(Editor’s Note: April 5, 2019 marks the 26th anniversary of Chris Webber’s infamous timeout in the 1993 national championship between Michigan and UNC. Chris Webber is a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — the Class of 2019 will be announced Saturday, April 6.)
If you are of a certain age, you remember the moment known now as The Timeout. You might not remember precisely where you were standing or who was with you when it happened on April 5, 1993. But the people who found themselves standing in the middle of it certainly do.
For the rest of us, the 35 million people who were watching the NCAA championship game between Michigan and North Carolina, we remember the feeling we all had, the physiological reaction we all had, no matter which team we were rooting for. That is true even now, almost 25 years later, and it will be especially true Wednesday night, when those teams meet for the first time since that fateful engagement in New Orleans (7:30 ET, ESPN).
“Webber brings it into the frontcourt … they have no timeouts remaining … Oh! He calls it, too many timeouts! That’s a technical foul! He called a timeout, and Michigan doesn’t have any!”
If you are not of a certain age — no one playing Wednesday night in the Dean Dome will be — here’s what happened, recalled by those were on the floor. Well, all but one of them.
Michigan’s Fab Five, that rarest of legends that manages to reach a status of timelessness during its actual time, was playing in its second consecutive national title game, having been throttled by Duke one year earlier. The most ballyhooed all-at-once recruiting class in college hoops history had delivered plenty in its two years together, via a mixture of winning, hip-hop and — oh man — those long, baggy shorts. They had blasted through the 1992-93 season, including an early win over North Carolina in Hawaii. They were on the verge of delivering the one promise that had eluded them: a championship of any kind.
The perfect contrast to Michigan, North Carolina was the oldest of old-school programs. Dean Smith was at the height of his powers, with a core group of players who went to the Final Four two years earlier. But they had spent the 1992-93 season in the shadow of their archenemies — yes, Duke. Carolina wasn’t Fab Five. It was Four Corners, crew cuts, blue belts and all.
These two teams spent their Monday night in the Superdome trading blows. Michigan had an early 10-point lead, but that vanished by halftime. Carolina had its typical early-second-half run, but that also was countered, primarily by way of the 23 points posted by the Fab Five’s leader, Chris Webber.
“There were two guys who had their way all night, and that was Donald Williams and Chris Webber,” Eric Montross, the UNC center, recalled of his teammate, who had 25 points. Montross was no slouch himself, with 16 points in the middle. “You kind of knew it might come down to one of those two making the play that iced the game.”
Sure did — just not the way anyone could have foreseen.
After UNC’s Pat Sullivan missed the back end of a one-and-one, Webber hauled in his 11th rebound of the night with 20 seconds remaining and the Wolverines trailing 73-71. This is the part when you think we’re going to jet the length of the floor and into the corner in front of the Michigan bench. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Just not yet. A lot happened before then — stuff that is forgotten now.
“Everyone on our team knows the play at this point, and Coach [Steve] Fisher had drawn it up again during our last timeout, with about two minutes remaining,” recalled Jalen Rose, the guard and mouthpiece of the Fab Five who now uses that mouth for ESPN. “Chris is going to get the rebound off a miss, outlet to me, I’ll take it up, try to get a 3-pointer off a pick-and-roll. If they bottle that up, then I swing it to Chris to take a shot. If his man shows, then he can to swing it to Jimmy King or Rob Pelinka in the corners. That’s our play.”
Instead, as both teams evacuated the floor under the basket and headed up the court, Webber all at once smothered the ball, started to call a timeout, then looked up to see what teammates were around. He spotted Rose but found UNC defender George Lynch in his face. He decided to take it up the floor himself.
Then Webber walked. Everyone in the Superdome saw it, especially the Tar Heels bench Webber was in front of, which erupted incredulously. Everyone saw it, it seemed, except the official who was trailing the play and had perhaps the best view of all. He called nothing, and Webber picked up speed, crossing midcourt.
“If we’d called the walk, then everything else disappears,” former NCAA basketball official Tom Harrington conceded in a 2014 conversation.
The seven-time Final Four veteran was in position along the baseline beneath Michigan’s basket when Webber dragged his foot. Harrington recalled seeing the UNC bench’s reaction, hearing the screams from the crowd and thinking, “Oh no, what’d we miss?” His crewmate Jim Stupin was the official who didn’t make the call. “North Carolina gets the ball right there, up two.” Harrington said. “But it’s still just a two-point game. The truth is, we didn’t even know about it until we were in the locker room after the game.”
That’s where Hank Nichols, then-NCAA supervisor of officials, informed them of the miss and said, “You guys did a great job, but you have to be lucky sometimes. If Michigan had won that game, everyone tonight wouldn’t be talking the teams. They’d be talking about us.”
Michigan did not. And no one was talking about any mistakes from the officials. Instead, everyone was talking about a call the officials were forced to make.
