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UM’s Fab Five players want to break down barriers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Fab Five players discuss the team and their legacy at Hill Auditorium on Saturday.

Ann Arbor -- About halfway through Saturday's much-anticipated public forum discussing the famed Fab Five and the legendary basketball team's impact on major college athletics, as well as race and community, Jalen Rose walked into Hill Auditorium.

He received a thunderous ovation from the hundreds of Michigan fans in attendance.

His flight from a work assignment in Los Angeles had been delayed.

It was a fitting entrance, really. It's been 25 years since the Fab Five arrived on campus, and the Final Four banners from that era remain in storage, well away from the Crisler Center rafters.

So, really, what's a little more tardiness?

"For this moment to be taking place, this should be the lead catalyst to truly repair the relationship to where it's not awkward," Rose said. "Because it's kind of awkward.

"Hopefully, this becomes a catalyst to break down this barrier."

Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson joined sports journalists and professors Kevin Blackistone and Billy Hawkins, as well as the event's organizer, Michigan LSA professor Yago Colas, to discuss the impact of the Fab Five and the lingering ill will from the Ed Martin-Chris Webber fallout that led to UM wiping away the records from that era.

Webber was invited but did not respond.

Juwan Howard, an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, taped a message that was played at the start of the forum, which lasted more than two hours.

"Hopefully," Howard said on tape, "the relationship continues to grow and build."

While the Michigan athletics department officially was a co-sponsor of the forum, along with the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, no high-ranking member of the athletics department was present.

Athletic director Warde Manuel was with the football team for Saturday night's game at Rutgers, but he did send his regards, relayed through LSA dean Andrew D. Martin at the start of the program.

Two Michigan regents did attend, Andrea Fischer Newman and Katherine E. White.

Rose thinks Webber, Michigan will reunite one day

"We are a family. The accomplishments did take place, the turmoil did take place, but at some point we all have to grow past it," said Rose, 43, a Detroit native who was on campus for the second time in a little over a week, having served as the emcee for the basketball team's Nike uniform unveiling.

"It could be deemed as muted if you look at it like that, about who was not here. But what I learned to do in philanthropy is not get upset or disappointed about the people that did not donate their time or energy or money, but appreciate those who did.

"It's still about the student body, it's still about the supporters.

"They hope to see it gets acknowledged in its proper way."

Besides the elephant in the room -- or the Webber not in the room, as the case was -- three prime topics were discussed at length: The banners, paying of college athletes, and the legacy of a group of five elite basketball players who arrived on campus as freshman and, despite coming up shy of a national championship, changed the landscape for good.

A glance at some of the highlights:

THE BANNERS

The Fab Five made back-to-back NCAA championship games in 1992 and 1993, losing to Duke -- "Duke was better than us," Rose said -- and North Carolina -- "Now, North Carolina, we should've beat them," Rose said.

Still, it's widely regarded as the most talented group of basketball players ever assembled at Michigan, and arguably one of the best in the nation.

But in 1996, Webber was learned to have accepted cash and loans from Martin, the late Michigan booster. No other Fab Five member was implicated, but the scandal cost coach Steve Fisher -- now the coach at San Diego State, and not in attendance Saturday -- his job, the players were barred from contact with the athletic department until May 2013, and the banners came down and the records were stricken.

UM made the decision on the banners itself, a self-imposed penalty beating the NCAA to the punch, potentially a much harsher punch.

"I didn't go pro, so I don't have a professional jersey or banners from the NBA to show my kids," said Jackson, 42, who, like King, is a Texas native. "I'm the norm, and the majority of our teammates did not play professional sports.

"I want to be able to bring my kids back to school. ... We had a great family. That's what we've got to hold onto."

The theory is Michigan will consider re-hanging the banners if Webber apologizes. He has refused to do so, and even declined to participate in the ESPN Films documentary on the team that was released in 2011, despite initial suggestions that he would.

Members of the panel noted Penn State has restored wins previously vacated by late football coach Joe Paterno, caught up in a scandal far, far worse -- than the Fab Five. Former football coach Jim Tressel remains a popular figure at Ohio State, as basketball coach John Calipari remains revered at UMass and Memphis.

