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More Than a Game: How the Fab Five Changed Basketball Forever

In the fall of 1991, five talented high school basketball stars - Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson - came together at the University of Michigan with a shared goal of winning a national championship. Dubbed the "Fab Five" by the media, these five freshmen quickly captured the attention of the basketball world with their jaw-dropping talent, brash confidence, hip hop flair, and a playing style that emphasized athleticism, teamwork and versatility over traditional positional roles.


Though their time together was brief - just two seasons - the Fab Five left an indelible mark not only on college basketball, but on sports, culture, fashion, music, business and more. They brought unprecedented hype, changed how basketball was played, spoke out against social injustice, sparked new era of prep-to-pros, and forced the NCAA to reexamine its relationship with student-athletes. Simply put, the Fab Five revolutionized basketball and influenced generations of players that followed. They showed that 18 and 19-year olds, despite their youth and inexperience, could compete against more seasoned upperclassmen. In doing so, they laid the foundation for the one-and-done era and an age when freshmen stars became the norm.


This is the story of how five talented, brazen, young men from inner city America shook up the college basketball establishment and changed the game forever.


Humble Beginnings


Long before the Fab Five ever set foot in Crisler Arena, they were just talented teenagers playing high school and AAU ball back in their hometowns. Chris Webber hailed from Detroit, part of the city's rich basketball lineage. The athletic big man dominated as an underclassman for Detroit Country Day High School. Webber's maturation culminated in a storybook senior season that saw him average 29 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks and earn the title of Michigan's Mr. Basketball.


Jalen Rose was a Detroit native as well. The slick lefty guard built his reputation on the playgrounds and high school gyms of Motor City. An accomplished scorer blessed with court vision and size for his position, Rose too found high school glory, winning two state championships at Southwestern High School.


Juwan Howard, meanwhile, starred for Chicago Vocational High on the South Side. Built like an NFL linebacker, the broad-shouldered forward utilized his strength and soft touch around the basket. Howard continued his development playing for one of the nation's most loaded AAU teams - the Illinois Warriors - along with future NBA players like Rod Strickland.


Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, the Texans of the group, first met at Anderson High School in Austin - King serving as the scorer; Jackson as the defensive stopper. Both were highly touted talents. King was named a McDonald's All-American while Jackson built his reputation against Texas high school legends like Rasheed Wallace.


Separately, Webber, Howard, Rose, Jackson and King were forces to be reckoned with. Together, they were set to shock the college basketball world.


The Recruiting Coup of the Century


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Michigan basketball program found itself mired in mediocrity. The Wolverines struggled through losing seasons and NCAA sanctions after revelations that several players, including future NBA talents Chris Mills and Ed Martin, had taken money from booster Ed Martin. Heading into the 1991 recruiting period, the Wolverines were hungry to reload with talent and determined to bounce back.


They found that talent in five freshmen - Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson - who all committed to Michigan. Landing five top 100 recruits was unheard of at the time. Most national champion and perennial powerhouse teams started just one or two freshman. The Fab Five's predecessor - Duke's 1991 national championship team - started just two freshmen, Grant Hill and Cherokee Parks, alongside seasoned upperclassmen.


So how did the Michigan coaches pull off what many considered impossible? The Fab Five's commitment to Michigan had as much to do with relationships and chemistry as anything else.


Chris Webber and Jalen Rose were AAU teammates before high school and had envisioned playing together in college since the age of 15. Juwan Howard credited Michigan assistant coach Brian Dutcher's steadfast recruitment as a major factor in his decision. Jimmy King claimed he "fell in love on his visit." Ray Jackson's commitment, meanwhile, hinged largely on the opportunity to reunite with his friend Jimmy King.


Much of the credit belonged to head coach Steve Fisher and his assistants Perry Watson and Dutcher. Fisher's promotion to head coach in 1989 helped reinvigorate the program. The Fab Five cited Fisher's player-friendly coaching style - he allowed them to be themselves, play their style and have input on decisions - as a huge selling point. Ultimately, the Fab Five recruits clicked and wanted to blaze their own trail together at Michigan.


The Birth of the Fab Five Era


When the Fab Five arrived on campus in Ann Arbor in fall 1991 expectations were tempered, despite 5 top 100 recruits making their way onto the roster. One Pac 10 coach even remarked that there was "no way five freshmen can make it together." Sports Illustrated listed Michigan as an unranked "also receiving votes" in its preseason issue.


The starting lineup was also unsettled. Webber, Rose and Howard earned starting spots right away, but Jimmy King and Ray Jackson began the year coming off the bench. That changed in a February game against Notre Dame, when all five freshman started together for the first time. Michigan blitzed the Fighting Irish 74-65 behind 30 points from Webber and 21 from Rose.


