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AHEAD OF THEIR TIME

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, MICHIGAN'S FAB FIVE STILL LOOK LIKE PIONEERS
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TWENTY-FIVE YEARS after I wrote about Chris Webber calling a timeout his Michigan team didn't have, in the dying seconds of the 1993 NCAA TITLE GAME against North Carolina, let us hail the Fab Five, college basketball's original and eternal It Boys. And the sport's Id Boys: In the Big Ten, a league identified with the command-and-control excesses of Indiana coach Bob Knight, and at Michigan, which had just come out from under the autocratic rule of Bo Schembechler, they dared to scowl at the sport's superegos. With limbs jangling beneath all that uniform fabric, they stage-whispered their secret while acting it out—pssst, we are college hoop.

The short shorts favored by today's Final Four Michigan team? They play off the tastemaking stake its forebears planted a quarter-century ago. (Whereas the Fab Five tugged at their shorts so they'd hang lower, the 2018 Wolverines roll up waistbands to bring their hemlines higher.) And the free-agent convergence in Miami of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010? That was a pale NBA answer to the gesture of empowerment that Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson made by forming their own superteam in Ann Arbor in 1991. Between the on-the-block bursts of Webber, the janky dribble-drives of Rose, the flexed-elbow Bogarting of Howard, the perimeter daggers of King, the white-on-rice defense of Jackson and the giddy, unabashed brotherhood with which they blended it all, the Fab Five supplied so much entertainment that, if they weren't getting paid, lordy, they should have been.

It turned out some of them indeed had a paymaster, a booster named Ed Martin, another brick in college sports' wall of So It Has Been and So It Ever Shall Be. Thus the NCAA doesn't officially recognize their two Final Four appearances. We can nonetheless trace most of the chants directed at college basketball these days—"end the hypocrisy" and "let them play"—back to the early '90s and the guys in maize-and-blue and black socks and shoes. With all five still around the game, two as broadcasters, we've been able to follow their journeys, none more fascinating than that of Rose from undomesticated goofball to media wise man.

Webber's calling that phantom timeout may have been a brief bridge too far in the ongoing battle between college basketball's players on the one hand, and everyone who draws undeserved paychecks on the other. But that single rogue moment, and the national title it may have cost Michigan, remains the exception that proves the rule that basketball's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, once declared. It could double as the Fab Five's epitaph: "You don't coach basketball; you just play it."