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Picking at Scabs: The Fab Five and the Passage of Time

Suddenly I was mad. It came out of nowhere. There I was, having a drink with several law school classmates, none of whom went to Michigan, and I was mad. Not at them. But at Chris Webber.

When the Fab Five documentary came out about a month ago, I passed on the initial opportunity to discuss it. I thought it was an interesting piece of filmaking and definitely worth the time to view it. It offered a perspective on the events of the early 90's that, as a high school student, I was oblivious to. I never knew about the hate mail. I didn't understand what the DPL was like. I didn't know much about those five Michigan freshmen before they became famous. I didn't know much about what happened to their lesser parts after the spotlight faded. So, to that extent, I found the documentary very interesting, rewarding television. But to the extent that the documentary reminded us how good those five kids were, I knew that already.

I actually remember the Fab Five pretty clearly. As a teenager who was playing pick-up ball in the early 90's, their presence was everywhere. Even in Texas. Michigan shorts and T-Shirts. The black Nikes. The sagging, baggy pants and the scowls. They were all over the place. You couldn't shoot hoops anywhere, from the YMCA to the JCC to the play ground without at least two players wearing Michigan paraphernalia and some unauthentic fool trying imitate Chris Webber.

I remember the games too. Michigan found itself on television often (at least by early 90's standards) because of the Fab Five. I'd watch the fernetic pace of the games, the dunks, the crisp passes, and the dunks, the dunks, the how did he hit that lay-ups, and the dunks. Every steal was a highlight reel waiting to happen. It was exciting and damn was it fun to watch.

I also remember it could be somewhat disorganized. As much as I remember the blow outs, I also remember the times when things looked like they'd been thrown in a blender. The passes to no one. The contested fade aways. The "no name" white guy coming off the bench to bury the vital three pointers that saved their bacon, only to fade back into the background despite the fact he'd been a started on the 1989 championship team. I remember scratching my head and saying to myself, "what the hell is going on" before the Wolverines regrouped and resumed pounding whomever they were playing.

Despite my interest and my eventual matriculation to Michigan, I was veryremoved from it all. I was in Texas after all. I didn't grow up in a Michigan household. Neither of my parents are Michigan alumni and neither of them were sports fanatics outside of pro baseball. I didn't have Michigan influences. There was no one, other than myself, who gave a rat's ass about Michigan in my general vicinity. So, to an extent, my initial impression of the Fab Five and their legacy is my own. I would like to flatter myself and think that my opinion on the Fab Five is unique because of this, but the more I talk with other alumni and fans the more I learn it isn't. In fact, the more I learn my confusion and anger are shared.

There is a clear divide among the Michigan faithful as to how to deal with the legacy of Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Chris Webber. In my observation, the younger the fan, the more likely they are to say let bygones be bygones. The older they are, the more more likely the fan is apt to say "burn in hell for what you did to my Michigan." Ask a hundred fans on either side of 30-35, and I can just about guarantee they will come down this way. But for fans in their 30's... well... that's where the demarcation line seems to be most clearly defined.

If you're in your early 30's the Fab Five was likely your first impression of college basketball. They were the first genuinely unique, cool teenagers you'd ever seen. They didn't seem to care about anything except winning. They played brilliantly and beautifully. They made you wantto play basketball irrespective of your level of talent. Maybe you got a Webber or Rose jersey for your birthday, Christmas, or in my friend's case his bar mitzvah. They were, as Johnny said, the birth of cool for an entire generation.

But even within this unique subset of Michigan fans there are many different opinions and feelings as to how the Fab Five should be remembered and what their legacy should be.

To me their basketball legacy is fairly clear. They changed how the college game was watched and played. Five freshmen playing at once. The simple concept, which we now take as a given, that a freshman could impact the game immediately was basically created by them. Michigan was playing five freshmen and housing fools. Today, we see freshmen on the court and wonder if they'll stick around for their sophomore years. We never thought about it until they did it. The swagger, the playground like joy with which they played the game, the entertainment they provided. This wasn't as much a basketball team as it was an electrical storm released on the masses. 

Though many point to their "style" on the court, the black socks and baggy shorts, I couldn't care less. Rose admitted during the biopic that they based their shorts on what Michael Jordan was wearing. Like so many of us they wanted to be like Mike too. They didn't invent trash talk, it was a part of the game long before they arrived. What they did do was celebrate it. Whether or not that was a good thing is up to you.

If you followed pro basketball in the late 80's early 90's, you knew that the game was changing. Magic and Bird were giving way to Jordan. The skin tight shorts were being replaced by longer roomier shorts. The one man game started to become more common place. Some would suggest that this was the street game permeating the NBA, though it's arguable it was the other way around.

