It was easy to be cynical about the Fab Five at the Final Four.
From the outside, former Wolverines star (and ESPN analyst) Jalen Rose's public pressure on Chris Webber to attend the 2013 national title game, and all the fanfare that accompanied it -- a close-up of Webber arriving at the arena, constant shots of the Fab Five in the crowd -- seemed to be calculated, a way to reflect some of the overwhelming national attention being paid to the Wolverines' rebirth back onto a group that, save Webber, has never been shy about touting its complicated legacy. With John Beilein's career 30 years in the making, and Trey Burke's player of the year bona fides up against the best defense in the country, the visibility allocated to a team that played in the early 90s felt at best like a bunch of old guys working out their demons and at worst like a public relations stunt. Maybe both.
That might not have been the motive at all. But that's how it looked, at least from outside the Michigan locker room -- especially when the Fab Five crammed into said locker room after a devastating title game loss. There is never a more sensitive time to be with a team, and it was easy to picture Michigan's players' puffy eyes staring blankly ahead, if only to keep them from rolling.
Turns out, some of Michigan's players might have been just as unconvinced of the Fab Five's motivations as I was. UM Hoops asked former reserve Josh Bartelstein -- one of the best, and most honest, quotes in the sport last season -- about the whole Fab Five thing, and his response was both polite and illuminating. There were raised eyebrows, maybe a dash of resentment. And then Juwan Howard spoke.
"At first, it was a little like, 'What are these guys doing here, they haven’t been a part of this team or a part of this program for a really long time.' But then, once all the media cleared out they spoke. And I thought Juwan [Howard] really had a great message: They were here for us. They were here to link Michigan past and the present and the future together. And he said one of the greatest accomplishments this team will have is bringing Michigan basketball back. They weren’t there to talk to the media, they weren’t there for themselves. They were there to support us and Michigan basketball. They came around and gave everyone a hug, and they said that if any of us ever need anything from them they’ll be here, whether it’s advice about basketball or life; they’re here for us. I think after initially feeling like they were here for the media circus of it, they were here because they loved what we stood for and loved how we played. I think that meant a lot to us. Juwan did a great job with it."
For one, that pretty much lines up with everything NBA people say about Howard, who at 40 years old remained worth a roster spot in Miami the past two seasons even as a quasi-assistant coach/part-time motivational speaker. If you have the cachet to scream at the best player in the world during the Eastern Conference finals, you have officially mastered the art of locker room chemistry.
But the larger points are that A) even Michigan's players were skeptical, and understandably so; and B) Howard, and presumably the rest of his old-school cohort, got it. For whatever other baggage was bound to come along for the "Fab Five Takes Atlanta" routine, they were ultimately there for support, as fans and former players, as people who desperately want Michigan basketball to be elite again. They might even have been grateful: It took a long time for the Wolverines to recover from the Ed Martin scandal, but after a few years of rebuilding, Beilein and a bunch of kids too young to remember the glory days finally got it done.
For the first time in 15 years, the future of Wolverines basketball seems as bright as it did in the halcyon days of the early 90s. The through line has been drawn. The outside noise was deafening, sure, but maybe the Fab Five needed to be in that locker room after all.