Editor's note: Final piece of our six-part series. The 1991 Stanley Cup Final started on May 15, and the 1992 Final Four came to a conclusion on April 6. A Minnesota team or venue was involved in those two major events and three more in between. What a run. We looked back at that stretch of Minnesota sports history each day this week.
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Baggy shorts, baggy jerseys and black socks. That was the Fab Five. Walking billboards for hip-hop music, style and culture. That was the Fab Five.
Trash talk, swagger and bravado meet boy band-level stardom. That was the Fab Five — and Minnesota got an up-close look at these supremely talented teenagers 30 years ago.
The Wolverines' all-freshman starting lineup of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson changed college hoops forever in the 1991-92 season.
In a star-studded Final Four at the Metrodome in April 1992 — the last in a series of mega-events that made Minnesota America's sports capital for nearly a full year — the spotlight could've easily been on two of the best college basketball coaches of all time: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Indiana's Bob Knight. And buzzworthy indeed were the defending national champion Blue Devils, headed by Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Even the Bob Huggins-coached and Nick Van Exel-led Cincinnati Bearcats had an appealing underdog story line.
Instead, the Fab Five stepped off the plane and stole the spotlight.
"You look back now and you realize how big it was," former Michigan assistant and current San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher told the Star Tribune recently. "The Fab Five kind of changed the culture of basketball. Not only from the way they wore their uniforms but the way they performed on the floor together. The joy they played with. You don't realize while you're living it that it's something that special."
Minneapolis was wrapping up nearly a year of hosting some of America's top sports stars. It was these college kids, though, who were greeted at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport by hundreds and had a police escort to the Registry Hotel in Bloomington. A mob cheered as they hopped off the bus.
“It was a cultural moment as much as it was a basketball moment.”
"They do that at all the Final Fours now," Dutcher said. "To be young freshmen getting escorted was eye-opening to all of them and kind of a cool experience."
Extra security and Michigan staff had to keep fans from following the players through the lobby. This was the same team that had lost to the Gophers at Williams Arena a couple of months earlier.
"It felt kind of funny being there playing for the championship instead of playing against the Gophers," Rose told the Star Tribune several years later. "But we were embraced. We were embraced by the fans we normally were booed by, and we were embraced by a town that had no reason to root for Michigan."
Beyond the hype, the Fab Five paved the way for change not just in college basketball but for the next generation of stars. The long, baggy shorts and black socks were contrary to what the NBA donned in the early 1990s and became a new hoops fashion trend. Nike even released a signature shoe (Air Huarache) in 1992 that took off once Webber and Co. wore them during their run to Minneapolis.
College freshmen once waited their turn behind upperclassmen, but the Fab Five trailblazed a path for talented teenagers to take over in years to come. The preps-to-pros and one-and-done eras that followed rode the Fab Five wave.
The Fab Five's legacy is also controversial, especially after the NCAA recently approved athletes being paid off their name, image and likeness. If Michigan's iconic team had been allowed to profit off their NIL at that time, maybe the Final Four banners from 1992 and 1993 would still be hanging in Crisler Center. Instead, they're hidden away and wiped from the record books since Webber and others broke the NCAA's amateur rules by being paid by boosters.
The question remains whether the Fab Five's place in history will ever be restored.
"Ummmmmmm soooo … whoever has the key please hit me up," Webber tweeted after NIL rules passed this summer. "I need that key ... you know … the one to the secret room with the Banners."
Walking the walk
The sixth-seeded Wolverines finished the regular season 20-8 and tied for third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Indiana, but they started the NCAA tournament feeling as if they could "shock the world."
That mentality only got cemented into their psyche after boxing legend Muhammad Ali gave them a motivational speech after meeting them at the Omni Hotel in Atlanta in the NCAA's first two rounds.
Four games later, Michigan's first Final Four berth since the 1989 NCAA title came after conquering a significant hurdle. After being swept by the Big Ten champion Buckeyes during the regular season, Steve Fisher's team got revenge with a 75-71 overtime win in the Elite Eight in Lexington, Ky.
With the rock-star welcome behind them, Michigan took the Metrodome court and earned a tight 76-72 win over Cincinnati in the semifinal that left Rose sobbing at midcourt. Webber and Jackson embraced, and Jackson and Howard went to comfort Rose. The freshmen had done it, they had reached the title game.
“The Fab Five kind of changed the culture of basketball. Not only from the way they wore their uniforms but the way they performed on the floor together. The joy they played with. You don't realize while you're living it that it's something that special.”
"They enjoyed the moment, but they weren't overwhelmed by it," Dutcher said. "We played a very good Cincinnati team in the semis and had to play really well to beat them. We felt we were capable of winning the whole thing."
Duke was too good, however, two nights later. Members of the Fab Five crying on the bench after the 71-51 loss was a lasting image of the '92 Minneapolis Final Four. These talented, confident freshmen took over the city for a brief moment — and created change that you can still see today.
"It was like culturally the perfect matchup," Dutcher said. "It was Duke and their reputation as a class program — this and that. And you had the up-and-coming Michigan team with the brash freshmen, talking on the floor. It was a cultural moment as much as it was a basketball moment. Unfortunately, we came up short."
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America's Sports Capital
This week we look back 30 years at Minnesota's incredible 11 months of mega-sized sporting events:
Part 6: Michigan's Fab Five was an even bigger Final Four deal than Christian Laettner and Duke.