Hard to imagine it was over 20 years ago that Michigan’s Fab Five played Duke in the NCAA Finals, but we’re 21-years on and counting. I was reminded of the Fab Five charging into the basketball world like bald mayhem bringing news of change wearing long shorts, black socks, and attitude to spare. I was just 11-years-old at the time. A University of Iowa fan (read: Jess Settles, Chris Kingsbury, Andre Woolridge, Tom Davis); I didn’t catch on to the blue and gold bandwagon until Webber and Rose were on the way out. It was more about the cool than it was any Schembechlerian blood coursing through my veins. I had to have that maize Jalen Rose jersey because the little version of me attached value to material things. It couldn’t be Webber because he was the obvious superstar. It had to be Rose; the subversive 6’8” impossibly long point with the bald head, mumbling motor mouth, and pencil thin mustache that he wouldn’t actually grow for a few years – it’s just how I remember him. I read Mitch Albom’s Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, The American Dream with the enthusiasm of a teenage hoop dreaming disciple somehow merging my athletically-challenged basketball fantasies with the realities of the black kids Albom so meticulously framed in Fab Five.
Over the years, I haven’t dwelled on the Fab Five or their back-to-back finals appearances in ’92 and ’93. Then I was reading the Sports Illustrated college hoops preview issue with a little section dedicated to John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and the seven freshmen in line for big minutes this season. These days, it’s standard operating procedure to reference the Fab Five any time you’re talking or writing about a strong freshmen class, but this group of Wildcats, while they may or may not be better, are deeper, and may end up more accomplished; they won’t make a mark anywhere remotely similar to that Michigan group. Even Aaron Harrison, one of the freshman starters on this Kentucky team acknowledged as much: “It’s amazing not just what they did on the court but how they were a part of pop culture.” Granted, Harrison wasn’t alive when the Fab Five were reshaping basketball in America, but he’s seen the Fab Five 30 for 30 on ESPN.
It was in this SI piece where I came across a reference to the NCAA Vault; a strange archival warehouse free to anyone with a computer and halfway decent internet connection that includes over 300 games and over 4,000 highlights from the NCAA Tournament dating back to 1976. How do I know these exact numbers? Because the site also includes a handy Media Guide with quick-access URLs for every game. The user interface is simple to use as it allows visitors to apply a variety of different filters to find old games and revisit old memories. There are no registrations, no usernames, no passwords, and, best of all, it’s free. As I stumbled into this vast record of nostalgia, I had to cast a shifty glare in the direction of the NBA where a cavernous library of game footage sits in some giant safety deposit box, gathering dust, waiting for the NBA to figure out how to best monetize the content.
Now’s a good time to mention that my former love affair with college basketball has grown cold with the knowledge of the exploitation that takes place at the collegiate ranks (the one-and-done trend destroys continuity as well). That Jalen Rose jersey I mentioned earlier? It was Rose’s number five, inspired by Rose, in existence only because of Rose, but the young guard from Southwest Detroit didn’t benefit from its sale. I used to spend hours in front of the TV, playing Coach K on Sega Genesis; using old school teams with player numbers instead of names – because the NCAA and EA Sports used a little loophole to make gaggles of money without having to give any to these kids for profiting on their likeness. There were eight classic teams and I was so overzealous about this squad that I wrote EA Sports inquiring as to why Michigan’s Fab Five teams weren’t included among the other classic rosters. They even responded and I walked away satisfied; not at having made a change in the world of video games, because of course they didn’t magically add the Fab Five, but because I had been heard. I also have this foggy memory of playing Coach K and using Ed O’Bannon’s UCLA team; ironic given the recent class action lawsuit against the NCAA led by O’Bannon.
So my relationship with college basketball is complex. There are these memories that date back over twenty years, as real as the games that Chris Webber played in at Michigan and the banners that once hung in the rafters there, but which have been vaporized from the record books like simple signs of dissent in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In other ways my memories are stained with the knowledge of a ruling class of college athletics, made up of TV execs, Athletic Directors, and university presidents, preaching the gospel of an unbelievable and outdated amateurism while lining their bulging pockets with money spent by parents on jerseys and video games and other useless collegiate memorabilia.
I’m human though with all my breakable bones and shitty ideas and so I gave into the muse of nostalgia and indulged the NCAA Vault. With my leftover chicken fried rice and a beer, I sat down with a notebook, clicked the play button and watched the 1992 NCAA Final.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I knew the outcome, knew that Michigan lost 71-51, that the dreaded (Blue) Devils of Duke walked away with their second title in a row. I know I’d be disappointed and all along found myself looking for these what-if moments. What if Webber didn’t get in foul trouble (two of his first three fouls were tick-tack) and play tentative defense as a result? What if Michigan could hit a shot outside of the lane? What if Billy Packer didn’t say dumb shit like, “Kamikaze pressure?” None of it mattered though. No basketball mind tricks could change the truth: It was a terrible basketball game that happened to be close for about 33-and-a-half minutes. Even when Michigan kept it tight and took a lead into the second half, Duke looked like the better team. Michigan made stupid mistakes, dumb passes, had child-like miscommunications while Duke just missed shots and gave up offensive rebounds. Combined, they committed 34 turnovers (20 for Michigan, 14 for Duke) and shot 41% from the field with the Wolverines going 1-11 from three. Not surprisingly, a 45-second shot clock didn’t enhance the watchability of the second half. As Duke established a lead and their scrawny senior point guard went to the bench with foul trouble, their offense shifted into clock-wasting mode and spent at least 35-seconds/possession playing hot potato with the ball 40-feet from the hoop – and this started with something like eight minutes to go in the game.
The very little redemption I could pick out of this shit-stack of unfulfilling basketball was the obviousness of Webber’s ability. Where Laettner, Hurley, and even Grant Hill appeared to be merely strong college players with questionable pro futures ahead, Webber’s fluid athleticism was on full display and punctuated by his gracefully pushed fast break through defenders and behind-the-back pass to a cutting teammate for the score. Packer, for all his Laettner-jocking, compared one of Webber’s post moves to James Worthy and it made perfect sense: the freshman version of Webber had the quickness and explosiveness of an NBA small forward. Rose, Jimmy King, and Grant Hill had flashes of the pro-style ability, even those moments were fleeting and overshadowed by poor decision making and execution.
There’s so much and so little to take away from this experience. I don’t know if I’ll watch another game on the Vault, but I could see it being useful for re-watching old classics (don’t be surprised if you walk away underwhelmed and unfulfilled) or exploring the early developments of players like Patrick Ewing, MJ, Olajuwon, etc, or maybe just passing the time on a rainy day in the off-season. The NCAA’s delivered its fair share of dramatic sporting experiences and memories over the years and I’m thankful for that, but it’s difficult to watch these events unfold, even in retrospect, with the knowledge that so much has come from lies, greed, and hypocrisy.