The time out he never should have called could not eliminate the legacy he and his teammates would leave.
I’m speaking, of course, about Chris Webber and Michigan’s Fab Five, the hard-luck runners-up who nonetheless left behind a legacy which could not be limited by the boundaries of basketball. That team became known for embracing hip-hop culture; for black socks; for trash talk and bravado; for bringing swagger and in-your-face attitude into an entire nation’s conscience. Few folks remember that George Lynch and Eric Montross beat the Michigan Wolverines that day. But everyone remembers the Fab Five.
“Our legacy is that we were bigger than the score of the game,” said Jalen Rose. Rose’s team never won a national championship, but changed basketball in a way Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Nolan Smith never could have dreamed of. The Fab Five walked onto the Michigan campus as celebrities, perhaps the greatest college basketball recruiting class ever. They walked off it as a group which helped initiate a revolution of basketball’s culture, from nut-huggers and crew cuts to baggy shorts and bald heads.
The Fab Five may even have affected the Celtics. If Jalen Rose had not researched players for trash talking material, would Kevin Garnett play such mind games? Would Garnett’s cuss words, designed to get in his opponent’s head, stream so continuously? Would the Celtics play with such an edge, with such fury, with such disdain for the public’s reaction? Would Ray Allen still stand out for failing to embrace the hip-hop image? Or would most players be more like Ray? Did the Fab Five help to usher in an era that was inevitable, or did they collectively change the path of basketball’s future?
Of course, we could credit the Celtics’ abrasive identities to other basketball influences. Before the Fab Five ever played an NCAA game, Larry Bird asked the other three-point contest participants, “Who’s coming in second place?” Before Webber mistakenly called that timeout, Michael Jordan closed his eyes before a free throw, telling rookie opponent Dikembe Mutombo that the eyes-closed make was for him. Before Juwan Howard got into any of his opponents’ faces, the Detroit Pistons became known as the Bad Boys.
But most of these Celtics were in high school (or younger) when the Fab Five came of age to alter basketball, at a time when the young, future Celtics were presumably quite impressionable. There were other influences, I’m sure, to the Boston Celtics’ collective on-court persona — a persona of chippiness and trash talk, swagger and edge. But the Fab Five were basketball’s most influential group at the time, especially to young players who fell in love with the hype and excitement. It’s not likely a coincidence that today’s Boston Celtics echo so much of what the Fab Five stood for — the attitude, the obnoxious (to some) behavior, the endless mind games and trash talk and proverbial flexing of muscles.
Steve Fisher said the most common misconception about his players was that they cared about anything other than winning. The hype, said Fisher, was a product of his players being different — of his players being young and brash, a collection of freshmen whose talents were perhaps unrivaled, and who were fearless of bucking basketball’s norms.
“I feel like I’m probably one of the most talented players that ever didn’t pan out in the NBA,” said Jimmy King, who attributed his NBA failure to sacrifices he made while helping the Fab Five succeed. “But even knowing what I know now would never do it differently, because we built something special that wasn’t seen before and hasn’t been seen since.”
The Fab Five hasn’t been seen before and never will be seen again. But to view their influences, one doesn’t have to look any farther than Boston.