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
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