WILLIAM C. RHODEN: It's time for reconciliation
ATLANTA — The moment Michigan clinched its national semifinal victory against Syracuse on Saturday, Chris Webber became the story of today’s national championship.
Webber was the driving force behind the Fab Five, the gifted freshmen who entered Michigan in the fall of 1991 and led the men’s basketball team to consecutive NCAA title game appearances.
However, Webber and other players accepted money from a booster, compromising their amateur status.
The NCAA subsequently placed Michigan on probation, and Webber became a pariah.
His records were erased, and the Wolverines’ banners from those Final Four years are nowhere to be seen. Michigan forfeited all of its victories from those seasons, and it returned some of the money it received as a result of the Fab Five’s success.
In 2002, Webber was charged with lying to a grand jury as part of a gambling investigation that widened to include the Michigan basketball program.
The next year, he pleaded guilty to criminal contempt before his trial was scheduled to begin.
Webber has not spoken publicly about his relationship with Michigan or his plans to repair the connection. Those who know him say he cares deeply for the university.
A 10-year period of NCAA-mandated disassociation between Michigan and Webber will end next month. At a time when big-time college athletics is under fierce attack, a reconciliation is the feel-good story the industry desperately needs.
There have been debates over whether Webber, who lives in Atlanta, should show up today or stay away. I hope Webber shows up.
The Fab Five represented an important cultural shift in college basketball, a shift in which the hip-hop generation blossomed — or exploded — in the sports arena.
The era was brilliantly captured by an ESPN documentary, “The Fab 5,” produced by Jalen Rose, Webber’s Fab Five teammate. The only gap in the documentary — and a big one — was the absence of Webber’s voice.
My last conversation with Webber took place in the spring of 2007, after he had joined the Detroit Pistons.
“I still bleed maize and blue,” he said at the time. “When I’m in Seattle, California, Winnipeg, wherever, people associate me with the University of Michigan. Alumni come up to speak with me, kids come up. That’s a real good feeling. You can’t take away people’s memories.”
During the same conversation, Webber said he thought it was time to move on. “I think it’s time for reconciliation,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
The Fab Five epitomized the excesses and vanities of big-time college sports, an enterprise that flourishes on the backs of young, mostly African-American football and basketball players.
The Fab Five became the first group of recruits to make a collective decision to choose one university knowing that their presence would change the fortunes of that program.
“As unfortunate as it was,” former Michigan coach Bill Frieder said, “it’s still a big, big huge thing in the history of college basketball.”
Webber became the NCAA’s unwanted child. To some extent he still is, though the Fab Five’s existence cannot be denied. The NCAA announced on several occasions that this year’s Michigan team is the first since 1993 to reach the championship game. The 1993 team is, of course, that Fab Five team.
“How ridiculous is that?” Frieder said.
“If you’re going to announce in front of 75,000 people about 1993, then why can’t we hang a banner in Crisler Arena?”
There are those who thought that Webber owes the university an apology, at the very least. Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp, who covered Webber and the Fab Five, said the NCAA’s members have agreed to play by its regulations.
“The fact remains that what he did was in violation of NCAA rules,” Sharp said Sunday. “Whether those rules are antiquated or not — we can debate and will debate that for years.
“The fact remains that he violated the rules, and as a result, the university was held accountable, the basketball program was held accountable, and he was in a criminal court of law.”
Sharp added: “He has yet to step forward and say to Michigan: ‘I was wrong. I’m sorry.’”
On the other hand, Michigan is the parent who took Webber and the Fab Five into the world of big-time college athletics.
Indeed, Frieder said he began recruiting Webber for Michigan when Webber was in seventh grade.
The university owes Webber an apology as well.
Perhaps the needed healing will begin next month when Webber and the university are free to embrace. If that does not take place, whatever happens to Michigan today will be rendered hollow and incomplete.