Lovable Losers: Remembering the Fab Five Era

2012-fab-five

91-93 Michigan Wolverines

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Record: 56-14

Final Fours: 2

Big Ten Titles: 0

National Championships: 0

Starters: F Ray Jackson, F Juwan Howard, C Chris Webber,

G Jimmy King, G Jalen Rose

Key Role Players: G Rob Pelinka  C Eric Riley  F Michael Talley

With the NCAA tournament only hours away from starting (oh who am I kidding? By the time you read this, it may be the 2nd round), I thought it’d be fitting to give a quick shout out to the Michigan Fab Five. They changed the game of college basketball, taking what the Runnin’ Rebels started and taking it to a whole other level as far as style, flair, and image.

Unlike UNLV, they never won a championship, losing in the title game back to back years. In fact, they never even won a Big Ten title (something Bill Walton used to always bring up back in the day).

Were they overhyped? Perhaps. Were they revolutionary? Absolutely. No team dared to wear  baggy shorts, and low cut blacks socks. No team encapsulated the times like they did, coming onto the scene right around the beginning of the ‘golden age of hip hop’.

I was in 7th grade when the Fab Five formed, having no idea that only 30 miles away from my Dallas suburb was an 18 yr-old named Jimmy King, who could jump out of the gym. In fact, I’d never even watched a full college basketball game up until the 1991-92 NCAA tournament. My dad rooted for teams like  UNLV, Arkansas and Georgetown,  because they had “more brothas” playing for them. The games were always on in the background, but the only sports I liked back then were football and baseball.

That all changed after watching my first Michigan basketball game. These guys were brash, fun, and high flying. Nothing gave me a bigger thrill than watching Chris Webber throw down an alley-oop dunk, and Jimmy King in the open court was an automatic two points. After watching them play the Bob Huggins coached Cincinnati Bearcats (led by Nick Van Exel) in the semi-finals, I spent the rest of the eveing practicing Jalen Rose’s lefty leaner in my buddy’s driveway.

I made some academic mistakes that forced my mother to ground me from television, and I was stuck listening to the championship game against Duke on the radio. The first half of the game went well for Michigan, but Duke dismantled them in the second half of the game. I listened in dissatisfaction while trying to imagine what Webber’s 360 dunk must have looked like on television.

We didn’t have cable at my house. This made every televised Michigan game an event, and I sat in front of the living room tv humming the “Hail to the Victors” fight song during the timeouts. One particular conference game between the Wolverines and Hoosiers was especially memorable because it got interrupted by local coverage of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

I knew nothing about David Koresh, and had never been to Waco, and couldn’t care less at the time about any of it. The game was over by the time they cut back to the action. Indiana fans were cheering and the Wolverines were sulking on the sidelines as time expired.

The Fab Five run through the tournament was not a thing of beauty. They had trouble scoring at times because they weren’t a very good three point shooting team. Rob Pelinka (also known as NBA superagent to players like Kobe Bryant and James Harden) was their biggest outside threat off the bench. You could see how things opened up inside when he was in the game, as teams couldn’t sag off.

Their bench was also pretty young and thin; one that only went 8 deep at best. It goes to show just how good their starting five were because everyone (not named Ray Jackson) played over 1,000 minutes for the season.

I wonder now in hindsight if playing all five freshman (and sophomores) as starters was the best idea. Chemistry aside, I wonder just how more effective the second unit would have been had  King and Jackson led the helm.

Back then, small ball wasn’t really a thing outside of teams like FSU (with their 3 guard attack of Bobby Sura, Charlie Ward, and Sam Cassell) and sometimes Duke, but this era of Michigan ball sometimes looked unbalanced.

UCLA and Kentucky took the Wolverines to the limit before bowing out of the tournament, and a part of me wonders if they were spent by the end of that championship game against North Carolina. Mental fatigue can make people do funny things, and maybe that contributed to that ill fated timeout (causing me to lose my first ever sports bet).

There are plenty of games to watch online (courtesy of the NCAA vault), if you feel yourself geting nolstagic for the New Edition of 90’s basketball. They were not the most fundamentally sound of teams, and they rubbed a lot of old white people the wrong way, but they were still a lot of fun to watch.

You can’t look at the career paths of the Freshman Fab Five and say they were losers. Webber and Rose has gone on to have outstanding careers in the media, while Howard is an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. Ray Jackson runs an elite basketball program for Austin youth. Jimmy King is mentoring youth in Detroit.

King and Jackson didn’t do much professionally after Michigan, while Webber, Howard, and Rose played on various entertaining teams in the NBA (Howard of course got a couple of rings with the Heat).

You can bring up the off the court controversies that caused Michigan to vacate the wins, and you can always bring up the fact that Michigan never won any kind of championship. But as Jalen Rose himself says, “there is the scoreboard, and there is the score of the game of life.” I think you can say they all won in that regard–especially Rob Pelinka, that dude is filthy rich.

Lovable Losers: 2002 Sacramento Kings

Recently the 2002 Western Conference Finals was commemorated with an oral history by the people closest to the action.
A lot has happened in 12 years and there was so much I’d forgotten or just plain missed during that epic series. I wanted so badly for the Kings to dethrone the champs that I’d forgotten how lousy the officiating was for both teams throughout that series. I’d forgotten how poorly the Kings had played besides Bobby Jackson (why didn’t Rick Adelman give my boy more burn during crunch time?) and Mike Bibby (who was absolutely clutch). Let’s not waste anymore time, here is a long overdue, installment of “Lovable Losers”–an homage to the 2001-2002 Sacramento Kings.