"I don't think there's an alternative," Jackson said, before saying a line that earned the loudest applause of the afternoon. "Put the banners back up!"

Said Rose: "Hopefully it doesn't take a tragedy for it to happen."

PAYING COLLEGE ATHLETES

While Webber, 43, a Detroit native, received significant cash benefits from Martin, who died in 2003, no other team members were ever implicated.

King, 43, told a story of walking down the streets in Ann Arbor and seeing his jersey for sale in store windows. Meanwhile, he'd be heading back to his dorm room at South Quad to pool his money with teammates, just so they could afford to get grub from Taco Bell.

"We used to walk in, and they used to look at us like, 'What are y'all doing?'" King said. “We'd put the money on the counter, and that's all we've got.

"They would give us tacos just because they knew who we were."

An NCAA violation?

"That," King said, laughing, "is a violation!"

Whether the NCAA should pay athletes has been a debate that's raged on since the Fab Five days, and might be at its boiling point now, after former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued and beat the NCAA in a class-action suit.

Michigan just signed a 15-year apparel deal with Nike worth more than $170 million; the university reaps the rewards, while the athletes get room, board and an education.

"Amateurism is a complete and unadulterated sham," said Blackistone, who works at the Washington Post and is a panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn."

"It's really reached the point of becoming immoral. Look at the history of these guys."

Blackistone said the Fab Five helped more than double the basketball program's revenue, from $2 million to $4.4 million. After the Fab Five left, UM signed a lucrative Nike deal.

"Hopefully the courts will rectify this," Blackistone said. "There are enough lawyers out there. ... We all enjoy the product, but the way the sausage is made is abysmal."

Hawkins, a professor at the University of Houston who's studied and written extensively about college athletics, said 90 percent of NCAA revenues are generated by less than 1 percent of student-athletes (usually, football, basketball and, to a lesser extent, hockey). Many of the athletes are black, while many profiting are white, he said.

"If it was reversed," said Hawkins, "I don't think payment would be an issue."

Jackson said one of the first papers he wrote in college was on the very subject -- "I wasn't in class all the time, but when I was there ..." -- and called the system "a sham."

King pointed out that a business student can develop a business plan and make money while staying in school, so why not college athletes?

THE LEGACY

During his taped message, Howard, 43, a Chicago native, talked about one of the first times the Fab Five was together on the same court.

It was on a two-hoop playground setting, just outside their dorm on South Quad.

That has since been replaced, King said, with bicycle racks.

"We started a five-on-five game, it wasn't scripted," he said. "There was so many people that started to gravitate, (they'd) hear we were outside playing. All the dorm windows were open, a lot of students were outside watching and watching from their windows.

"From there is where it all started, where it all began.

"Those special moments can never be replaced."

When Fisher recruited them, King said, he told the parents it's all about academics and getting a prized degree.

Then the first day of practice arrived.

"He pulled us in a circle," said King, who now is head boys basketball coach at Ecorse High School, "and said, 'I know what I told your parents, but y'all are here to do one thing, and that's to play basketball.'"

That, they did quite well, even if they never won a national title, or even a Big Ten regular-season championship.

They were, more importantly to the bean counters, all the rage, talking trash, listening to NWA and Ice Cube, wearing the baggy shorts and donning the black socks, the latter a not-so-subtle protest as the players -- four McDonald's All-Americans, five top-100 recruits -- realized early on in their college careers they were bringing in big-time money for the university.

Rose took his protest further, wearing a backward practice jersey that wasn't even his.

"I'm a Michigan fan without even coming to Michigan," said Jackson, who now runs a nonprofit youth-athletic program in Austin, Texas.

"If I would've known then what I know now, I would've never set foot on campus.

"There were other schools that were offering 'the bag.'"

The legacy of the Fab Five remains all these years later, as Rose noted upon his arrival -- Saturday's forum already was trending nationally on Twitter, ahead of Donald Trump.

"I'm serious!" said Rose, now an ESPN/ABC analyst who also founded a charter school in Detroit. "And he's running for president! This is a big deal!

"Yes, we were the Fab Five ... but we paid attention to the game of life."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984