My Wolverines played a beautiful game yesterday at Crisler against the hated #9 Spartoons, who came in 1 point favorites and missed the spread by 10. In the first 6 minutes they scored only 3 points, trailed buzzer to buzzer, and went the last 4 ½ minutes without sinking one bucket. In a physical game, our boys were all over the hardwood: draining 3s , diving for loose balls and hustling constantly in general, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, tipping in missed shots, winning 50:50 balls, stopping State’s transition game, making their star Cassius Winston work for every shot, making free throws and even executing an alley-oop that evoked the Fab Five when Eli Brooks picked up his dribble before the 3 point line and lofted the ball in the general direction of the basket where John Teske, already airborne, picked it out of the air and slammed it through in a thunderous dunk, the sell-out maize clad crowd erupting in raucous appreciation. Coach Howard patrolled the sidelines, resplendent in a two-tone blue and white shirt, maize tie, beautiful deep blue suit, and the brown shoes I was always told don’t pair with blue, but looked great on him. Animated, he looked like he could still step in and spell Teske for some minutes if necessary, but I think he’s out of eligibility. For those who worried and are till worrying whether the quiet steady excellence John Beillein had established could be matched by this rookie coach, most beloved of the Fab Five but with zero head coaching experience, yesterday’s display is a taste of where the program is headed, I think, and it looks like a pretty exciting place. I’m glad Kathy and I got our season tickets when we did – early in the Beillein era – because I predict they’re going to be pretty hard to get.
Kathy and I are Michigan football fans first. Kathy’s family has had season tickets on the 50 yard line since 1964, also the first year my dad took me to a game. Kathy has many alluring qualities, and it was easy to fall quickly and deeply in love with her. But when tallying up practical matters while considering marriage, those tickets sure didn’t hurt. But we both like basketball, too, with Kathy a veteran of the college game herself, playing center at little Wooster. I’ve been hooked since Cazzie, but my own college and med school playing was confined to the intramural court. Kathy and I never had a kid, but an older friend once offered to cover our expenses raising any male offspring in return for a share of his NBA contract. Would’ve had to have been my height and her athletic ability. People sitting behind us at games sometimes complain how hard it is to see over us. Kathy informs them we could be parents of one of the kids out there on the court; not true, of course but I’ll bet most basketball parents are around our size. So, fans, think twice about complaining about those middle aged trees sitting in front of you. So those aren’t our kids out there, but in some ways yes they are. Basketball is a much more personal sport than football. There are only around 12 players and maybe 4 coaches so it’s easy to get to know names and faces. And bodies, at least for the players, who are out there basically playing in their underwear. The big screens in Crisler show bits featuring the players in cute and funny skits, so you even get to know their voices and taste their personalities. Plus you have so many more chances to bond, with 30 plus games in a season to football’s 12. So following a basketball team is much more intimate experience watching football. At Michigan, the numbers bear this out. Michigan stadium holds 110,000 fans watching 22 players on the field, or 5,000 fans per player. The 17,000 in a full Crisler watch 10 on the court, or 1,700 fans per player. Q.E.D. Kathy and I have been watching our kids out there for over 36 years. The Frieder era was fun, watching coach chew his towel while his players played pretty much undirected, but won anyway. From Bo’s firing of Frieder to Rumeal Robinson sinking those free throws to beat Seton Hall in the finals, 1989 was quite a ride. Steve Fisher was a nice guy and coached a lot like his predecessor, but boy could he recruit. Then came 1991. The first jaw-dropping get was an All-American center and an honors student at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, 6’9” Juwan Howard. Quickly following were All-Americans Chris Weber and Jalen Rose of Detroit and two Texans: Plano’s Jimmy King, who had befriended Juwan in camp, and Austin’s Ray Jackson. Thus was assembled the greatest recruiting class in NCAA history and the Fab Five were born
Fisher didn’t start them all together till mid season, but they caught fire in the tournament and made it to the final four. They’d get to the finals the next year but then began to break up. Kathy and I had some trouble with the Fab Five. Sure, they were exciting to watch and could do some spectacular things, but their flamboyant, free-wheeling, improvisational style didn’t seem right for conservative Michigan, like Bo Schembechler running a spread offense. Oh, wait, isn’t that what Bo’s protegé Jim Harbaugh does nowadays? But trouble found the Fab Five, or at least some of them, in the form of generous booster Ed Martin, whose investigation and 2002 guilty plea on conspiracy to launder money had devastating antegrade and retrograde effects on Michigan basketball. The University tried to get out ahead of the NCAA and imposed multiple