They're Fab, they're Five, they're fun and definitely in control


April 05, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- There is nothing wrong with the Fab Five. Not a thing. Forget what you might have heard, or what you

might have thought. They aren't villains. They aren't underachievers. They aren't a threat to civilization.

What they are, without a doubt, is trapped. Prisoners of their potential.

And what they are, without a doubt, is a challenge to the conventional notions of college basketball.

But villains? That's ridiculous. They're just 19-year-olds having a blast. They're fun. They're not programmed, which college kids should never be. Chris Webber plans to use some of his pro money to open a school for kids from poor families, "to teach them the pride they need," he was saying yesterday. That's a villain?

They might occasionally use a taunt or point a finger, but no moreso than players on 250 other teams. That's just the game today. Temple coach John Chaney got upset about it after Michigan had beaten him in the West Regional final, but Chaney's younger, hipper players didn't mind. It was a generational thing. Chaney just didn't get it.

And undisciplined? Please. Maybe the Fabs are unorganized next to ultra-precise North Carolina, their opponent in tonight's NCAA title game. But don't let their freewheeling offense fool you into thinking they're out there relying on instincts alone. Give them the credit they deserve. They win with defense and rebounding, the two areas of the game requiring the most discipline. Hold your position. Block out. Don't let lanes open up.

In Saturday's semifinal win over Kentucky, the Fabs cleverly and patiently slowed their offense to slow frenetic Kentucky's. They dismantled Kentucky's famous three-point game and harassed the Wildcats into 35-percent shooting. They kept Kentucky from scoring a basket in the last three minutes of overtime.

"That's a smart, disciplined team," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said.

"Discipline in those areas is the No. 1 reason we're winning," JalenRose said.

The biggest laugh of all, of course, is the accusation that the Fabs are underachievers. Bill Walton up and said it out loud. A lot of coaches, reporters and fans have thought it. It's just crazy. This is a team that starts five sophomores. They were in high school two years ago. Now they're in their second NCAA championship game.

"I hope I underachieve like this for the rest of my life," guard Jimmy King said.

Yet they have been a magnet for unflattering opinions all season long. It's not hard to figure why. They're playing a game with no margin of error. They made the championship game as freshmen, which meant there would be no alternative to Winning Right this year, winning big, which they haven't done; and there would be no alternative to winning it all in the end. Anything less would notbe enough, not with that kind of talent. "Extraordinary expectations," coach Steve Fisher called it.

And then there is, for lack of a better description, the discipline thing, which won't go away even if the Fabs win tonight.

See, college basketball is a cult of coaching. The stars are Knight, Smith, Coach K. Coaching is everything, we're told. You're not supposed to be able to win unless you have a system, a structure. Look at Syracuse, unable to win with all those players. Look at Houston's Phi Slama Jama, all that talent neutralized by Jimmy V. What's the lesson? It's a coaches' game. What's the moral? Any team not buying in is going to suffer in the end.

So along come the Fabs, winning with streamlined street ball, with a coach who lets them do what they want on offense, a coach who isn't an egomaniacal control freak, and everyone else just loses it. The circuits of the game start smoking. This can't happen, can it? This goes against everything held as conventional wisdom, doesn't it?

Let's see, experience counts, right? Not this time. Sideline strategy is essential, right? Not when you can make big things happen like this team. You can't win if you don't play 40 minutes, if your mind tends to wander, right? Wrong. Just plain wrong.

The Fabs are simply a breakthrough ballclub, a shock to the system. But they're not punks, not mean-spirited. Jalen Rose's idea of trash-talking Saturday night was to keep asking Kentucky's Travis Ford where he was going to dinner after the game. What? But that's just the Fabs. They're originals. They're not playing the game by your rules. They're making up their own. Sorry, no harm in it. None at all.

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