me a long time to get over the fact that I was the only one that didn’t make it to the NBA from the Fab Five,” he said in a telephone interview from Austin, Texas. “But I’m over it because I’m back home and I’m happy with what I’m doing with my life.”

Life was good in the bright lights for the Fab Five at Michigan, but the behind-the-scenes highlight for them happened when the two Detroiters (Webber and Rose), Chicagoan (Howard) and Texans (King and Jackson) were on campus together for the first time in the fall of 1991.

On the court outside of South Quad, they played against their fellow dorm residents and anybody else that wanted to take them on.

“That was a memory I’ll always cherish,” said Howard, who recruited the other four players after committing to the school. “That was the start of something special.”

In terms of an entertaining brand of basketball, the Fab Five rival the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.

Alley-oop dunks were as common as layups and fastbreaks were frequent, especially after causing turnovers by double-teaming post players. They smiled, laughed and talked trash to the delight of coast-to-coast fans who spiked the school’s merchandising revenue and to the disgust of purists.

The Wolverines won 25 games during the 1991-92 season and became the first all-freshmen lineup to play in a national championship game. They lost a lopsided game to Duke while Amaker was a Duke assistant.

“They were phenomenal in the first half, but our experience with Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner won out,” Amaker said.

The next season, Michigan won 31 games and advanced to play North Carolina in a title game that is memorable because Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have in the final seconds that helped the Tar Heels win by six.

Steve Fisher was fired four years later for allowing Martin to get close to the program, but the former coach insists he only has good memories from the Fab Five era.

“They started an expectation level of young kids saying, ‘We don’t have to wait until we’re juniors to play,’” said Fisher, who now is San Diego State’s coach. “They were a bit of a cult following nationally.”

Now, the Fab Five’s banners are behind a locked door in a narrow cage along with other priceless artifacts such as Civil War diaries leaving a void in Crisler Arena.

Howard said it depressed and disappointed him when he looked up in the rafters when he was back in town for a football game.

“I wandered inside the arena and to not see the banners up there, to see our records erased from the book, that’s painful,” he said. “Hopefully, some time in the future, they can put it back up there. I’d like to go back there someday and be able to hang my head up high, see those banners and say, ‘Hey, I was a part of that.’”

Rose said the removal of the banners won’t diminish the Fab Five’s legacy and might even enhance it.

“The one thing about being famous is people forget about you. One thing about infamy, people have to remember you,” Rose said. “And because of that, at the end of the day, what we brought to the game can never be taken away. So we’ll never be forgotten.”

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