From that point on, the five freshmen cemented their spots as starters, earning their self-appointed moniker - the Fab Five. Their talents were undeniable and perfectly complemented one another.


Webber, the prodigal No. 1 recruit, served as the focal point - a versatile big man who ran the floor, handled the ball, distributed to teammates, scored on the block and perimeter, and altered shots on defense.


Rose, dynamic and shifty, got buckets from all over the court. His court vision and passing ability made him an excellent complement. Juwan Howard provided interior toughness and rebounding. Jimmy King, a solid scorer, was the team's vocal leader. Ray Jackson locked down opposing wings.


The Fab Five took college hoops by storm almost immediately. They compiled a 25-9 regular season record, winning their last five regular season games as the starting five cemented itself.


In the NCAA Tournament, Michigan caught fire again thanks to the Fab Five's precocious, uptempo style. They rampaged through their bracket before meeting the ACC champion Duke Blue Devils, led by Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, in the final. It was a showdown between freshmen and experienced upperclassmen.


Webber dominated with 23 points and 11 rebounds and Michigan led most of the way before Duke's poise prevailed in a 71-51 victory. No matter. The Fab Five's runner-up finish was a revelation in itself. A starting five made up entirely of freshmen had never advanced so far. College basketball took notice. The Fab Five were just getting started and had announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with for years to come.


Changing the Game: Style and Substance


Beyond the wins and success on the court, the Fab Five are most remembered as trendsetters who ushered in a cultural change in college athletics. Through their talent and swagger, they made it cool to be a freshman phenom. They played with a creative openness and flair rarely displayed by college athletes. In the process, they brought hip hop culture from the inner city to the mainstream.


The Fab Five oozed confidence and talked trash with the best of them. Webber scoffed when asked how it felt to play the defending national champs in Duke. "We're going to win this game," Webber remarked before the matchup. For the Fab Five, it wasn't arrogance - just belief in themselves.


Their headline-grabbing quotes were only topped by their audacious fashion choices. The Fab Five sported long, baggy shorts that bucked the customary tight high school uniforms of the 1980s and early 90s. As Jalen Rose tells it, "The real reason we got those [long] shorts was because the ones they gave us were so small and so tight that we couldn't breathe in them."


Their signature uniforms - black shoes, long shorts and black socks - would influence a generation of players at all levels. Chuck Daly, Olympic Dream Team coach, remarked in 1992 that 10 players showed up to tryouts wearing knee-length shorts.


Culturally, the Fab Five also popularized the bald head trend and made listening to rap music pregame routine. They trash talked opposing players and called their own plays and sets rather than defer completely to coaches. Make no mistake though - they weren't out of control by any means. In their two years together they only tallied a few technical fouls. But their attitude and flair for the game was undeniably unique for their era.


More than anything, the Fab Five played with an artistic style and fluidity never before seen in college basketball. Position titles mattered little. All five players could handle the ball, run the break, pass, drive, shoot. Webber dished out assists from the post. Rose grabbed rebounds and found cutters from the point. In theory, all five guys could have played any position. This versatility and positionless approach revolutionized basketball.


All Five could also score. In that memorable Notre Dame game that kicked off the Fab Five era, all five players scored between 15-30 points. Webber, Rose, Howard and King would all average double figure scoring for their career. Put it all together - the versatility, highlights, scoring distribution, fashion - and the Fab Five became the most exciting thing happening in college hoops.


They matched their panache with winning on a scale college basketball hadn't witnessed before. As sophomores, the Fab Five went 31-5, spurred by a nucleus of players comfortable in their roles and ready to make another championship run. After avenging their freshman loss against Duke with an overtime win in the regular season, everything seemed poised to culminate with a storybook ending - a national championship.


The Timeout Heard 'Round the World


In the 1993 NCAA Final against North Carolina, however, opportunity slipped through their fingers in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion. With 20 seconds left and trailing 73-71, Chris Webber brought the ball up court, searched for a shooter and found himself trapped by Tar Heel defenders along the baseline.


Webber appeared to glance at the bench for guidance when referee Ed Hightower whistled a timeout. Replays showed Webber asking for a timeout himself. Just one problem - Michigan had none left. The resulting technical foul for Excessive Timeouts effectively ended the game and Michigan's title hopes.


After the game, a distraught Webber tearfully apologized to teammates in the locker room for his mental lapse while Jalen Rose steadfastly defended him. In that moment, their bond and loyalty shined through the disappointment. To his credit, Webber faced reporters after the game, vowing to bounce back from the disappointing finish.


The recipient of death threats from overzealous fans, Webber was never quite able to fully shake the goat label from this game. Years later, articles announcing or analyzing Webber still invariably referenced "the timeout." Never mind that without Webber's 27 point, 13 rebound tour de force, Michigan wouldn't have come so tantalizingly close to a championship.


