Getting the banned back together
This May marks the end of Chris Webber's ban from Michigan. But will he return?
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
SPORTS ARE MODERN. Discuss.
That is the deliberately broad topic of the paper University of Michigan professor Andrei Markovits has assigned some 175 students in his Sports, Politics and Society course, and on this Monday evening he tells a smaller section: "Think of an event, an athlete, any topic that speaks to the interaction between modernity and tradition in sports."
Better known as Andy, the native of Romania is one of those professors you would hope to find on a campus, a character with a gray mop-top covering a mind that's as enthusiastic as it is encyclopedic. He's a tenured professor in the German, political science and sociology departments, but he's also a sports nut who has authored or co-authored several books on athletics in society, including Sportista, an examination of the American female sports fan, written with Emily Albertson.
Markovits offers up a few examples worthy of discussion: the Super Bowl, deer antler spray, tennis whites. But on the eve of the Michigan-Ohio State game, which will be on Feb. Five, the talk turns to the Fab Five, the legendary quintet that brought both excitement and pride to Ann Arbor in the early 1990s but whose legacy has been officially eradicated by the NCAA and the university.
If ever there was a struggle between the future and the past in sports, the Fab Five were it: a cultural and basketball phenomenon struck down by the forces of tradition. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson shocked the basketball world by reaching the 1992 NCAA title game as a group of true-freshman starters and polarized a much larger world with their baggy shorts and black socks, their hip-hop, their refusal, as some traditionalists put it, to "know their place." Nearly a decade later, when it was revealed that Webber had taken significant loans from booster Ed Martin, all five were made to suffer, their banners removed, their wins and records vacated.
Most of the students in Markovits' class weren't yet born when the Fab Five made two straight NCAA finals -- they lost to Duke in the '92 game and to North Carolina in '93 -- but they know them. And most think they should be welcomed back into the fold. As one student puts it: "The university made all sorts of money off them, but they were punished because one of them took money himself." But another says not so fast: "The NCAA violations decimated the basketball program for a decade. I'm not sure that should be celebrated."
This classroom isn't the only place where the discussion is still alive. On May 8, the university's NCAA-mandated 10-year disassociation from Webber comes to an end. (Essentially, he was barred from being a part of the program.) That has a lot of people talking -- just not the ones everyone wants to hear from. The university isn't saying what it will do, and neither is Webber. But the rest of the Fab Five would dearly love to reunite as Wolverines, and they are hoping Webber will apologize, something the school has said is key to moving forward.
"This is my dream," says Rose, who grew up playing AAU ball in Detroit with Webber. "All five of us will be sitting courtside at the Georgia Dome when Michigan plays in the final on April 8. And when they win and cut down the nets, we will be as happy for them as we would have been had we done it ourselves."
Of course, nothing will ever fill the void created at 8 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2002, when the banners from the 1991-92 and 1992-93 teams were taken down at the direction of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman. "I am determined that nothing like this will ever happen again at Michigan," said Coleman, who had been on the job for just three months. The removal came after a six-year investigation, which revealed that four Wolverines basketball players, including Webber but none of the other Fab Five, had accepted large loans from the now-deceased Martin, who was running an illegal gambling operation. What made matters worse was that Webber had lied to a grand jury about accepting the money; he was subsequently ordered to complete 300 hours of community service.
"The day they took the banners down was the worst day of my life," says King, who lives in the Detroit area. "It tore a hole in my heart."
The banners are now stored on a shelf in a secured area of the school's Bentley Historical Library and are strictly off-limits to visitors. (When a photographer and reporter ask to see them, a university official says, "You can't because technically they don't exist.")
But they can be seen in their vinyl cocoonsin the footage of The Fab Five, the ESPN Films documentary that aired in March 2011. "They're in a back room of a back room," says Jason Hehir, the doc's director. "It felt like we were going into the tomb of King Tut."
The Fab Five's secret home has a delicious irony to it: Instead of hanging from the rafters of Crisler Center, they are now hanging around with the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Ernest Hemingway, whose works are in the same area. Says Markovits: "Here at Michigan, we treated them the way the French military treated Capt. Alfred Dreyfus -- rip off their epaulets and send them to Devil's Island. But they can't erase them from our memories or take back their cultural significance.
"By the way, the administration wasn't able to erase everything. Go to the Circle of Champions between the football stadiumand the arena and you'll see what I mean."