sanctions on itself: All games were vacated from seasons 1992–93 and 1995-9. This included the final fours, a 1997 NIT title and the 1998 Big Ten Tournament title, placing banners for those accomplishments rolled up in storage at the Bentley rather than hung from Crisler’s rafters. It returned almost half a million in NCAA postseason revenue and self-imposed 2 years probation. The NCAA said okay and added two more years probation while docking us 1 scholarship per year from 2004 to 2008. John Beillein came from West Virginia and unlike the football coach we’d hired earlier away from Morgantown proved to be a resounding success. He started to pull us up out of the depressing deep valley we’d been in since Fisher’s firing 10 years ago that Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker tried to negotiate, with little success. His only losing season was his first. His teams played a disciplined but fun game, and Beillein had a knack for finding under the radar players and developing them into stars. Tournament became a given and sometimes our teams went quite a way in, including championship games in 2103 and 2017. Everyone was shocked when he announced less than two months after the tournament that he was leaving to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, hired away by Detroit billionaire and Michigan State alum Dan Gilbert. He’d interviewed with the Pistons a year before and I think was looking for a new challenge. What might pro-quality talent do in his system? The jury is still out on that, and some of his players are chafing under his professorial guidance. Meanwhile Warde Manuel had to find a new coach. It took him all of 9 days to welcome home one of Michigan Basketball’s favorite sons, veteran of 19 NBA seasons that included 2 championships and an all-star appearance followed by 6 years as a well-regarded assistant pro coach, Juwan Howard. The emotion at his introductory press conference was palpable. Kathy and I and many other people have a real good feeling about this hire. His first season has had its ups and downs, but I’m writing this the day after a big up, and I don’t see why it’s not going to last. And, oh, the future! Juwan has shown by his actions that he’s not going to recruit like Beillein. If diamonds in the rough show up, I’m sure Juwan can polish them. But Juwan’s going after the brightest stars. He’s got one or two such commits already, and has a bead on several others. What kid wouldn’t want to play for this guy? He runs an NBA-style offense – still disciplined – but lets the kids play . He’s young at heart with an impish sense of humor and a very kind way. And he sure looks good in those $5000 suits. But the recruit will have to hack it at a difficult school, following the example of his coach who earned his degree on time with his class, despite leaving school after his junior year for the NBA.
Juwan shares himself, even with me and Kathy. He does a local radio show every Monday night at 7 from the Blue Leprechuan, a bar on South University kitty corner from my wife’s office. We made the lucky choice to go see his first show of the season. Michigan Basketball was on a high, having won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, beating two highly ranked teams in the process and emerging ranked #4 in the country. Their coach was too. We’d never seen Juwan live closer than across Crisler’s court, and there he was in a warm-up suit two tables away. He was magnanimous, funny and oh so genuine. After he relinquished his seat on the dais to women’s coach Kim Barnes Arrico, he made himself available to the assembled, mostly boomers rather than the throng of students I’d expected. I went up to him and offered my 6’8” services to the team, saying I thought I had some eligibility left. He hasn’t gotten back to me on that yet, but he did pose for a picture,
Kathy says he was bending his knees. I don’t think so as real tall men don’t do that sort of thing standing next to each other.
We’ve been regulars at the Blue Lep Mondays since. Still the same crowd. Kathy had questions for Juwan about a student of hers with whom she still keeps contact: Austin Davis, a 6’11” 260# senior backup center from little Onstead 21 miles away who wants to become a physical therapist. Austin wasn’t a highly regarded recruit but Beillein thought he could polish him a bit and you can’t teach 6’11”. Till this year, he’s been sort of a bust. People would cringe in those rare times he saw the court, as he always looked lost and made mistakes. Not so this year. He looks like he belongs and makes plays. Kathy wondered what it was about Juwan’s coaching: big man to big man? That was his job on the bench with the Heat.
Juwan didn’t elaborate on specifics, but was pleased at Kathy’s comment that Juwan’s coaching likely had a major role in the vast improvement she’s seen in Austin’s play this year. Austin has continued to improve, scoring 11 in 15 minutes against Ohio State last week. He doesn’t start yet, but has taken the floor to join starter 7’1” Jon Teske, in Juwan’s scary monster tall trees twin towers line up. That’s over 14 feet and 500 pounds of mean basketball meat out there!
So Kathy and I just love Juwan, and I think a lot of other people do too. He’s the coolest coach in college basketball. The future looks bright and I think he’ll be here a long time. Kathy and I will be there to support him every step of the way, ready to help out in any way we can.