Webber seized his second life and headed toward his half of the floor. Lynch was joined by teammate Derrick Phelps, forming a double-team that pushed the All-American to the right and toward his own bench. Lynch recalled: “When we’d played early in the season, Derrick and I pressed them a few times, just us. At least a couple of those times, they used timeouts to stop and try to figure out how to get the ball across midcourt. You’re just trying to create doubt.”
In 2009, while wrapping up his lone season with the Charlotte Bobcats, Juwan Howard, Michigan’s center, remembered watching his friend’s quick drift toward the sideline. He said that while standing in the lane preparing to face off with Montross, he experienced a feeling that he’d recall a few years later when sitting in a movie theater and watching James Cameron’s “Titanic.” It was that leaning-your-head feeling of hope that the crewmen expressed as they looked off the bow at the iceberg, hoping their vessel would finally lean its way into a safer direction. “Bring [it] this way, brother. Bring in this way. Run the play.”
Instead, UNC’s top two all-time ball stealers continued to push Webber into the corner, sacrificing an assignment behind as their teammates starting moving in a zone defense. They were doing their job extremely well. With the seconds ticking away, Webber was lost and knew he was about to be trapped in the corner. He needed help, and he knew it.
But no sweat, there were still 11 seconds remaining. Plenty of time. So he called a timeout.
One problem: Michigan was out of timeouts.
“We all knew we were — at least those of us on the floor certainly knew we were. We had addressed that in the huddle when we’d used our last timeout, so what I felt was just, it was denial,” Rose said of the fraction of a second in which he realized what Webber had done. In that moment, Rose, along with all of his teammates, raised his hands to the top of his head in the pose now known as the “surrender cobra.” “We should have never been in that situation anyway. We were off all night, but we were still going to win and were going to win because of Chris. Then we weren’t.”
Montross remembers it all unfolding amid a sort of haze as he walked back toward the Carolina bench. “Our bench was just losing its mind,” he said. “They were jumping up and down, celebrating. Then your mind starts adding it all up. Wait, they told us Michigan didn’t have any timeouts remaining. But he just called one. And now our guys are celebrating, and Coach Smith is pulling Donald aside to tell him he’s going to the line to shoot because it’s a technical foul. You know what’s happening, but your brain is like, ‘Wait — is this what’s actually happening here?'”
Williams made both shots. After another foul and another pair of swishes from Williams, it was over. North Carolina 77, Michigan 71.
Howard and Rose both remember going through the motions of the postgame handshakes and then rushing to the locker room to find Webber. In the arena, he had stalked around with a blank, incredulous stare, as if he were waiting for this surely alternate reality to be replaced by something better.
Then he was lying on the floor with his head in his hands. “They said, ‘He needs to go out for the press conference,'” Howard remembered. “I told him, ‘You can do this, man. We will do it together.’ And we went up on that stage. People never remember Chris doing that. He sat up there, a few minutes after the worst moment of his life, and he answered those questions. People want to rip him for not addressing it since, but he did that night.”
It was indeed the last time. Webber hasn’t discussed that moment for any media outlet — not even for the Fab Five 30 for 30 that Rose produced. And no, not for this story. It has been a source of frustration for the entirety of Wolverine Nation since that night. Rose said his friend’s refusal to own The Timeout hasn’t just damaged Webber’s image but has also eroded the legacy of the Fab Five. “Since he doesn’t own it, he’ll never get over it,” Rose said.
After the news conference, Michigan boarded the bus together for the last time. Everyone knew Webber would be leaving early for the NBA and the five would be down to four. But first they had to get the hell out of New Orleans. Fisher allowed Webber’s mother on the bus to sit with her son. “Chris crying was the only sound on the bus,” Rose said. “All the way back to the hotel.”
Back in the Superdome, no one dressed in Carolina Blue was willing to give Webber’s mistake total credit for UNC’s victory. It was (and still is) a sore subject that Dean Smith’s only previous national championship had come via a mistake, when Georgetown’s Freddie Brown mistakenly tossed the ball to James Worthy to finish the ’82 title game — in the Superdome, no less.
“I don’t think that timeout necessarily cost [Michigan] the game,” Smith said that night. “We only had three team fouls at that point, and we were going to keep fouling them to use up the clock. … Even if that timeout hadn’t occurred, I think we had Webber in a pretty tough situation with the double-team.”
Then the living legend caught himself, winked and added: “But it did make it a little easier when Donald Williams stroked those foul shots.”
A quarter-century later, those feelings haven’t changed. “I think there’s a part of us that wished the timeout had never happened, even if it’s only a really, really small part,” Montross said with a laugh. “The truth is we were in really good shape even if that doesn’t happen.”
“Then I guess we all agree on that — that we wish it had never happened!” Rose replied to such talk out of Chapel Hill, with laughter of his own. “But honestly, I do think everyone wishes it could have played out on the floor. What would have happened? We’ll never know.”