Guys like Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins brought a street ball mentality to the NBA longer before the Fab Five were even dribbling. Dr. J's Astrodome sized fro combined with his windmill layups and dunks made the ABA and NBA fun to watch and a generation of kids want to be the next "Doctor". Remember back to Jordan's free throw line dunk, Dominique Wilkins thunderous tomahawks, and Spud Webb throwing down. The game was already moving in that direction, those five Michigan freshmen just seemed to encapsulate it so well that so many people decided they invented it. Steve Allen invented Late Night, but Johnny Carson is remembered for it.

I think the reason it mattered, the big difference, was that this happened at Michigan. The stodgiest of the stodgy. An uptight, psuedo-progressive school that projected an outward image of the holier-than-thou and played basketball like the blue bloods. There wasn't trash talk at Michigan (I call BS on that, Mr. Rice, please step forward). Michigan did it "right." If you're looking for a visual, it was a country club and college wrapped into one. So the image of these five brash kids coming in and utterly contradicting that image was more shocking to the system than anything non-NCAA infracting thing they did there. They brought the changing NBA culture and their own street culture to Michigan and changed how Wolverine fans saw their team.

For a lot of us it was exciting. For some of us it was unsettling. I'm not going to get into this. I loved watching them play. You're entitled to you own opinion on that one.

But Michigan paid a heavy price for the this excitement. Not long after their departure a federal investigation into a Detroit area basketball booster named Ed Martin brought the whole program to its knees. In fact, the investigation almost killed the program. And it all began in 1991 with the arrival of the Fab Five.

As I've aged my puritanical and rose colored glasses on sports as a whole have long since been discarded. I know that there are $100 handshakes, free rides, and all manner of benefits to student athletes that they would not otherwise have access to were they not playing sports in a college uniform. As someone who was able to attend Michigan out of state, without the aid of scholarships, I came from an entirely different world than Jalen Rose did. I did not want. I didn't have to. He did. He grew up in a single parent household with a mother breaking her back to keep the lights on.

But then again, he was at Michigan on a free ride with housing, food, clothes, books, and training included. I know plenty of kids from similar situations who didn't have those benefits, but came from similar circumstances. They managed to make due with side jobs and living in the dorms so that they could pay for housing, food, clothes, and books. Maybe the athletes didn't get a portion of the profits they raked in, but they got a much better deal than the hundreds of kids in their classes than were struggling to stay in school with them. As much as Rose wants to paint the picture of a struggling student, there are enough accounts of how well he lived to dispute this notion. And if you believe them, there is no other conclusion you can draw other than Rose was doing just fine, thank you.

Even so, I don't harbor any ill will toward Jalen on this one. Irrespective of his admission that he took money from Ed Martin, I never got the impression he was leaning on Martin any more than a nephew would bug a close uncle for a couple of bucks. Or a step-son would ask a step-dad for a pizza and a new set of sneakers. And as Jalen so fervently pointed out, he didn't have any of that in his life. Jalen was flat out poor. There wasn't a dad, a uncle with some bucks, a step-mom or dad to help out. There was Ed Martin. A guy who, allegedly, started out helping kids who played ball in the DPL get shoes, coats, something to eat regardless of their talent level. Whether you believe it or not, that is the way it was portrayed. And twenty years removed from it, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that Ed Martin didn't start off scheming to be a douchebag.

I think the reason I look past Jalen's transgression (taking money at Michigan) is that Jalen seems to genuinely care about Michigan. He wants to be a part of the Michigan family. Michigan is important to him. Michigan is a part of who he is as a person and as a professional. That's never left him. He loves Michigan and so do I. For that, I look past his flaws. It's a superficial reason, I know, but it matters. He wants to be there as much as I do, and wants to be a part of Michigan's future as well as present. And that is important to me.

Somewhere in between lie Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. As Jackson pointed out, not everyone on that squad took money. They all weren't breaking the rules, and I believe him. Still, they were complicit to an extent. They knew what their friends, or brothers as they say, were doing. They saw it. I won't pass judgment on them because what I have here is supposition. While I believe Howard was on the take, I have nothing to prove it. I don't know what King's or Jackson's roles were. So those three men live in a nebulous zone that I really can't describe. They exist to me, without a bias one way or the other.

That brings us to Chris Webber.

The irony of the whole Fab Five fiasco is that people blame them for bringing down the program. But it wasn't just them, and they weren't even close to the worst. Mo Taylor, Louis Bullock and Robert Traylor accepted oodles of money from Martin as well, and they flaunted it. Taylor, Bullock and Traylor's transgressions are arguably far worse than the Fab Five's ever were. I personally remember watching Tractor Traylor's lowered, fuchsia Subburban drive down Packard. It was obvious to the point of insanity. Yet they seem to escape people's memories when you talk about the downfall of the program in the late 90's. It's always the Fab Five's fault.

