You'll know this by the third word but this is a guest post from Johnny of RBUAS, who just popped up and was like "I've got this thing." Here it is.
He came from the internet, just like the rest of them. He was in California in barren gymnasiums, making no-look passes from half court with the audacity of someone who thought he’d be the best one there back when the bus was still idling in the parking lot waiting to depart, even though sometimes he wasn’t.
He was at Michigan last year when it was bad and was supposed to be good and when it wasn’t his team because it wasn’t really anyone’s team. And this year when he stewarded a sinking raft that became a submarine lurking just below the water’s surface.
And he was there in Charlotte with eight seconds left, clapping for the ball with enough intensity to turn carbon to diamonds between his hands. Not out of routine or even because it could be no one else but because he knew exactly where he was going and that he needed to get on with it. He needed only the ball and a chance and pursued it with the sort of maniacal focus that ends with you pulling your head inside your shirt completely when you miss because it is dark in there and calm, or at least calmer than the disorienting, vertiginous return to a reality you thought you had transcended in those brilliant moments.
It was a miss that leaves with it a haunting memory; seconds that play on a loop until you fall asleep and then you see them in your dreams. But sometimes they manifest themselves in the type of theatrical vindication accompanied by a montage and a soaring, orchestral soundtrack or at least a bodacious new haircut. I think, at least.
It's technically over but let's call this an interlude.
I think it was sometime in 2006 but all that matters is that it was years after everything happened that they said didn’t happen. Chris Webber was on The Best Damn Sports Show talking to John Salley and some men with spectacularly gelled hair who had never played basketball professionally. And then Jalen Rose appeared on screen via satellite.
Jalen and Chris existed then as they do now: in an impenetrable nebula with other wealthy people who build bowling alleys in Welsh castles and fill the moats with virgin blood and ride around on hover boards sipping Pterodactyl bone marrow straight from fossils. They were exactly where they told each other they would be.
They were there and I knew that they were there because I could see their bodies, and yet they were still mostly back in Jalen’s Dodge Shadow in jackets that were too big; half baffled that they’d made it, half amused that it had been so easy.
Chris said these things:
“Jay had old, beat up shoes, with holes in ‘em, that he would sit around cleaning with a toothbrush and white shoe polish.”
“You’d get a pizza card every day for five days … but me and Jalen would eat the same pizza, save (the cards), so the next week we could get like 15 pizzas.”
“When we were down to UCLA by 20 at halftime, Jalen came in, and Juwan said something, I might have cried, coach Fisher ain’t say nothing, and we walked right back out on the court.”
“Jalen had a green Dodge Shadow that had no back seat because all it had was speakers in the back, that one of his boys hooked up that probably was going to catch the whole car on fire, and all we would listen to was Scarface.”
“It was the best time of my life.”
When they were in that car they were in orbit, in a way, twisting the world in their palms like a tiny stone they’d found floating on their way to another galaxy. They were there and I think, sort of, they always have been.
Jalen told Bill Simmons, “When media members came into the locker room and they hear that kind of music, they’re looking at us like we’re from another planet.”
In some ways they were. Grotesquely fascinating and, in their most thrilling moments, frighteningly unstoppable. Five kids synchronize to create a monster the country struggles to interpret, let alone fathom. They can only stand and watch and listen to the noise and feel the ground shake beneath them. They were a marauding death squad worthy of a theme song and an action figure, shooting apples off each other’s heads once the curtain was drawn.
And so you can pull the banners down; burn them in an open field while orphans sing hymns around the flame. It happened. Something was there and it sort of isn’t anymore but mostly it is, like getting a tattoo of her name removed after she left you and then really left you. Bubbly, mangled flesh where a life once was. It’s gone except that you never forget the times you opened the door and she was there, just standing there, looking at you, waiting for you to let her in.
Brian’s frustration with Webber is not at all irrational. But I never knew them as something that grew, or simply emerged, and then broke everyone’s heart. I know them only filtered through the tumult and deification. Part of why I’m so capable of appreciating the Fab Five is specifically because I’m so detached. I know them through VHS recordings, retrospectives, and ultimately a reputation not so much for capturing the zeitgeist but for chewing it up and spitting it out unmistakably altered. They existed, somehow, and so that is enough for me. They are a geological force, a museum exhibit, an alien cadaver cryogenically frozen in a remote military base to be studied and dissected. It won nothing except everything that actually matters.
It is like someone saying, “So tell me what it was like when you got electricity.” This is what I know because it has always been. Long ago it was dark when the sun went down and now I plug two metal prongs into a wall and can watch infomercials on a colorful rectangle. Only rather than a lab coat they were wearing black socks and an air of magnetic irreverence. I know only what they became.
This is not that team; it is not any team and I have no idea what it will be and for that reason I love it. It is not peculiar or compellingly flawed or even one of Beilein’s self-effacing, limitation embracing West Virginia teams. It is just a thing that is constantly turning into another thing and we see it happen in Jon Horford moving through the lane in what seems like a single step and in laser-precise backdoor bounce passes. In Tim Hardaway Jr. launching three pointers undaunted by distance or obstruction, knowing only of a force that overcomes his entire body and having no desire to suppress it, and a confidence that builds like a tidal wave in the distance and leaves in its wake snapped umbrellas and a 900-win coach’s emasculated smile after barely managing to make it out of there alive.
It is a team at once starkly pragmatic and gleefully ambitious, a kid posing in the mirror in its dad’s fatigues from Vietnam when no one’s home. It is proud and quietly defiant; it is something where things shouldn’t be. If the Fab Five was a seismic force capable of shifting the earth on its axis, this is a plant growing from the fractured pavement.
They came from the internet, obscure aside from their lineage and some of them, for a time, with hair like members of 60’s British rock bands. They are here now and they will be here and I am watching it happen.
Johnny used to write stuff like this at RBUAS before everything became too depressing. He met Lloyd Carr once because Carr liked what he wrote.