Last September, as I stood in the student section of the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., and cheered the Michigan Wolverines on to victory against Penn State, I wasn’t thinking about the reason I was among the 100,000+ fans supporting the maize and blue.
Why not? Well, because, technically, that reason doesn’t exist.
The reason I cheered Charles Woodson’s Heisman trophy and national championship season of ’97 is gone. When Braylon Edwards single-handedly helped Michigan storm back from a 17-point deficit to defeat Michigan State, the reason I was ecstatic is extinct. When Manningham un-undefeated Penn State, when the D-line crushed Brady Quinn, when Mike Hart showed heart and when Henne sent Carr out in style against the Gators, my original reason for my Wolverine fandom was only a figment of my imagination.
That reason is the Univerity of Michigan’s 1993 men’s basketball team. Perhaps you know their starting lineup better as “The Fab Five.” Five sophomores: Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. And almost always with Webber listed first.
While the official records have caused that team’s NCAA Tournament wins to be vacated and their runner-up banner to be removed, the memory of that team remains very real to me.
Fifteen years after The Timeout, it still hurts to watch replays of that game. Down by 2 points with 11 second to play, Webber signaled for a timeout that his team didn’t have resulting in two technical free throws for North Carolina that sealed the deal for the Tar Heels to win the ’93 national championship.
Webber turned pro after the season with Howard and Rose followed after their junior years. But the Fab Five legacy lives on.
Bald heads and baggy shorts, swagger and success. The Fab Five captivated a nation when they arrived on the scene as freshmen as the most highly touted recruiting class ever. They didn’t disappoint either. Despite their inexperience, they led the Wolverines to the national championship game in 1992, losing to defending champion Duke in the finals.
However, it was their return trip to the Final Four in ’93 as sophomores that got my attention. I was eight years old and it is the first NCAA Tournament that I can remember watching. Michigan was young, exciting and flashy—all appealing traits to an eight-year-old basketball fan looking to latch on.
Webber quickly became my favorite player—I bought and wore his jerseys (Golden State Warriors #4 and Washington Bullets #2) so often that a friend at the Y actually thought my last name was Webber—and the Wolverines became my favorite team. I fell in love with the maize and gold colors, the school and even adopted the football team as my own.
As it turns out, Michigan is a football-first school, the winningest program in the history of college football. Ironically, I became a fan because of their basketball team, which despite winning the national title in 1989 with Rumeal Robinson, Glen Rice, Loy Vaught and company, was never the top ticket in town.
And recently, watching Michigan basketball has been nothing short of sad. The fallout of the scandal involving Webber and a former booster was significant. They were banned from postseason participation 2003 and haven’t fully recovered since. In 2004, Michigan won the National Invitational Tournament. They had a losing season in 2005 and returned to the NIT again in 2006, losing to South Carolina in the championship. Last year the Wolverines were bounced in the second round of the NIT. And this season, under new head coach John Beilein, the Wolverines once again find themselves under .500 and out of the postseason.
A school that won a title in ’89 and made back-to-back title game appearances in the early 90s hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998. It’s almost as if the entire program stopped when Webber, who played for a team that doesn’t exist, called that timeout that didn’t exist.
I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait before Michigan is part of another tournament memory, but once it happens, I’m going to do whatever I can to pretend the past 15 years of lackluster Wolverine hoops didn’t exist either.
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