Reunite the Fab Five
It may not happen in Atlanta, but Michigan should get stars back together
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The emotions are overwhelming when Jimmy King imagines what it would be like.
"That excitement, really just being nostalgic," King said. "When I thought about it, it made me more excited than I have been in a long time."
This weekend, Michigan is making its first Final Four appearance since 1993, back when King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson made up the precocious, unapologetic group known as the Fab Five.
As hard as it is to believe, that spring was the last time all the members of the Fab Five were together.
Logistics may prevent the Fab Five from fully reuniting, but they will certainly be a point of emphasis this weekend in Atlanta, and not just because they played in the Final Four 20 years ago.
Let's put it this way: If the Fab Five and Michigan were Facebook friends, the relationship status would be "it's complicated."
The Fab Five changed college basketball with their style of play and unprecedented boldness for underclassmen, but later they were at the center of a scandal that leveled the program for years.
Chris Webber was the face of the scandal because of his infamous connection to now-deceased Michigan booster Ed Martin. According to a federal indictment, Martin lent Webber hundreds of thousands of dollars while he was at U of M.
Webber eventually reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, but the damage was irreversible. Michigan imposed sanctions, forfeited victories, removed both of the Fab Five's Final Four banners from the arena's rafters, and was put in the awkward position of having to officially treat the Fab Five like their impact was nonexistent.
One of Michigan's self-imposed sanctions included banning Webber from the Michigan basketball program for 10 years. The ban doesn't officially end until next month, but Webber, who lives in Atlanta, is free to attend the Final Four as a fan.
Webber, an NBA analyst for TNT, will be working this weekend, according to King, who said he spoke with his former teammate. And naturally, if Webber chose to join his Fab Five brethren, it would be a story in itself. Even without a photo op, the past will be dredged up; his and the Fab Five's relationship with the university is a topic of conversation.
Regardless of whether Webber attends Michigan's national semifinal game against Syracuse, it's important this weekend that Michigan doesn't feel ashamed to trumpet the Fab Five as a big part of its rich basketball history.
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I'll give Michigan administrators and members of the Fab Five credit for already taking steps to repair the relationship. ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose has an endowed scholarship at Michigan in his name. Rose, King and Jackson all have returned to the university multiple times. In fact, King was there recently to speak to a class. And by all accounts, Howard remains on favorable terms with the school.
King also said U of M basketball coach John Beilein and athletic director Dave Brandon have made an earnest effort to reconnect the Fab Five with Michigan's current generation of players.
"I have never personally felt any animosity," said King, one of the players who wasn't a part of the scandal. "I always got a lot of love coming back. The question I get is, when is the reunion? When are you guys going back? I never heard anyone saying they didn't want anyone to come back. What's going on has been the question: Is it you guys, or the university?"
There always will be some Michigan fans and other outsiders who will blame the Fab Five for why it's taken the basketball team so long to return to prominence.
Even though other Michigan basketball players in the post-Fab Five era admitted they accepted cash from Martin, I suppose it's fair on some level to still point the finger at the Fab Five.
But let's also not pretend that Michigan didn't get significant mileage out of the Fab Five, even after the scandal had run its course. They generated millions of dollars for the university, and the brand recognition they gave the school is immeasurable.
Now that things have come full circle, Michigan should figure out a way to publicly celebrate the Fab Five -- including Webber. In ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary "The Fab Five," Brandon alluded to the fact that Webber needs to apologize to the university to make things right. At the time, King echoed that sentiment. Since Michigan never returned a dime of the money it made off the Fab Five, let's just call it even.
"Me, personally, I want the ban to hurry up and end so now there are no roadblocks," King said. "We'll be able to say, what's the deal? There's nothing that can stop us from mending this relationship now."
Like with any reunion, getting together isn't as easy as it used to be. Howard is still playing for the Miami Heat and likely won't attend Final Four events. Rose is working for ESPN and probably could come to Atlanta only if Michigan makes the championship game. King said he and Jackson will be there, for sure.
"I think it's important for these guys to see us back," King said. "It lifts them up. There's a connection there."
Here's a free suggestion to Michigan administrators: Next season, when they honor this current team for what it has achieved, they should honor the Fab Five, too. Dig up the Final Four banners that were taken down and raise them alongside whatever banner this current team earns.
Show that while the relationship with the Fab Five once was estranged, today it's in a healthy place.
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