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PistonPowered Book Club: Fab Five by Mitch Albom

I’ve tried for Pistons angles in each of these book club posts so far, but there’s not much I can do on that front with Mitch Albom’s Fab Five. Well, I take that back … there are a few things I could tie into the Pistons, but I doubt anyone wants to reminisce about former Pistons Christian Laettner or Eric Montross, both guys who led their college teams to wins in national title games over the University of Michigan during the two years that Albom chronicled, depending on your perspective, either the greatest class of basketball talent ever assembled or the most hyped class ever. Or maybe they’re both? Who knows.

I chose to do a post on Fab Five not because people aren’t familiar with the story — after the insanely popular ESPN documentary produced by Jalen Rose, I would say their story is definitely not unfamiliar. And I also don’t have some new, fresh ground to cover in a discussion on the book, the players, the movie or the controversies. The reason I wanted to write something about this book is simple: I wanted to write about Chris Webber.

Webber had a fantastic career as a player. He played in two national title games and had a successful NBA career. Even if there are some ‘what could’ve been?’ questions that linger because of injuries, the fact is what Webber was was still great. Maybe he had the talent to revolutionize the power forward position, as some predicted when he was a young player. Obviously, he didn’t quite reach those heights, but he was still one of the best big men of his era. And now, he’s arguably the best former athlete broadcaster out there.

But the question that will always haunt Webber will be the fact that he never won a title at any level. Now, he’s not the first great player to retire title-less. Plenty have done it. But the instances in which Webber got close — twice in college and then in the 2002 Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in one of the most controversial series in recent NBA history — were not just losses, they were career-defining, heart-breaking losses.

But, rational or not, I choose not to define Webber that way. I happily close my eyes to the high profile shortcomings. Timeout? What timeout? I don’t care about the Ed Martin scandal (Feldman will probably suspend me from the site for writing that). I just loved the artistic way Webber played the game. For me, Webber’s career is not defined by his failure to win a title. It’s defined by constantly nearly missing perfect situations.

I love hypotheticals. They’re pointless, but usually always interesting to talk about, and Webber’s career is one of the best to play the hypothetical game with.

What if he’d stayed another year at Michigan? Let’s face it, Michigan had more talent than any team in the country for two straight years. Duke was fantastic, but their experience and intelligence were truly their greatest assets when matched up with UM in the 1992 final. UNC? There is no way that team could compare with Michigan talent-wise in 1993. What if Webber would’ve come back for one more run in 1994? I loved Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas teams, but could they have really dealt with the huge Webber-Howard frontline when one of their bigs was undersized Corliss Williamson? Would their pressure have been as effective with such a high post weapon like Webber who also handled the ball really well for a big man? Teams as talented as Michigan was rarely go without winning a title if they take enough shots. Other things could’ve gone wrong in 1994, but with Webber back, it would’ve taken a crazy upset to keep them from winning the title.

Webber moved on to the NBA where, for a second, it looked like he and Shaquille O’Neal would’ve formed the best frontline of their generation in Orlando. Instead, Webber was traded to Golden State on draft day for Penny Hardaway. But think, for a second, about a Webber-O’Neal high post/low post combination. Would there have been any team that could’ve successfully defended both of those guys? Now, Webber and O’Neal both have egos, as all star athletes do, so there are certainly questions as to whether they could’ve co-existed, but Webber has always been an unselfish player, and I’m convinced it would’ve worked with Shaq. Hardaway was certainly a fantastic player and a key reason that the Magic made the Finals in 1995, but it’s not like the team was completely devoid of perimeter options. Scott Skiles, Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott would’ve been a perfectly formidable starting five with Webber and O’Neal. Skiles and Scott would spread the floor with their shooting and Anderson’s ability to slash and cut would’ve made him a nice target for Webber’s high post passing. If the Magic kept Webber, they could’ve won a title.

After a tumultuous rookie season in Golden State, Webber was traded to Washington. Now, that team hasn’t been a contender for anything since the 1970s, but after acquiring Webber? The then-Bullets had a chance at becoming an absolutely dominant team. I’m serious. Quit laughing.

As with Orlando, it’s all about that front line. Washington could’ve had a front line of Webber, Juwan Howard (then a fringe All-Star caliber player), Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. Rasheed Wallace was traded for Rod Strickland a year before Ben Wallace arrived as a rookie free agent. But if Washington had decided to keep Rasheed Wallace just a little longer (or even trade Howard instead) and if they had a coaching staff who actually realized what it had in Ben Wallace and didn’t glue him to the bench and if Webber and Howard would’ve been a bit more mature than they reportedly were at that stage in their careers, it would barely matter what guards you put on the court with those four as the big man rotation.

Now, Webber did get an opportunity to play for a truly unique team in Sacramento, a team that, despite never making the Finals, will still be remembered for those great series they had with the Lakers and for being one of the best passing teams ever in the modern NBA. But to think about all of the places where Webber very nearly had a chance to be part of something really unique, it just reinforces my belief that he had one of the most interesting careers of any basketball star ever.

And now, I’ve just buzzed through 1,000 words and realized I’ve said precious little about Albom’s book. Seriously, I assume most people have read it or seen the movie, but if you haven’t done both, I highly recommend both. Like them or not, the Fab Five’s cultural impact on the game of basketball is significant, and it’s interesting to hear how they reacted to that influence when they were essentially just kids living it. Albom got incredible access to that team and the book is full of great scenes, two of which stand out to me — Jalen Rose’s failed attempt to talk trash to Muhammad Ali and Webber’s conversation with Michigan football player Shante Peoples, complaining about not having any money even though his No. 4 jersey was for sale right across from where they were eating. That complaint and scene, of course, became funnier with time considering the Martin allegations.

Shameless self promotion: I recently published a short book that ranks the top high school basketball hotbeds in terms of producing NBA talent. It’s called, The HIGH-erarchy: Ranking the top 30 NBA talent producing high schools in history and can be ordered here or as an e-book on Amazon if you’re interested.

Next up: The City Game by Pete Axthelm

Previously:

5 Comments

  • Aug 7, 201110:29 am
    by josh

    Reply

    You don’t have to be a bitter Michigan State fan to critique Albom strongly over centering his book around something that he got grotesquely wrong (Chris Webber wasn’t for sale).  Whether you blame ignorance, incompetence, or deception, it strongly weakens the credibility of anything in that book.  You tip a cap to that briefly but that’s quite the quick wash.

    • Aug 7, 201111:41 am
      by Patrick Hayes

      Reply

      Josh, you’re right, it would be very easy to go into the flaws of this book, namely that Albom had unprecedented access to that team and the program and missed probably the biggest scandal in Michigan history.

      I think that the book has been around so long and is generally regarded at this point not as a piece of journalism, but as a piece of propaganda. And honestly, I’m cool with that. It’s still entertaining to read and I think most people long ago realized Albom is more fable/life lesson writer than journalist. Who knows why he missed that story. Maybe he was complicit in covering it up in return for the access he received, maybe he just plain doesn’t have the hard news instincts to see something like that going on. It would be an interesting question to ask him, but based on his reputation, I doubt he’d address it in any meaningful way.

      Still though, the book isn’t useless. The Fab Five’s importance to basketball has more to do with them as individuals, their style, etc. The book is still interesting from that standpoint.

  • Aug 7, 20111:14 pm
    by detroitpcb

    Reply

    You know, Chris Webber is a very smart man, very bright and articulate, and because of his passing skills and vision on the court it is difficult to question his basketball intelligence.  But Chris Webber’s basketball intelligence failed him in every defining game of his career from that terrible timeout to those losses to the Lakers. I suppose you could rather say it was a failure of will, that Weber lacked the will to impose his intelligence on the game in decisive situations but i think the intelligence itself needs to be questioned. The timeout call alone suggests that it was not just a failure of will but a lack of awareness. And despite all of his physical skill and ability, Weber never really developed a patented go to move in the post – that little flip of his notwithstanding – and certainly never developed a go -to counter move. For that reason alone i question his basketball intelligence. The truly great players always added something to their game every offseason. Think of Magic and the development of his three point squat shot or his use of the baby hook in the post. Weber never did that type of work on his game. He relied on his physical skills which I admit were considerable. Maybe he was just lazy. Intelligent but lazy. Whatever you label it, you cannot say he had a great career. Good to very good, yes. But he never even approached great.

  • Aug 7, 20117:52 pm
    by MrHappyMushroom

    Reply

    It’s funny what memory blips come to mind when recalling something from the semi-distant past.  As a nominal Michigan fan, I watched those two runs to the championship game pretty closely.  At the end of the day, I have three distinct memories about the Fab Five, and two involve Webber.
     
    The non-Webber image is of an absolutely thunderous flying dunk by Jimmy King off an alley-oop.  I think it was against Temple and during the sophomore year.  Temple was taking it to Michigan early, but Michigan had righted the ship.  The King dunk seemed at the time to mean game over, (though it was probably still a close game).  I’m curious if anyone recalls this.
     
    Webber number one is a sort of run of the mill dunk, possibly off of an offensive rebound. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I recall marveling that Chris Webber was probably faster in moving the ball from his waist to the rim as any player in basketball history.  It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment.
     
    And, of course, the time-out scenario…Of course, the time out shouldn’t have mattered, since he also took a couple of steps after grabbing the rebound.  This was a meltdown of epic proportions.
     
    At the time, I mentally created my own Tank McNamara comic (I can’t draw), something to the effect of “Today’s Youth Emulate Their Favorite Basketball Stars”.  In frame one, a ten year old executes a smooth behind-the-back pass, a la Magic; in the second, another cooly swishes a twenty-five footer, as he dreams of being Larry Bird; in the third, as he bases his game on Webber, a kid is frantically screaming “TIME OUT! TIME OUT!” as others look on perplexed.  (Guess you had to be there…)

  • Aug 8, 201111:41 am
    by Jacob

    Reply

    Fab Five was one of the first “adult-level” sports books I read when I was younger – at the time I loved it and loved those 5 players. I’m a big Mitch Albom fan for the books he’s written since, but Fab Five was the first. It was so intriguing to read about those 5 players’ backgrounds, how they came together, how they changed the UM basketball program, and really how they affected the landscape of college basketball forever. This might sound counter intuitive but I think the book is even more meaningful now because of the Ed Martin scandal. You can look at it through the lens of the Fab Five’s image, youth, fame, and how that transcended college basketball without the elephant in the room that was the scandal. Regardless of how it’s perceived now, this book will always hold a special place in my life as a sports fan.

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