Don’t apologize for your personality. Don’t apologize for being confident. Don’t apologize for being brash. Don’t apologize for being you.
This was the message that Muhammad Ali delivered to the Fab Five when we had the opportunity to meet him during our first NCAA tournament run in 1992. We were all really surprised he actually knew who we were. I’ll always remember that Ali challenged us to love each other. Given what we would all experience together — the extreme highs and lows we would face on and off of the court — it was this advice that really guided us.
During the Fab Five’s freshman year, we embraced the idea of being a fun-loving Cinderella team. As soon as we got together, there was a special camaraderie that developed. We were so close that we even tried to look alike. The hair, the baggy shorts, the black socks, the black shoes, those Panasonic headphones we’d listen to on the way to games — we embraced our own style. That year, it felt like it was us against the world.
As a No. 6 seed, that team surpassed expectations by making it to the championship game in the 1992 NCAA tournament, where we would eventually lose to a better team in Duke. That loss was an oddly full-circle experience for me. A year earlier, I was at Anderson Hunt’s (fellow Southwest Detroit alum) house draped in satin shorts down to my knees and a Running Rebels tank top, shedding a tear while watching his UNLV team lose to Duke in the 1991 Final Four.
This is where the hate for Duke began. At the time, I had no way of realizing that a year later Duke would break my heart once again. The respect was earned.
I balanced the disappointment of losing that game with the hope I had for the following season. I always knew that we had the most talented roster in college basketball, but now we had experience to go with it.
We started our sophomore season off really strong, beating UNC — without the help of Ray Jackson, who was injured — in a tournament held over Christmas break. We also defeated a Kansas team that was ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time. Both of those early wins over those top teams full of NBA talent were really encouraging because we knew that we were only going to get better as the season progressed.
When the tournament brackets got released, our initial focus was on one team: the Temple Owls. We beat them in 1992 and 1993, but I always felt like they had the talent to play in the Final Four both of those years. They had Aaron McKee, Eddie Jones and Rick Brunson — all guys who would go on to play a decade or more in the NBA — in addition to several others players on the roster who would have stints in the league. And they were led by a Hall of Fame coach in John Chaney.
Coach Chaney was one of my in-home visits during the recruiting process while I was in high school. I really liked him as well as Temple’s program, but they practiced every morning at 6 AM. That just wasn’t happening.
Their players approached our Elite Eight game in 1993 with the same expectation to win that we had, and it showed. Their match-up zone made it tough to get an open shot or pull down rebounds. They were just a tough, tough team to play against. But the nature of the tournament’s setup dictates that a lot of great teams won’t make it as far as they should. If Temple hadn’t run into us, they very well could have been the eventual national champions. Unfortunately, history won’t give them their due because they had the misfortune of being placed in the same regional as us. But everyone who was on the floor for that game knows it could have gone either way.
When we did get past Temple, we got our long-awaited shot at Kentucky.
The Fab Five might have been the most talented team in college basketball, but any objective observer would admit the Wildcats weren’t far behind. That team had Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and Jamal Mashburn, all of whom would go on to be very good NBA players. And their biggest weapon might very well have been Rick Pitino, another Hall of Fame coach.
Their style of play, which involved a suffocating press defense and a run-and-gun offense with an emphasis on three-pointers, was quite similar to what we see among the great teams in the NBA today. It was innovative, and definitely not fun to play against. Up until they faced us, they were beating teams in the tournament by 30 points. Just dismantling them.
For all of these reasons, we were compared to Kentucky throughout that season, and there was a lot of discussion about our potential Final Four matchup as soon as the brackets were released. The talking heads weren’t sure if we’d be able to keep up with their pressure, and the narrative emerged that the Wildcats would blow out the Fab Five.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
In fact, it was a very close game throughout, that was almost settled in regulation.
We were up by two and Kentucky had the ball with less than 30 seconds left in the game, when their point guard Travis Ford traveled.
The refs missed it and then whistled Jimmy King for his fifth foul on a reach-in — Pitino working the refs in order to get the call. There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. Travis Ford would make both free throws to tie the game up with 10 seconds left.
We had to inbound from our own end and I knew they’d try to come with the pressure to force a turnover. Coach Pitino probably told Tony Delk to force me left here and then try to spin me back in order to get a charge.
Fortunately, the refs decided to let us play and didn’t give them the call. Look at that flop. If this play happened in the NBA today, Tony would probably get fined.
With three seconds left, I got a pretty good look at a shot from the top of the key that didn’t fall.
I didn’t dwell on the missed opportunity. When you miss a look like that you just move on and try to wipe it from your memory. In basketball, and really a lot of sports, you only need to succeed in those situations about three out of ten times in order to be considered great. What really distinguishes you as a player is how you bounce back from the seven missed opportunities.
With less than a minute left in overtime, Chris Webber did a nice spin move to put us up by one.
He was truly a game-changing big man. In high school, he was already mirroring post-moves by Shawn Kemp. People who weren’t around during that era probably don’t remember what a phenom Chris was, but he measures up to any prospect coming out of college basketball today in terms of hype and skill.
On the other end of the floor, I came up with a big strip, recovered the loose ball and got fouled hard.
I unnecessarily overreacted because I was caught up in the intensity of the game. Immediately after the play, I remember talking to myself, trying to calm down. It’s something you eventually learn to do as a professional, but when you’re a young, immature kid playing in a big game, you have to learn to keep your emotions in check.
That’s why I’m lucky to have had Juwan Howard in my life.
Everyone needs people who serve as their guiding forces. Nobody makes great decisions all the time, so you need to surround yourself with people who make better decisions more often than you do, or you’re in the wrong group. Juwan was the type of guy you would never see without a fresh haircut and a crease in his pants. Even though we were the same age, he knew how to mentor me and be a positive influence.
These free throws were huge for us, and I wasn’t completely focused because of my anger. Serving his role as a great teammate and friend, Juwan noticed this and walked me all the way down the court with his arm around me so I could get in the right frame of mind. That’s not something that shows up on any box score, but it can be a deciding factor in a game.
Want to know why being a great team is about much more than just talent? There it is.
I went to the line and calmly knocked those free throws down.
Those shots gave us a three-point lead that we wouldn’t relinquish. By my estimation, beating Kentucky in the Final Four was the Fab Five’s biggest victory ever.
For the second year in a row, we’d play in the national championship game, and we’d lose again. Our game against UNC, which has been discussed at length, left a much more bitter taste than our loss to Duke because this time, we were the better team. We proved we were the best team in the country when we beat Kentucky, but we peaked one game too soon. I would have loved to have won a national championship at Michigan, but I don’t feel as though our legacy is incomplete without it. Our society likes to glamorize trophies and rings because it’s easiest way to measure success — however, it’s most definitely not the only way.
For all the talk at the time about how the Fab Five was ruining college basketball, if you look at us today, you’ll find a bunch of guys who truly made something of their college experience.
My three years at the University of Michigan helped create the foundation for the post-career work I now do with ABC and ESPN. My major in college was Mass Communications with a focus in Radio-TV-Film. I utilize the skills I acquired from the University of Michigan every single day. I’m proud to count myself among those who’ve found a job within their major.
Right now, Chris Webber is doing his thing at NBA TV. Juwan Howard is currently an assistant coach with the Heat. Jimmy King is coaching and has two kids in college. Ray Jackson is running a nonprofit for youths in Austin, Texas.
I don’t need a banner to remind me of what we accomplished. It’s etched into the person I have become, and I love my “fab” family.
Yes, to this day, I don’t believe that UNC team was a better team than we were. You will never convince me otherwise. That statement might upset some people, but I’m never going to be humble just for the sake of appearances.
I was taught better than that.
To learn more about this story, you can watch The Fab Five, an all-encompassing documentary about the team executive produced by Three Tier Entertainment for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.