Chris Webber’s revolution of Michigan basketball made him a star, and now a Hall of Famer

Detroit Free Press

Today’s Michigan basketball players weren’t alive when Chris Webber played for the Wolverines. Neither was I.

But we all have watched “The Fab Five,” ESPN’s 2011 documentary (as part of its “30 for 30 series) about the five freshmen that changed college basketball forever. And we all certainly know who Webber is — the former NBA All-Star and Wolverine who, this September, will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2021 class.                                

Will Webber talk about Michigan when he enters the Hall of Fame? And if he does, what tone will those remarks have? He still has not reconciled with the basketball program even after a 10-year disassociation ordered by the NCAA ended in 2013. He has maintained his distance even though Juwan Howard, his Fab Five teammate, is now Michigan’s head coach.

Webber’s bittersweet relationship — perhaps more bitter than sweet, at this point — with the Wolverines is certainly understandable, given everything that happened between the two parties when Webber accepted impermissible benefits from booster Ed Martin and then lied about it. Then, the program that benefitted so much from Webber’s nascent stardom distanced itself from him, to the point of then-athletic director Don Canham calling the Fab Five era at U-M “a disgrace.” 

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Still, Michigan and Webber are inextricably linked.

Webber is an integral figure in the program’s history. And his two years in Ann Arbor are part of the reason behind his upcoming induction, too.

Webber and his Michigan teammates changed the trajectory of college basketball. By coupling immense talent with their swagger and style, they had a lasting impact on the aesthetics of the sport, if only for the prevalence of baggy basketball shorts.

But they broke ground on the court, as well: Webber accomplished so much as a true freshman during a time when a superstar true freshman was still novel. 

Now, there are other super-classes filled with freshmen who immediately become stars before departing for the NBA. They, too, are memorable during their short time in college. But their journeys can be traced back to Webber’s, an origin story for them all. 

The old game films and highlights show what a unique player he was in college. Webber moved uncommonly well for a player his size — and he also did not play like a conventional back-to-the-basket big man. He could act as a one-man fast break by pulling down a rebound, pushing the ball up the court and whipping a flashy pass to an open teammate. He passed the ball well, averaging 2.4 assists a game in 70 college appearances. He also defended the rim, averaging 2.5 blocks per game in college. 

Watching those old Fab Five games can be jarring; the pace and style is so different from today. But Webber always looks like he would fit perfectly in today’s NBA. He was an archetype for the skilled big men that are more common in today’s game. 

Webber was a unicorn at the professional level, too, and while injuries and age eventually sapped his all-world athleticism, he averaged 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in a 15-season NBA career. Those Sacramento Kings teams that Webber starred with never quite broke through to the top of the Western Conference, but Webber still established himself as one of the NBA’s premier players.

There’s a chance Webber is more fond of his days in the NBA than his career at Michigan, given how things played out afterward in Ann Arbor. But perhaps the two parties will one day mend their relationship. On Sunday, Webber seemingly mended the fence with Jalen Rose after a long and public feud

“I love you, my brother,” Rose said on ESPN. “Congratulations. You made it to the Hall of Fame. Well deserved.”

“Jalen Anthony Rose, it’s crazy, man,” Webber replied. “And thank God for your beautiful, wonderful mother, ’cause you know what she did for me.”

It is unknown when, or even if, Webber will have a similar reunion with his alma mater. But he is entering the Basketball Hall of Fame, which honors those who have impacted the game as a whole, not just the pro ranks. And even if his time at Michigan has been wiped from the record books, it certainly contributed to his Hall of Fame entrance — and helped shaped college basketball as we know it today. 

Contact Orion Sang at Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. 

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