With the Michigan Wolverines playing for a national title twenty years after Chris Webber and the Fab Five let one slip through their grasp, everyone wants to know if this will finally be the year the former players and the school finally bury the hatchet and let things go. We're a few hours away from game time, but it doesn't seem likely.
For two years in the early 1990s, Michigan basketball was the hottest thing in the nation. Five freshman -- Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson -- led Michigan to the Final Four twice and would forever go down in basketball lore as the Fab Five. Their best player by a mile was Webber. In the 1993 NCAA championship game, the last time Michigan made it this far in the tournament, Webber called a timeout with time expiring and his team down by two to North Carolina. Except Michigan didn't have any timeouts left. The botched call ended Michigan's chance of winning, and ended Webber's collegiate career. It's haunted him ever since, and went on to overshadow the performance of the game's best player, North Carolina guard Donald Williams. But it wasn't the only thing that would taint his career with the Wolverines.
Webber later admitted to accepting money from Michigan booster Ed Martin while he played at Michigan. In fact, Martin had loaned him money since the eighth grade. Because this is strictly against NCAA policy, Michigan virtually wiped the Fab Five from their record books. The banners from the school's 1992 and 1993 Final Four appearances are in a closet somewhere on campus instead of hanging proudly from the rafters at the Crisler Center. The school was ordered by the NCAA to ban itself from any interaction with Webber until May 8, 2013. That's exactly one month from Monday's game, and 20 years since Michigan last played for the national title.
The relationship between Michigan and Webber has been distant, to put it mildly, ever since. He went on to a long and successful career in the NBA, and then a career as a commentator for NBC after he retired from play, but he rarely brings up his time as a Wolverine. Can you blame him? He faced an intense amount of ridicule in the media after the timeout game. It's one of those highlights that Sportscenter plays once every few weeks, for good measure, just to make sure you haven't forgotten about it. It seems unlikely the school will ever rewrite the Fab Five back into the record books where they belong. School administrators have said they would look at recognizing the Fab Five in May, but that it's unlikely the Final Four banners will ever hang in the rafters again. Webber would also need to apologize to the school first, which seems unlikely. He barely speaks to his old teammates. But they haven't forgotten about him. In fact, they're hoping he joins them at Monday's game to celebrate their old alma matter.
"The elephant in the room is Chris Webber," Jalen Rose explained to ESPN's Bill Simmons for a podcast taped Sunday afternoon. "While he loves us like brothers, and vice versa, there has been a communication separation that has basically occurred since we were teammates." Rose produced an ESPN documentary, The Fab Five, about the team's cultural impact. Webber was the only member who didn't participate. Rose went on to explain the awkward state of their relationship, 20 years later:
I think the timeout had a lot to do with it, and here's what I mean: I think he wants to disassociate himself with that moment, and with that school, and in theory with us, to kind of rebuild his life mentally to say: my career really started my rookie year in the NBA. But that's not really how it works. It's sad; it's unfortunate. If I saw him tomorrow, we would hug like brothers. We never had an argument. We never had a disagreement.
So, Rose is pleading for his old friend to abandon his demons and reunite with old friends to celebrate the good times. And it won't take much for him to get there. "The other elephant in the room is that he lives in Atlanta," Simmons points out. "That's where the game is! It's a fifteen minute drive from his house!" Juwan Howard will have a tougher time getting to the Georgia Dome. He's got to work it into his schedule with the Miami Heat, as he's the only Fab Five member still playing in the NBA. "We need to be there, for so many different reasons," Rose says. The current crop of young stars all want them to be there. "Tim Hardaway Jr.'s been walking around campus with a 'Free Fab Five' shirt on for three years."
What's more is that the NCAA is debating allowing a "miscellaneous expense allowance" for NCAA players. Essentially, it's a fund that would give players to pocket cash, despite getting a full ride to school to play basketball. The idea is that some players don't have the financial support behind them at home to buy a new pair of sneakers, or a meal, or whatever. They're poor. That's why Webber took money from Ed Martin. The whole team came from poor backgrounds. And it would appear that this new measure is trying to circumvent the money many suspect is being passed under the table to NCAA athlete Which lead to some very topical questions from Grantland's Charlie Pierce on Monday morning:
Now, with his organization in moral tatters, and the whole business model tottering around him, Emmert decides in a squid-cloud of word-ink that a little extra somethin'-somethin' is really ethical as long as it's laundered through euphemism. What about all those schools that found themselves on probation down through the years for doing exactly what Emmert's proposing now? Do we all owe Dana Kirk and the Fab Five an apology?
Adopting a slush fund for players would raise some dubious questions for the NCAA and past punishments handed down to schools for giving money to players. Chief among them is Webber. He never would have needed to take money from Martin if there was a "miscellaneous expense allowance" when the Fab Five played.
For now, there is no apology. There is no word from Webber about appearing at tonight's game There is nothing. We don't know if Chris Webber will ever live down his timeout. Or, more importantly, whether he will ever let himself live down the timeout. Only time will tell, whether it be will be tonight, next month, or some other time in the future, when Webber and the rest of the Fab Five will emerge from our memories and their legacy be etched in NCAA stone where it belongs.
Update, 9:26 p.m.: Look who decided to show up:
They're together for the first time in 20 years and, and, it's dusty in here. That's it. It's allergy season, right?
Better photo of the Fab Five arriving. twitter.com/NicoleAuerbach…— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) April 9, 2013