The best part of today's Miami Heat championship celebration (you know, the one where they actually had a championship to celebrate) was Juwan Howard’s teammates leaning on him to break out the Cabbage Patch dance (at the 1:25 mark of this video).
It was the perfect coda to the Fab Five days, taking us back to when the Michigan Wolverines jacked college basketball and gave it a new style. They never won an NCAA championship, but the fact that there’s still such strong memories of Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson in a sense makes them even more impressive. How many other runner-ups could be the subject of the highest-rated documentary on ESPN? I bet you can’t name five members of the North Carolina team that beat them in New Orleans in 1993.
The Fab Five weren’t the first to shave their heads or wear baggy shorts or black shoes. And Howard readily admits they patterned themselves after the UNLV squad whose two-year run came right before the dawn of the Fab Five. But it was the Fab Five’s over-the-top personalities and embrace of hip-hop at a time when it was still a part of the counterculture that made them distinct.
As Howard said: “We had swag, man. Fab Five, we had swag, dog.”
By 2012, 20 years after he played in that first Final Four against Duke, Howard finally got a ring for the Fab Five. Even if his only playing time in the Finals came in the waning minutes of the Game 5 blowout, Howard felt rewarded for his perseverance. He wasn’t the most talented member of the group, but no one ever said he wasn’t the hardest worker. And along, at last, came the ring. Rose won a game with the Indiana Pacers in the 2001 NBA Finals. Webber never got closer than Game 7 of the conference finals. The two of them were at the 2012 NBA Finals, but were wearing suits and talking into microphones. Howard represented, in all likelihood, the last chance for them.
In the champagne-soaked Heat locker room the night they won the championship, Howard went on a stream-of-consciousness recap of his career.
“Finally, man,” he said. “It finally got here. All the hard work, growing up in Chicago, on the South Side, working so hard in Tim Grover’s gym, then made my way to the Fab Five, playing with my teammates, we played two years, we made it to the championship, we lost, then I made it to the championship last year, I started second-guessing myself, like ‘Hold on, is it not meant to be?’ But obviously I was wrong. Because this year, we worked hard, extremely hard. And Pat Riley and management believed in me and allowed me to come back and get this opportunity. And sure enough we delivered as a team. So now I see how it feels to be a champion. Now my name will always be associated as ‘Juwan Howard, NBA champion.’ That’s an awesome feeling, man.
“I waited so long, I never gave up. I put 18 years in [the NBA], you would think that at some point you would be like, ‘Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe I’ll walk away from the game.’ But I still always have passion. I think I still have a lot left to give this team. My leadership and what I’ve done, obviously my teammates appreciate it.”
Heat owner Micky Arison kept bringing up the fact that Howard's initial attempt to join the Heat in 1996 was voided by the NBA for salary cap violations, and here he was winning a ring with them all these years later. But Arison new that was a footnote to the greater significance of Howard's championship: "The Fab Five finally got one."