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2008, May 23: Detroit Free Press – Mitch flashback: Shouldas, couldas will last lifetime for Fab Fiv

June 24, 2008

May 23, 2008 — Editor’s note: Story originally published on April 7, 1993…

NEW
ORLEANS — They walked slowly into the breakfast room, their feet
making no sound on the carpet. James Voskuil pulled at a dry biscuit.
Juwan Howard poked at a plate of bacon. They joked softly about the
night before, their first trip to Bourbon Street on their final night
in New Orleans. For a few minutes, it was as if nothing had happened.
Then someone mentioned a North Carolina player who was also there on
Bourbon Street, surrounded by a cheering mob.

"Aw, that guy
didn’t do nothing against us," Howard said softly. "The dude who should
be celebrating is Donald Williams. He played good."

A few heads nodded. There was silence. Then suddenly, Howard banged a fist on the table so hard the plate jumped.

"DAMN!" he said.

And all was quiet again.

There
will be moments like that for these kids of ’93, during breakfast, or a
lonely car ride, or some boring class, devilish moments that will slip
inside their brains and do an annoying dance. Suddenly, they will see
it all again, the Superdome crowd, the cheering Carolina players, the
end-of-the-world look on Chris Webber’s face as the officials signaled
technical foul, give us the ball, it’s over.

The real pain of losing a national championship isn’t the time it actually happens.

It’s all the times it keeps coming back.

Once more across the canyon

So
as the Wolverines flew home, and as they gathered their luggage, even
as they politely received the cheers of their schoolmates in Crisler
Arena, they were still reliving those final seconds inside their heads.
Shoulda done this. Coulda done that. Can’t believe we didn’t do the
other thing. And somewhere deep beneath all that, a hook was being cast
all the way into next year, the first Monday night in April. As of
today, the Michigan basketball team begins the terribly hard task of
reeling itself through the calendar one more time.

"Next year, baby," a bellman said to Howard.

"You know it," Howard said.

But
nobody knows it. Nothing is for sure. The task of slugging through the
regular season, winning enough games, avoiding injuries, getting a
decent draw, then starting this maddening Russian roulette tournament
in which one bullet kills you on any of six nights over three weeks —
well, the odds are simply staggering. Even great teams succumb.
Consider Duke and Indiana, good enough to beat Michigan, not good
enough to avoid one fatal slip in March.

Which makes what the
Wolverines did these last two years — reaching the championship final
— like walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, then turning
around and walking it again. Now imagine turning, and making another
try. Sure, it can be done. But you look down, into the abyss, and you
wonder how many times you can be perfect.

A dream — forgone

"You
know what’s weird?" Rob Pelinka said, heading toward his room to pack
one last time. "Eric Riley told me before the game that he’d dreamt I
would win it with a three-point shot from the left corner.

"And you know where I was when Chris brought the ball up? In the left corner. And I was open."

He
shook his head. The devil danced. Pelinka — who had lent his 1989
championship ring to Webber the night before the North Carolina
showdown — is outta here now. So are James Voskuil, Riley and Michael
Talley. What that means is the Fab Five are suddenly upperclassmen.
What that means is they are truly in charge.

They could come
back next year and treat the regular season like jury duty. Sleepwalk
through it. Stumble often. Or they could be so angry, so determined to
chalk up something on the board, that only a perfect season would
suffice.

Whatever. This is certain: Next year will be the
hardest thing they have ever tried to do. But then, wasn’t this year?
When you really look at Monday night’s game, you see that Webber’s faux
pas was only one of many: Jalen Rose turned the ball over six times;
Jimmy King launched a late-in-the-game air ball; Howard scored only
seven points; the team got to the free throw line only seven times all
night. There are things to work on. These are ways to get better. If
they are the players Steve Fisher professes they are, they will use the
summer to do just that.

In the meantime, enough torture. Rather
than close the season with a replay of Monday’s maddening final
seconds, take with you instead these quieter scenes from a season gone
by.

Howard, holding the coaches’ children in his arms as the
Wolverines celebrated their win over Temple. Ray Jackson, laughing with
his Texas friends who drove from Austin and slept in the car just to be
there for him. King, his eyes bulging when he saw his father for the
first time here — with a shaved head! Rose, delighting a ballroom full
of reporters by saying, "If I were president there’d be no more wars —
unless someone provoked us, and then we’d have to get ’em." And Webber,
the emotional man-child, ignoring the crowd, walking through a mall
with his arm around his younger brother, looking to buy him a birthday
present.

They are people first. Players second. Next year is
third. It will be ridiculously hard. It will come soon enough. For now,
for all they have accomplished, you can only tell these amazing kids to
get some sleep, and hope their dreams are kind.

By MITCH ALBOM ? FREE PRESS COLUMNIST ?