Michigan has what it takes to 'dream big,' win national title, '89 champs say

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Rumeal Robinson leaps into the arms of teammate Glen Rice as the Wolverines win the NCAA basketball championship in 1989.

Ann Arbor — Rob Pelinka might know a thing or two about what it takes to be successful.

Pelinka is the only player in Michigan men’s basketball history who reached the national title game three times during his career. He was a member of the 1989 team that won the program’s only national championship as well as the 1992 and 1993 “Fab Five” squads that were national runners-up.

After his playing days, Pelinka became an influential NBA basketball agent and founded his own player representation firm  The Landmark Sports Agency  that boasted an impressive client list (Kobe Bryant and James Harden to name a few) before he became the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers in May 2017.

When it comes the ingredients required for a team to have championship-caliber qualities, there are two key traits that rise above the rest from Pelinka’s experience.

“I think what Michigan does  and I've tried to incorporate this in with the Lakers  is just that team approach,” said Pelinka, who was among 11 players from the 1989 team honored last weekend during a 30-year anniversary celebration. “It's not about an individual. I learned that here as a player. I think that's what led to our success.

“The other thing is just the pursuit of excellence. That's a big word that's guided me. I was blessed to go to the business school here at Michigan then go to our law school at Michigan. If you look at the thread that's common to both institutions and the athletic program, it’s excellence, Michigan excellence. I think that's shaped my life, for sure.”

While Pelinka played with different casts during his time at Michigan, he was always surrounded by plenty of talent, with the likes of Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills and Sean Higgins in 1988-89, followed by Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson in 1991-92 and 1992-93.

Despite the varying names and faces, Pelinka said all those teams shared a similar makeup, something he sees in Michigan coach John Beilein’s squads.

Rob Pelinka

"Coach Beilein is one of the best really in the world at all levels, whether it's NBA, college, high school. He's literally one of the best basketball minds the country has,” Pelinka said. “What's remarkable about him is every year no matter who the players are that system is the same and his methodology is the same, and it leads to winning. That's truly impressive. I do think there's similarities with the Steve Fisher-led teams that I played on and with the John Beilein teams of the modern era.”

According to Rice, this year’s Michigan team has “got it all,” from the coaching staff and players to the work ethic and defense.

“They shoot 3s and we shot 3s very well,” Rice said comparing this season’s team to the 1989 title squad. “If I had to say overall, defensively I think they're a little better than us. I think they've got more guys that are scrappy on the defensive end  I wouldn't say a little more pride but they understand how to play defense better than we did.

“Offensively, I think we probably had a little more firepower. But at the same time, I think because of that work ethic I think it can be even. …But if we had to play them, I'd feel bad for them.”

Steve Fisher

Fisher, who was at the helm during the 1989 title run and back-to-back Final Four trips in 1992-93, said he has watched Michigan play on TV often and likes Beilein's roster. 

“I see a team that they've got a moxie about them,” Fisher said. “I love the guard, (Zavier) Simpson. He's a guy that takes no quarter. He's afraid of no one. I don't know that I'd let him shoot hook shots like he does, but he makes them so I guess I would let him shoot them.

“They have a great combination of youth and enthusiasm, and it’s documented how well they're playing defense. You got to make shots to win and I've seen them make shots. If you get in the tournament, it's not like the NBA where the best team usually wins. In the NCAA Tournament, the best team doesn't always win. But I do believe they've got the talent, the experience and qualities that you need to win a national championship.”

In order to go all the way, though, Rice stressed Michigan must have everyone healthy and playing at their peak in the postseason.

And, of course, a little good fortune doesn’t hurt.

“I think anytime you win a championship you've got to have some luck. A lot of times people experience bad luck more often than good,” Rice said. “I think when you look at this team, because they're so scrappy, they're going to provide luck and they're going to provide chances for themselves to pull off the big win.”

Because, as the Wolverines showed in 1989, improbable doesn't always mean impossible.

“They've got an opportunity to close their eyes,” Fisher said, “and dream big.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins