The Fab Five is the greatest college basketball class ever recruited.
In the fall of 1991, the incoming freshman class of the University of Michigan’s basketball team consisted of Detroit natives Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard of Chicago, and two recruits from Texas, Plano’s Jimmy King and Austin’s Ray Jackson. All were rated in the top 100 of national recruits and all but Jackson played in the 1991 McDonald’s All-American Game, the showcase for America’s finest high school basketball talent. Chris Webber had led Detroit Country Day School to three consecutive state championships, was 1990-91 National High School Player of the Year, and was the top recruit in the nation. Jalen Rose’s father, Jimmy Walker, was the first player selected in the 1967 NBA Draft and Jalen was rated as the sixth-best prospect in the nation as a high school senior. Juwan Howard was voted Illinois Player of the Year, president of his class at Chicago Vocational, and a National Honor Society student. Jimmy King attended Plano East High School with cyclist Lance Armstrong and was the ninth-ranked player in the U.S. as a senior. Ray Jackson, the least-known of the Fab Five, was a 6’-6” shooting guard out of Lyndon B. Johnson High School and was listed as the 84th best player in America. Head Coach Steve Fisher, who led Michigan to an NCAA title in 1989 and recruited the 1991 class, stated, “I dropped my anchor where all the fish were.”
Although they all played in the 1991 season opener against the University of Detroit, the five freshman did not start as a unit until February 9, 1992, scoring all the team’s points in a 74-65 win over Notre Dame. They started as a unit in all of Michigan’s remaining games, going 11-7 to finish third in the Big Ten. Fisher rotated captains during the season, and Webber was named team MVP after leading the Wolverines in rebounding while finishing second to Rose in scoring. Michigan entered the NCAA tournament as the sixth-seed in the Southeast Region and won five straight games to advance to the Final, where they fell to Duke 71-51. The following year, Michigan returned its top nine scorers and began the 1992-93 season ranked number one in the country. After losing to Duke in the second game of the season, the Maize-and-Blue finished second to Indiana in the Big Ten at 15-3. Webber led the squad in rebounds, points and blocks and was named team MVP for the second straight year. The Wolverines came into the NCAA tournament as the top seed in the West and advanced to the Final Four alongside Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina—college basketball “blue bloods.” After defeating Kentucky in overtime at the Kingdome in Seattle, Michigan faced East Regional winner, North Carolina, in the Final, where Michigan’s final possession of the game became one of the most memorable moments in college basketball history. Down by two with twenty seconds to go and out of timeouts, Michigan’s Chris Webber rebounded a missed free throw, dribbled into a trap, and called timeout—resulting in a technical foul, two free throws and possession of the ball for North Carolina, who won, 77-71. It was the end of an era as Webber broke up the Fab Five by departing for the NBA following the season.
The Fab Five not only revolutionized basketball, they changed the landscape of college sports. Playing in baggy shorts, black socks and with shaved heads, they heavily influenced young athletes across America. Chest-thumping, earrings and tattoos are commonplace in basketball today. In the early 90’s they were ground-breaking. The Fab Five blasted hip-hop music and talked trash, bringing about a culture shock to the status quo. They were ahead of their time and their style set fashion trends while creating a merchandising boom that set college athletics along its current marketing-crazed course. Don’t like college football teams trotting out a new helmet and uniform each week? Blame it on the Fab Five. University of Michigan’s merchandising royalties more than tripled—from $ 2 million to over $ 6 million—during the Fab Five era and Michigan gear sells regionally and nationally. Between 1991 and 2000, admissions applications to UM climbed 36 percent. The Fab Five were polarizing and often portrayed as villains or thugs. They had fun—city kids playing an urban game—while putting on a display of showmanship never before seen in college basketball. Chris Webber left for the NBA following his sophomore year. Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard followed suit one year later. Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were four year starters, leading the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament in each of those seasons. All but Jackson played in the NBA and only Howard earned his degree from UM. In their two seasons together, the Fab Five won 56 games and reached the NCAA Final, but never won a title. In 2002, Webber was convicted of accepting money from a booster while an undergraduate, vacating most of Michigan’s wins and both of their Final Four appearances.
The Fab Five never won a Big Ten or NCAA championship, yet remain one of the most iconic teams in college basketball history, having played in two of the top five highest-rated televised NCAA basketball championship games ever played, in 1992 and 1993.