I am a few years older than Brian Cook, so I remember the Fab Five very well. I remember my first “holy shit!” moment for the Fabs: Webber’s 360 dunk in Columbus, a game in which Michigan played extremely well for a half and then got beaten up in the second stanza. I went to the team’s first two NCAA Tournament games at the Omni against Temple and East Tennessee State. (Ah, the good old days when Arizona blowing a first round game was a veritable rite of spring. Mister Jennings had his way with them.) The second round game was incidentally the first time that a rival fan told me to “Go Blow!” So creative. I remember the overtime of the regional final against Ohio State, which was Michigan’s best period of basketball between the 1989 run to the national title and the 1993 game against Kentucky. I remember not noticing that the team had unveiled black socks for the opener their sophomore season against Rice at the Houston Summit, but instead being impressed by Juwan Howard’s passing from the high post. I remember Alan Henderson blocking Webber’s potential game-winning shot in 1993 at Crisler in a game that effectively decided the Big Ten title and then remembering that play every time Henderson festered on the bench for the Hawks while Webber was putting up 24-12-7 games routinely for the Kings. I remember Michigan almost blowing their sophomore season against UCLA in Tuscon before taking care of George Washington in the game in which the establishment finally turned on them. (Wait, Jimmy King just dunked the ball and he’s in the face of an opponent? The horror!)
Finally, I remember the ‘93 Final Four very, very well. I remember reading Curry Kirkpatrick’s story in USA Today on the way back from Spring Break, the story about how Michigan didn’t stand a chance against Kentucky. I remember the Fabs playing their best game in college, showing once and for all that a team could win without relying on threes. I remember Webber abusing Gimel Martinez after Jamal Mashburn fouled out of the game. I remember the serious looks that the Fabs had for the final, the shooting performance from Donald Williams that won the Heels the game, the ridiculous performance that Webber put forward that was obscured after the timeout, and the ending. I had received my rejection letters from Dartmouth and Princeton that day and had already made up my mind that Michigan was ahead of the University of Chicago in the pecking order, so when Webber screwed up and my brother taunted me, I threw a shoe (black, naturally) at him and proclaimed “I’ll see you in Charlotte next year!” before storming off to my room.
There’s a point to the repetition of “I remember.” The Fab Five are indelibly etched in my memory and, given the chatter about the 30 for 30 entry about the team, I’m not alone in this respect. With college basketball teams trending towards the unmemorable as the cult of the coach has fully taken over, there aren’t teams that invade the public consciousness anymore and certainly not like this particular team did. They had charisma, they fit together as a unit (a fact that the critics who dismissed them as playing streetball never quite grasped), and they inspired strong feelings on both sides of the love/hate divide. Hell, Duke won the national title last year and I couldn’t even work myself up into a feeling of anger. It was like the end of Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader becomes a sympathetic character. When the villain is no longer vile, it’s time to end the series … or come up with an embarrassing prequel involving a platypus with a bad Jamaican accent.
In watching the documentary, I was struck by how much I was reminded of watching highlights of the Clockwork Orange Dutch sides of the 70s. Think about the parallels. The Fab Five and the Dutch both lost consecutive finals, but are remembered far more than the teams that vanquished them. (That said, Jalen Rose was wrong about one thing: I can name the starting five for the Carolina team that vanquished them: Phelps, Williams, Reese, Lynch, Montross. What’s my prize for wishing that they all die in a fiery blimp accident for all these years? Also, there are at least two major parallels between ‘78 Argentina and ‘93 UNC: both teams wore light blue and were coached by liberals. However, Cesar Luis Menotti is an avowed lover of playing attractive football, so he would have little time for the coach who almost ruined basketball with the Four Corners. I digress.) Both teams are noted for their style of play and cultural impact. When I watch highlights of the two teams, I feel intensely bittersweet feelings: joy for my teams at their apex, pain for the ultimate failure to win the big one.
Sports are full of teams that captured the imagination, but not silverware. Soccer is especially replete with such examples because the difference between teams that play well and teams that play negatively can have such a big impact on the viewing experience. Thus, there is a special place for ‘74 Holland, ‘54 Hungary, ‘82 Brazil, and ‘86 Denmark. In college football, ‘83 Nebraska comes to mind because of Tom Osborne’s decision to go for two in the Orange Bowl. In the NFL, the Bills teams of the 90s are a great example, although moreso in retrospect as the full extent of Buffalo’s sports trauma has played out. The Fab Five are a little different in their own, larger-than-life way, but they are best remembered (there’s that word again) as one of the teams whose ultimate losses added to their fame rather than detracting from it.