07 May 2013

The Disassociation of Memory; or, the Unforgettable Fab Five

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

Not long ago here at Ocelot Sports we marked the 20th anniversary of the 1993 NCAA men’s basketball championship game between the UNC Tar Heels and Michigan Wolverines with our first podcast. I’d found my old recording of the Heels’ radio broadcast of the game, Pauly and I listened to it, and we shared our discussion afterwards.

That game marked the final one for the much celebrated “Fab Five” of Michigan -- Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, and Chris Webber. Entering together as freshmen in 1991, the group ultimately assumed all five starting spots for the Wolverines, carrying the team to a runner-up finish to Duke in 1992. A year later they’d make it back to the final game only to lose to the Tar Heels in a heartbreaker famously punctuated by Webber’s game-ending timeout when the team had none left.

Yesterday Pauly drew my attention to a letter then-President Bill Clinton wrote to Chris Webber following that championship game. I was amazed I’d never seen it before.

In the letter Clinton tries to comfort Michigan’s star player, noting how “part of playing for high stakes under great pressure is the constant risk of mental error.” Referring to elections previously lost, Clinton admits to having “made countless mistakes over the last twenty years” himself, and encourages Webber that he has “a great future” and to “hang in there.”

Clinton would make a few more mistakes, which perhaps makes the letter even more interesting in retrospect. Here it is, posted by Webber on his website:

Webber indeed would have a great future. He’d turn pro following the ’92-’93 season, and subsequently had a successful 15-year career in the NBA. After that has come a second career as a commentator, and in fact Webber was on the broadcast just last night for that thrilling double-OT game between San Antonio and Golden State.

Rose and Howard left after their junior seasons, and both also prospered as pros, with Howard still active as a part-time player for the Miami Heat. King and Jackson finished out their senior seasons for Michigan. King had a couple of cups of coffee in the NBA, then played out a decade-long career for various CBA teams, while Jackson only ended up playing a single season in the CBA.

Of course, the years following the Fab Five’s departure from Michigan were marked by controversy as numerous rules violations occurring at the school were later uncovered by the NCAA, some of which happened during the Fab Five era.

Most of the violations concerned a booster, Ed Martin, having improperly provided benefits to players over a lengthy period that began before the Fab Five arrived and continued afterwards. Among the sanctions self-imposed by Michigan (and accepted by the NCAA) were the vacating of numerous games by the program, including the 1992 Final Four, the entire 1992-93 season (including the post-season), plus every game played from ’95-’96 through ’98-’99.

In other words, officially speaking, Michigan is not recognized as having finished runner-up in either ’92 or ’93.

Among other violations, it was discovered that four players -- Louis Bullock, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor, and Webber -- had accepted more than $600,000 in cash and gifts from Martin while at Michigan. Martin (who died in 2003), testified before a federal grand jury that $280,000 of that total had gone to Webber.

Webber’s side of that story was initially to say he didn’t remember receiving any cash or gifts from Martin. Federal prosecutors then filed indictments against Webber (and some of his family members) for obstruction of justice and perjury, although after Martin died Webber was able to plead guilty to a lesser charge of criminal contempt and settle.

On May 8, 2003, the NCAA accepted all of Michigan’s self-imposed sanctions while adding a few more penalties. They’d also order Michigan to disassociate itself from contact with Bullock, Taylor, Traylor, and Webber. Traylor sadly passed away in 2011, and the order expired regarding both Bullock and Taylor last year.

The order for the school not to have contact with Webber was to last exactly 10 years. That’s right... until tomorrow, May 8, 2013. Thus the reason for my bringing up the whole story here again today, as I am expecting we might hear something from Michigan soon regarding Chris Webber and the legacy of the Fab Five.

While the other four members of the Fab Five have spoken at length about the entire experience, Webber has remained essentially silent about it, especially over the last decade. As Pauly and I discussed some on the podcast, Rose has suggested that part of the reason for Webber’s silence can be traced back to the trauma of his mental mistake at the conclusion of the 1993 championship game.

The subject came up again just before this year’s NCAA final which featured Michigan making another run to the championship game -- their first since 1993 -- only to lose once more to Louisville. Recall all of the talk that night about a “Fab Five reunion” at that final where all five of the players did in fact end up at the Georgia Dome (although Webber would watch the game separately from the other four).

Rose spoke with Bill Simmons the day before that final game and reiterated his idea that Webber has tried to erase from his memory his time at Michigan, primarily because of that fateful timeout.

“I think he wants to disassociate himself with that moment and with that school and -- in theory -- with us, to kind of rebuild his life mentally to say ‘My career really started my rookie year in the NBA,’” explained Rose. Here’s that discussion in full:

As Rose noted, the subsequent sanctions, indictment and plea bargain, and NCAA-delivered order for the school to disassociate with Webber likely deepened his wish to forget all about his college career even further, including (and most especially) that wild conclusion to the UNC game -- ironically one of the most memorable moments in NCAA basketball history.

There’s something weirdly uncanny about that word -- disassociate -- having been part of the NCAA’s order to Michigan regarding Webber. I say that because listening to Rose, it’s as though Webber has experienced something like the “disassociation of memory” that oftentimes gets attributed to those who experience some sort of trauma -- a self-protective response that enables an individual to cope.

On the podcast, Pauly and I talked about the postgame presser to the ’93 game in which Webber was asked about the time out. “I don’t remember,” was his first response then, too, just like it would be years later when asked about his relationship with Ed Martin. Eventually Webber did provide some partial answers to both questions, although apparently his desire not to remember has remained.

Meanwhile, Michigan was ordered not to remember him, although starting tomorrow that order will be lifted. It will be curious to see how (or whether) the memories of the Fab Five start to come back to everyone involved, most particularly to Webber himself.

Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

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