Personally, I believe this is because of Chris Webber. Webber accepted what was alleged to be $280,000.00 dollars from Martin during his time at Michigan. Webber, to this day, refuses to acknowledge he did anything wrong. He refuses to admit it happened, despite his teammates saying it did. Webber went so far as to lie to Federal Prosecutors and a grand jury that he accepted money at Michigan, then barely escaped jail time when he was caught lying. He's never acknowledged it. He paid his fine and walked away. He doesn't care about the damage he caused or the lives of the kids who came after him. It wasn't his problem.

One of the worst things about it all was that Webber didn't need the money. For all the nonsense about being five disadvantaged youths that's arose with the Fab Five legend, none of it is applicable to Webber. Chris Webber came from a stable lower middle class household. His father worked in an auto plant and his mother was a teacher. Chris went to the posh and expensive Detroit Country Day School where, as the documentary pointed out, he was treated like royalty. Trainers, massages, specialty coaching. He was recruited by every school in the country and had no shortage of suitors. The most ironic of which was Duke. The school Webber was a hair's breath away from committing to. The school that his teammates called a home for Uncle Toms.

But as it turned out, Webber chose Michigan. A school close to home and his parents. Chris got housing, food, training, clothing as part of the deal. He even got a trip to Europe out of it. He was less than an hour from his home and family. It's not like Chris was rooting through the Goodwill racks to find a winter coat. His plea of poverty (through Mitch Albom) was incredibly disingenuous. "I can't afford gas for my car." Yeah Chris. Right. Like so many things, this was just a front Webber showed to those he wanted to see it. He was an opportunist in every sense of the word. Taking with one hand while pleading poverty with the other.

But that's not why I have such a problem with Webber. My problem with him is that Webber never cared about Michigan. And that galls me to this day, and is the reason I can't forgive or forget. Unlike Jalen, the school, the team, the University, the name on the front of the Jersey that says "Michigan" is meaningless to Chris Webber. He was, and has always been, a phony. For all of his hard-ass taunting on the court, when big bad reality punched him in the jaw he crumpled to the floor, and then ran to his mother. He pretended to be a street though when he was a country day softee. He acted like he was from the hood, when he was from the burbs. Maybe the parallel should be Chris Rock's "CB4", because it sure as hell wasn't Boyz in the Hood. He continues to this day to pretend nothing happened at Michigan, that he broke no rules, that he took no money, and that his actions had nothing to do with the banners coming down and the penalty those after him had to pay. Webber was a poser, a fake and fraud.

He was also a mercenary. He didn't give two ***ts about Michigan, he cared about making his money. He doesn't care that what he did tarnished a lot of people's lives. He doesn't care who he's hurt along the way. And the reason for that is he's never been held accountable. Because no matter what, he could shoot a basketball. Pro teams courted him. Sponsors. Adoring fans that couldn't care less about the college game.

To his credit, he is an engaging public figure. Handsome, skilled, eloquent. He has carefully molded the image of a philanthropist and community organizer. That is fine by me, and to an extent I admire his generosity and control of his own image. But I haven't forgotten why I dislike him.

Chris Webber used the school I love like toilet paper. No matter how much time passes, no matter what the NCAA says Michigan can do to reopen contact, I hope and pray we rip the phone out of the wall and take that battery out of the cell. It's one call that should never be made.

It took me a while to figure out why I felt the way I do. There's a lot of anger and hurt, much of it disproportionate to any relationship I have with someone I've never met. I laugh when I hear Dave Brandon asking for an apology. As if saying it will change the fact that Chris will ever admit he did something wrong. I shake my head when people say we should forgive and forget because Chris "meant so much to Michigan."

Chris means nothing to Michigan. He is a liar and an opportunist who couldn't care less about the school. Why we should extend or hearts or forgiveness to someone who wants neither is beyond me. On the other hand he means a lot to college basketball. I think the two things are, and must be, independent of one another. If we, as Michigan alumni and fans, are to trumpet ourselves as a school that plays by the rules and champions doing things the right way we cannot accept someone back into the fold who is unapologetic for his obvious rule breaking. The two concepts are diametrically opposed.

The Fab Five will always be the Fab Five. They will always have played ball at Crisler. They will always be credited with changing the game. And it will always have happened at Michigan. We can and should welcome back the players who have admitted wrong doing and made attempts to remedy their errors. Forgiveness should be granted those who wish to be forgiven. Webber is not one of those people. He'd have to admit he did something wrong. And that, as we've seen, will never happen.

So, every ten years or so, we'll come back to this. Picking at scabs left by the Fab Five and wondering aloud if the passage of time actually heals all wounds or simply lets them fester.