The timeout call unfairly overshadowed an otherwise brilliant two year run. With two finals appearances in two years, the Fab Five proved freshman could carry championship caliber teams better than upperclassmen. Unfortunately, forces outside of their control would derail the group prematurely, ultimately denying them a chance to cement their dynasty as collegians.


NCAA Sanctions and a Bitter End


Just a few months after that Championship loss, accusations and revelations surfaced that threatened both the Fab Five's accomplishments at Michigan and legacy in Ann Arbor. As it turned out, booster Ed Martin, who had given money to several former Michigan players over the years, surfaced again as the culprit behind new violations.


Investigation revealed that Martin loaned several hundred thousand dollars to Chris Webber and other players during their time at Michigan, including over $280,000 to Webber in high school and college. These impermissible benefits were clear violations that breached NCAA rules on amateurism.


The fallout was swift and far-reaching once Martin confessed to the loans in 2000. Michigan self-imposed sanctions and forfeited 112 regular season and tournament wins from 1992-1998, among them both Final Four runs by the Fab Five. Banners commemorating both championship appearances were removed. Michigan also withdrew from consideration for the 2002 NCAA Tournament and 2003 Big Ten tournament among other self-imposed penalties.


Steve Fisher, coach during the Fab Five years, was fired as part of sweeping changes to the athletic department. Additionally, Michigan placed the former players at the center of the scandal on disassociation status for 10 years, meaning they were personae non gratae within the athletic program for more than a decade.


Chris Webber bore the brunt of the blame from fans given his high-profile status and larger loan amounts uncovered. His relationship with the University grew especially fraught. When Michigan made him wait years to finally retire his jersey, he opted not to attend the ceremony.


Still, Webber reiterated that his actions were not meant intentional harm, only poor judgment as a teenager. Whether his defiance stemmed from immaturity or getting caught unfairly in a broken system was up for debate. But the friendship at the core of the Fab Five never wavered even as the scandal caused the premature dissolution of one of college basketball's all-time teams.


Lasting Legacy and Influence


Though the Ed Martin scandal left the Fab Five's accomplishments officially stricken from the NCAA record books, their legacy on basketball and culture remained intact. They didn't invent freshman phenoms, but they laid the foundation for the one-and-done era we see today where teams routinely build around freshman stars rather than seasoned upperclassmen.


Stars like Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jahlil Okafor led teams to the Final Four as freshmen, following the trail blazed by the Fab Five and banking on standout freshmen became the blueprint for perennial powerhouses. The five McDonald's All-Americans Kentucky brought in last season continues the "Fab Five" recruiting trend.


Stylistically, just about every player in the NBA wears their shorts long like the Fab Five made hip. Team pregame rituals now routinely include playing rap music in the locker room. Trash talking, swagger on the court, the positional flexibility - all have origins tracing back to those talented yet rebellious Michigan teams of the early 1990s.


More broadly, the Fab Five embodied and foreshadowed the wave of empowered young athletes challenging the establishment, advocating for themselves and taking more ownership of their talent, brands and futures - something college students now do legally through NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) opportunities and business ventures. Think Spencer Rattler cashing in on his personal brand.


The Fab Five's hip hop swag also ushered in cultural change throughout college sports and sparked important if uncomfortable conversations around race, politics and double standards in collegiate athletics. Their style didn't always mesh neatly with the predominantly white Midwest campus and community. Some cultural integration pains persisted throughout their tenure.


But partly by remaining authentic to their backgrounds and core identities, the Fab Five made an impression on society beyond basketball. Webber walked onto campus for his recruiting trip wearing a Malcolm X shirt. Later he and Rose donned Martin Luther King warmups on MLK Day against Iowa and were hit with vicious racial epithets from the Iowa crowd.


Rather than back down, Webber and Rose turned experience into a teaching moment about the work still required around inclusion and addressing racism. They set an example on using their platform as prominent Black athletes responsibly even in charged situations.


However messy the end and unfulfilled their potential, the Fab Five's activist legacy remains intact. They not only showcased generational talent, they leveraged that talent to usher in cultural change that revolutionized basketball and influenced wider society.


Today, members of the Fab Five remain icons not only among Michigan fans but for sports fans in general. Chris Webber and Jalen Rose have successful media careers covering the NBA. Juwan Howard returned to coach his alma mater. Jimmy King and Ray Jackson give back to their communities through philanthropy and coaching youth.


Less than two seasons together shouldn't have cemented such a pervasive legacy. But the Fab Five played the game with a creativity and captured the public's imagination in a way fans still reminisce about today. In the process, they changed basketball and culture for good, fulfilling their potential if not for longevity than for impact.

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