Monday, March 14, 2011

"The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down."

I went in to the Fab Five documentary, in the words of MGoBlog's Brian Cook, "preparing to be conflicted." On the one hand, it was a flood of memories and "Oh yeah!" and "Wow, I do remember that." On the other hand, there just feels like something wrong about celebrating the Fab Five as a part of Michigan's legacy if the school, as a part of NCAA penalties, has disassociated itself with the era because of the actions of Chris Webber. But it was the closing shot that summed it all up for me and has crystallized in my mind my new sense of what the Fab Five means.

Very late in the documentary, as we race through the Ed Martin situation, as Jalen Rose tries to talk his way through it, as Mitch Albom attempts to defend how he could write an entire book about the Fab Five and not know Chris Webber was on the take, we see the camera slowly pan down the long aisles of the Bentley Historical Library's archives. It's a tremendous visual and ties the whole documentary together, as we got a snippet of the same shot early in the film. There, sitting on the shelf, are the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners, sealed, labeled, preserved for perpetuity, like some NCAA violations Ark of the Covenant. Why do you save the banners? I am sure it's an official University policy in that regard, that the banners are an historical relic and they must be preserved, even if no longer acknowledged. But couple that with the fact that 2013 was mentioned several times in the last segment, that the University had to officially disassociate itself with Chris Webber (and Taylor/Traylor/Bullock, which, honestly, in addition to Michael Talley, were the people most thrown under the bus in the film, although really, rightfully so.) President Coleman and Mr. Brandon say all the right things, about why the University had to do it, and about that if Chris Webber will acknowledge what he did wrong, and apologize, Michigan would welcome him back to the family, something that the other members of the Fab Five don't see happening. Which is exactly what you're supposed to say in a recorded document like this, acknowledge the NCAA punishment, talk about how you feel it's fitting, pay due deference, etc. But, between the Legends Classic acknowledgment of Rose, Jackson, and King this year at Crisler, the fact that Crisler will be all shiny and new for 2013, the hints David Brandon has laid down about building the foundations for the future of the basketball program, it becomes clear, at least in my mind, that 2013 is just a target date now, that Michigan is just waiting out the next two basketball seasons, focused on what the present can be (and how that present arrived much sooner than we expected) and then, in 2013, reintegrating the history of the Fab Five into the fabric of Michigan basketball.

What bothers me about this is that it feels like having one's cake and eating it too. There's a fair point to be made about how it seems unfair that the actions of one individual destroy the legacy of the others (fairly counterpointed by the acknowledgment that it's a team game and it's the only fair way to do it.) There's a fair point in the fact that Michigan made a lot of money off the Fab Five and the Fab Five as a whole, did not benefit from that in a symmetrical manner. But maybe the biggest problem with this is the shame of "vacated wins" and taking down banners and rewriting the record books. You can't change history, no matter how much you want to try. You can tell the story in an official way, like what was done in the old Soviet Union, but as long as the memory remains alive, as long as there is archival footage of what happened, you can't expect me to buy in completely that it never happened. So maybe this is some oblique way of Michigan reclaiming what it was, telling it warts and all, letting people judge the legacy of the Fab Five in the whole of the telling, and allowing them to render their decisions based on all the facts, not just the official record. Maybe that is why the banners sit on a shelf in the Bentley, because we cannot just destroy the past if we truly want to know what happened.

*-One quick note on the thing that bothered me most about the documentary, the Michigan merchandising revenue chart that makes it look like no one had heard of Michigan before the Fab Five. While I do not want to diminish the impact that Fab Five had on selling Michigan gear, 1991 was also the year of Desmond Howard's Heisman winning season, and 1992-93 was the year Michigan signed its huge Nike deal (want proof in the film? If you look closely, the 1991-92 edition of the Fab Five was wearing awful Rawlings warmup jackets and pretty cool Russell Athletic shimmer jerseys.) And while the Fab Five did move jerseys and merchandise nationally, it was also the first time that you could get, regularly, a replica Michigan football jersey. I distinctly remember a lot of kids in my high school days rocking their Tyrone Wheatley #6 Michigan jersey. So, it's a tad disingenuous to show that chart to make the case that the Fab Five was theonly reason Michigan moved more product. But it's a minor quibble.)


Unknown said...

Great read. Thanks!

Unknown said...

A lot of good analysis here, and a fair point about rewriting history--if that is in fact what happens. But I think that an APOLOGY is what is being demanded to set all this up, and that sorrow for past actions SHOULD beget redemption--if there's some value in that Judaeo-Christian ethic, for me, it's in this kind of thinking. (I also think we need Webber's side of the story; I'm "middle class" too, but I can see my family being tempted. . .)

What will determine the legitimacy of this process, should it pan out as you describe it, is the judgment onlookers make about how genuine the process feels. Human beings being pretty fallible, I would expect it to be, at best, incomplete. (I love Jalen, and he still comes across as b.s.'ing at times; I might, too. . .) Still, I am ready to welcome Chris back to the Michigan family.

P.S. Not sure the banners--or all of them--can go back up, anyway. Some of those wins were vacated. But putting them in the little hall of fame that wraps around the new b'ball facility, with a telling of the story, might be a good way to get them back in public view, one of the steps along the way.

James said...

We actually didn't sign the Nike contract until 1994. Prior to then, Steve Fisher had his own Nike deal (which is why the players wore Nike shoes, and warmups for some reason), but the university itself did not make money off it. The actual uniforms worn by the Fab Five were made by Russell Athletic.

Craig Barker said...

Mattman, great points. I may get into that in another post some day. It's intriguing.

James, I did not know that, but thank you for that tidbit, that is tremendous and shows how faulty one's memory can be at 6 AM.

Beauford Bixel said...

Hey Craig - good read. I know that this is a minor point at the end of the post, but regarding the Michigan Merch sales post-fab 5.

Michigan was always big in Big Ten country, but the Fab 5 opened up markets in NYC, Philly, LA etc. that Michigan had not attained. It was entirely new demographics/appeal for Michigan (it was cool). Even a sniff of the East Coast markets would have caused that rise in sales, just because of the population out there.

Craig Barker said...

Beauford, a fantastic point. Honestly, there's a great in-depth post to be researched there. I'm filing this away. Thanks for the note!