Wolverines embrace bold legacy of Fab Five


Glenn Robinson III is a freshman at Michigan. One of his classes is a humanities course titled “The Cultures of Basketball.” Earlier this year, a certain team was covered in the curriculum, one whose style and attitude altered the game forever.

“We learned,” Robinson said, “how they changed the game.”

Robinson is a starting forward for the Wolverines, who will play today in their first Final Four in 20 years.

Their first since a hip-hop generation came alive on the court through the Fab Five.

The explanation is on Page 3 of the Michigan postseason media guide. It says that because of NCAA sanctions, the university vacated records for five seasons during the 1990s, including Final Four trips in 1992 and ’93.

Banners were removed from Crisler Arena as university officials did their best to bury the Fab Five in a grave of shame stemming from a booster’s cash payments to star Chris Webber and others.

But here’s the thing: You can’t erase memories, the sight of five freshmen starting, the baggy shorts and black socks and bald heads and trash talk.

You might expunge from record books and rafters those items and numbers that comprised an era, but you can’t vanish from minds those who defined it. You can’t completely erase a group that captivated the nation.

There was nothing like them before or since.

“The Fab Five was a tremendous story, five tremendous players that did something special,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We don’t talk about it enough. Let’s embrace that team for what it did — back-to-back Final Fours with young guys that really had to sacrifice and coaches that probably had to sacrifice during that time. They were very successful.

“But I never looked at them as being a shadow to us or a bar to reach or whatever. The Fab Five was a great, great era. It’s about the complete Michigan tradition. We realize the expectations. It’s not enough to get to the NCAA Tournament. You have to win and advance.”

These current Wolverines have, set to play Syracuse in a second national semifinal today at the Georgia Dome. Michigan basketball has returned to a place among the game’s elite under a coach who is as unassuming as he is sharp.

It sounds crazy: Michigan of today is even less experienced than the Fab Five of ’93 and its sophomore starters who had played together for two seasons. Beilein starts three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior.

But much like in Webber two decades ago, Michigan has the nation’s best player in guard Trey Burke, one of those not-recruited-all-that-hard-out-of-high-school kids who has proved far better than most imagined.

“It only put a chip on my shoulder and made me work harder,” Burke said. “I obviously knew coming out of high school that I needed to get a lot better. I was thrown into the fire quickly and had to grow up fast.”

The shorts are still long and the socks are still black. It is not a Michigan team that will, like those famous fellows in the early 1990s, transcend the sport, but one that could accomplish one goal that eluded the Fab Five.

Win the whole darn thing.

It has the offense to do so, perhaps not as improvisational as the Fab Five at that end but one that allows freedom all the same. Michigan turns the ball over only 9.4 times on average compared with 17.7 for the 1993 team and would ball-screen the you-know-what out of Webber and his mates.

Whether all of that is enough to beat Syracuse and then the winner of Louisville-Wichita State in Monday night’s championship game is anyone’s guess, but the idea that this Michigan could prove better than that Michigan isn’t all that crazy.

“Expectations are part of the game that sort of creep up on you,” Beilein said. “It’s all just part of our program, a standard much like one that was there with the Fab Five. It just continues on.”

Jimmy King was a member of the Fab Five who was one day a guest speaker in “The Cultures of Basketball” class.

This was part of his message reportedly told to students: “We had a saying (before games),” King said, “and if you can understand this saying you will understand where we came from. And it’s not to be funny. But we used to say, ‘Let your nuts hang.’ And the reason why is, you can’t be timid and scared of facing and fighting anybody or anything. ... We were like, ‘That’s our mentality. That’s how we goin’ out.’ ”

Out, but never forgotten.

Twenty years later, the maize-and-blue is back.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.