"When we didn't get Montross, everybody hung their hat on that," Fisher says. "They'd said the only way we wouldn't get Montross is if Fisher screws up. Well, I screwed up. But I kept telling myself that over the long haul, Michigan is too good a university not to get good players who are good kids. This year they may say, 'Can he coach the big names?' But they won't wonder if I can recruit."
How Michigan put together its class for the ages is a tale of hard work, luck, guile, storm clouds that turned out to be lined with silver and, inevitably, controversy. In the end, just as Murphy's Law governed the Wolverines' recruiting flounderings in 1989-90, some benevolent and compensating force seemed to watch over Michigan a year later.
It all began in Chicago last November with Howard, the star at Vocational High who had been MVP of the prestigious Nike/ABCD Camp during the preceding summer. Normally the rest of the Big Ten schools would virtually cede a player of Howard's stature to Illinois and its chief recruiter, Jimmy Collins. But Collins had been grounded from off-campus recruiting excursions while the NCAA looked into charges of recruiting improprieties—charges that resulted in two years probation—and Michigan assistant Brian Dutcher took advantage of the vacuum, developing a rapport with both Juwan and his grandmother Jannie Howard, who had raised him. (Jannie signed her grandson's letter of intent on the morning of Nov. 14, the first day of the early-signing period. She died that afternoon of a heart attack.) Says Fisher, "My only concern was that Juwan would believe the whispers from other schools, the things like, 'You don't want to go there and get double- and triple-teamed and finish eighth in the league.' Or, 'Fisher's on a one-year contract, and he didn't sign any big recruits last year.' [It's Michigan policy that all coaches work under one-year contracts.] Juwan was the key. To get someone with his name recognition was extremely significant."
Howard's signing certainly registered with King, who was attending Piano East High outside Dallas. King and Howard had visited Michigan over the same weekend that September and had taken such a liking to one another that they're roommates now. "Juwan made the first move," King says. "When he signed, I said to myself, Let's do this. This is pretty good!" Still, Kansas had made an impression on King. Only after King's hyperorganized mother read a story in U.S. News & World Report giving Michigan higher academic marks than Kansas did her son settle on the Wolverines.
Like King, Jackson, who attended LBJ High in Austin, Texas, was looking to showcase his skills by getting out of a state which he deemed a basketball wasteland. Michigan assistant Mike Boyd had been close to both King and Jackson, so when Boyd left Ann Arbor in September 1990 to become head coach at Cleveland State, each prospect might have thought twice. But the Michigan staff had prepared all its recruits for the possibility that Boyd might depart, anticipating that competing recruiters—"surgeons," as they're called in the trade, because they cut up their rivals—would be putting a negative spin on Boyd's departure. When Boyd phoned King and Jackson, saying that he still believed Michigan was their best choice, his words had particular credibility.
With Jackson's commitment, Michigan had concluded its out-of-state work, landing three coveted prospects during the early-signing period. Now the Wolverines' staff could turn its efforts to the two best players in the state, Rose and Webber, both of whom had deferred the decision about which school they would attend until the spring. The son of former Providence College and Detroit Piston star Jimmy Walker, Rose led Detroit's Southwestern High in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots last season. Yet as good as Rose was, Webber was better. He was not merely the consensus national Player of the Year; he was a once-in-a-decade talent, the kind that shows up in Michigan as often as a Spencer Haywood or a Magic Johnson.
Webber's legend had begun even before he enrolled at private Detroit Country Day in 1987. After watching Michael Jordan drop 63 points against the Celtics in a nationally televised NBA playoff game in April '86, Webber, then a 6'5" seventh-grader, told a friend he would score 60 and dunk 15 times in a game the next fall. Like a Baby Ruth calling his shots, he indeed dunked 15 times against Bethesda School and did Jordan one better by scoring 64 points. By then Michigan State had already begun looking at him, and years later Webber would nearly sign with the Spartans. "Without Rose and Webber, Steve Fisher still has a good recruiting year," says Mick McCabe, who covers high school sports for the Detroit Free Press. "But if Webber had gone to Michigan State, people would have said Fisher had lost control of the state."
But since they were 13-year-olds growing up on Detroit's west side, Webber and Rose had talked of going off to college together. In addition, each knew Howard and King. As a result of the never-ending circuit of off-season camps, tournaments and All-Star games, most of the top high school prospects now belong to an elite, close-knit club well before they begin their senior seasons. They have compared notes and laughed over the recruiters' most outrageous platitudes and maybe hashed over what it might be like to play on the same team together one day.
Other breaks were going Michigan's way. As the season unfolded, Rose's two top choices, Syracuse and UNLV, became suffused in the doubt of NCAA investigations. Meanwhile, Webber, who has four younger siblings, decided he wanted to stay close to home. And he had warmed to Fisher's positive style; he particularly liked how Fisher encouraged his players even as Michigan went 14-15 last season.
Perhaps just as important, Fisher had shrewdly left unfilled the opening on his staff created when Boyd left. Soon the scuttlebutt was rampant: Fisher was saving the spot for Perry Watson, Rose's coach at Southwestern and Webber's onetime summer league coach. Sure enough, after operating one assistant short all season and temporizing when asked if the job were being saved for Watson, Fisher announced Watson's hiring on May 25.