Head Coach: Rick Adelman

Record 61-21

Starters: C Vlade Divac, PF Chris Webber, SF Peja Stojakavic, SG Doug Christie, PG Mike Bibby

Key Bench Players: C Scot Pollard, SF Hedo Turkoglu, PG Bobby Jackson

Were it not for Lebron James ascent into basketball royalty, the Eastern Conference would still be a doormat. Besides the Heat, there isn’t a team in the east what could beat any of the top Western Conference teams twice in a 7 game series. After Michael Jordan retired, the Eastern Conference became a doormat and once the Lakers grabbed the mantle away from the Bulls, the NBA Finals was about as entertaining as a community pick up game. The New Jersey Nets were atrocious and everyone knew that whoever won the West would take the title. The kings won 61 games that year, had home court advantage and looked primed and ready to finally give the Lakers a run for their money.

Well what happened? Why did they lose? The Kings had one of the most entertaining teams around. They played good enough defense. They were easily the best passing team in the NBA at that time with a legitimate point guard taking over the duties from Jason “White Chocolate” Williams. Chris Webber (a human highlight reel all by himself and Vlade Divac were two of the best passing big men around. Bobby Jackson was an electrifying spark plug that came off the bench (he won the sixth man award that year). Peja Stojakavic and Doug Christie were bombing 3 pointers from the wings and the corners. They also had one of the loudest arenas around (Think OKC’s Chesapeake Arena but with Cowbells). Watching the Kings play at home was about as good of a basketball watching experience as you could get back then. Just hearing the crowd go apeshit to Rock N “Roll part 2, after a back breaking 3 pointer, would get me and my brother hype. “Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!” I’m serious. I thought 2001 was the year. They had a better team than the Lakers from top to bottom, but a lot of things conspired to happen to keep that from happening (we’ll leave the refs out of it this and only discuss the things that were in the Kings’ control).

Coaching

Most players will tell you that Rick Adelman is a “player’s coach” and great to play under. He is a great offensive mind who has gotten multiple teams deep in the playoffs. However, no coach has cock-blocked Adelman’s path to the title more than the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. Jackson had Jordan when the Trailblazers ran into the ’92 Bulls, and ten years later he had Shaq AND Kobe Bryant. What the fuck you supposed to do with that? Outside of the Spurs and Kings, nobody could give the Lakers any run, and that was at Shaquille’s absolute peak as a player, and Kobe had barely scratched the surface of his potential. Phil was always a step ahead of Adelman, and Adelman’s failure to give Bobby Jackson any meaningful minutes (in game 7) when the rest of the players were nutting up, was a gigantic coaching error. Doug Christie was chucking up bricks, and Peja was shooting air-balls. I’m saying though.

Bench and role players

The Kings had no bench really. They only went 8 deep. Los Angeles had chess piece upon chess piece. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw chipped in just enough to help out Shaq and Kobe. Scot Pollard was good for committing fouls on Shaq, and offensively he was good for rebounding, or passing.

I’m going to name off these names and you tell me if any of these guys scare you:

Mateen Cleaves
Lawrence Funderburke
Jabari Smith
(a young) Gerald Wallace
Brent Price
Chucky Brown

That is what Adelman had to work with. When it came down to crunch time, the starters were tired. Christie was asked to guard Kobe Bryant on defense and then was expected to create shots on offense. Hedo Turkoglu was still green. Vlade was banging with Shaq the entire game, and Chris Webber preferred to get his teammates involved rather than take over (Bill Walton would call out Webber time after time saying “Chris Webber needs to take over this game”). Webber made great passes, they were just to people who didn’t want the ball in crunch time.

Experience

The Lakers had been there. Let’s face it. Experience is a motherfucker. Think about the first time you fell in love. Shit was overwhelming wasn’t it? All these hormones and feelings that you had never felt before. Some people got it right the first time, and said and did the right things. Often times this is not the case. More often that not, the flubs and mistakes from that first serious relationship are the reasons why you make things work the next time around. The Kings had never made it this far, and the Lakers were two time defending champs. Being down 3-2 did not scare them in the least bit. I remember in one interview Kobe said that “was looking forward to the challenge.” That was when I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy (though I still thought the Kings would win). The Lakers never blinked while the Kings traded haymakers with them. Any other team would have folded like lawn chairs in an overtime game 7 on the road. Not the Lakers. They stayed focus, climbed on the back of the Big Diesel and pounded their way into the NBA Finals against the putrid New Jersey Nets.

So did the Kings choke? Was there a conspiracy in game 6 to give the game to Lakers? Was Rick Adelman just a basketball version of Buck Showalter (the classic good enough coach to get you there but not good enough to win)? Or were the Lakers just the better team? Maybe it was all of these things, maybe it was none, or maybe the results speak for themselves. The Lakers were good and the rest of the NBA was really bad. It’s hard to call a team that won 61 regular season games and the only team that gave Los Angeles any type of run, a loser.

Maybe they were losers,but they were a fun team to watch, and if they were losers, then what does that say about the rest of the NBA at that time? San Antonio was winning championships back then, but no one outside of south Texas would pay to watch them play. I lived in Texas back then (in Austin) and their style of play put me to sleep. I’d have rather watched those Kings play and lose, than tune in to the Malik Rose, Speedy Claxton, slow it down Spurs of 2002. It just wasn’t entertaining. Maybe we all lost when the Kings were knocked out of the playoffs back in 2002. You’ll never convince me otherwise.