The Circle of Champions is a granitemonument built in 1997 -- between the NCAA appearances and the NCAA sanctions -- with each column dedicated to different sports. Sure enough, etched in stone under the list of men's basketball championships are 1992 NCAA regional and 1993 NCAA regional.
If you stare hard enough at the first listing, you can see the five freshmen debut as starters against Notre Dame on Feb. 9, 1992, upsetting Ohio State in the Elite Eight, succumbing to Duke in the final. You can recall their joy on and off the court. As for the second listing, you can't help but fast-forward to the title game against UNC when, in the waning seconds, Webber called a timeout that Michigan didn't have.
"I wrote a paper about the timeout as a sophomore in high school," says Hehir. "We had to compare something contemporary to a classic Greek tragedy. The teacher didn't know anything about sports, but she gave me an A-minus."
Hehir's film has spurred something of a revival. Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. wears a T-shirt that reads free the fab five. While none of the official merchandise stores offers anything resonant of the team, you can still buy a Fab Five hat at Motivation, a boutique just off campus. More significant, Michigan signed a top-15 recruiting class last year, and the current squad was No. 1 in the AP poll in late January, Michigan's first No. 1 ranking since Nov. 30, 1992.
The original Fab Five went on to other successes: After an 18-year NBA career, Howard won a ring with the Heat in 2012. Webber, now an analyst for TNT, was a five-time NBA All-Star. Rose played 13 NBA seasons, and in addition to working for ESPN, he founded a charter school in Detroit and endows a scholarship at Michigan. King, who had a brief NBA career, is a financial consultant and frequent visitor to Crisler. Jackson, who didn't play in the NBA, lives in Austin, Texas, and runs a nonprofit organization that helps youths socially, academically and athletically.
Four of the five are still close, and they stay in touch with San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who was fired as the Michigan coach in the wake of the Martin scandal. The only one who remains slightly apart is Webber, who declined to be interviewed for this story, just as he opted not to participate in the documentary. But even now, as it was then, his presence is felt. He was the alpha and the omega, the catalyst for their glorious run as well as the caller of the timeout -- and the precipitator of a much longer timeout that officially ends in May.
Webber hasn't apologized, either out of denial or pride or resentment, or all three. But Rose thinks the disassociation must hurt: "He loved us and he loved Michigan." Webber also loves history. Much of his extensive collection of African-American artifacts and art is currently on display 45 minutes from campus, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. "That's the shame," says Rose. "Here's a man who appreciates the importance of preserving the past, and his own history has been denied."
But the bigger shame is that Michigan hasn't been able to celebrate those extraordinary times and extraordinary people. "All five deserve the opportunity to walk to center court," says Hehir, "and to hear the cheers and to see the fans on their feet for them."
The Fab Five weren't just baggy-shorts-wearing, hip-hopping, ball-flashing phenoms; they were intelligent beyond their years and played a sublime form of team basketball that was ahead of its time. Their wins and records can't be restored. Those banners will remain in storage indefinitely -- last spring Coleman, the university president, told a group of students: "I don't think they'll ever go back up. I don't."
Even so, there is a subtle sense that detente is in the air. Rose was on campus Feb. 4 to emcee the annual Mock Rock talent show, a charity event held by student-athletes. He frequently mentioned the Fab Five to an audience that included AD Dave Brandon, who has publicly stated that Webber should apologize.
"I love Dave," says Rose. "He has a job to do, and I get his side. I love Chris too, and I know where he's coming from. He's a proud man. Michigan is a proud university. But it's time we let bygones be bygones.
"You know the expression 'Don't bring flowers to my funeral; bring me soup when I'm sick.' Well, I don't want to wait until one of us dies for them to honor us. How about one single blue banner that honors both teams surrounded by all of our numbers?"
For the Ohio State game, King is in attendance, and with all the grace he showed on the court, he greets fans who stop by and poses for photos with the children of people who saw him play.
"I'm optimistic that the Fab Five will come back together one day," he says, "and that the university will embrace us. But we do need Chris to apologize, to admit he made some mistakes. He loved being here as much as any of us did, and he needs to put his pride aside.
"In the meantime, I would love to sit down with Dave Brandon and Mary Sue Coleman and ask them, 'What will it take to reunite the Fab Five?' Let's lay it on the table."
After the Wolverines' overtime victory, King hangs around, soaking it in with security guards and well-wishers. He clearly belongs to Michigan basketball. They clearly belong.
Closure is possible. Discuss.
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