ESPN's "Fab Five" documentary provided a wonderful two-hour nostalgia trip for Michigan fans, covering one of the most exciting and controversial eras in the school's athletic history. But as thorough as the film was, some things (and people) still felt missing.
ESPN provided Michigan fans with a two-hour nostalgia trip on Sunday night with its "30 For 30" documentary of the Fab Five. Personally, that era of Michigan basketball doesn't seem like such a long time ago. Yet the film was a reminder that it's been 20 years since the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball -- Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson -- came to Ann Arbor.
So much has obviously happened since then, since a team fueled by five freshmen "shocked the world," in Juwan Howard's words. The very beginning of the documentary made that clear, as the camera panned along an aisle in the basement of the Bentley Historical Library and eventually settled on a box that's the official record of the Fab Five era. Two rolled-up Final Four banners from 1992 and 1993 sat next to it.
To see something that was so big reduced to something so small was quite a powerful visual.
Jason Hehir's film was refreshingly thorough, hitting all the important points of that two-year period (and beyond). How was the recruiting class assembled? Who pushed for the baggy shorts? The black socks? How did a stodgy University of Michigan culture react to this bold, brash and outspoken team? (Who knew so much of that hate mail was horribly, embarrassingly racist?) And Chris Webber's infamous timeout in the 1993 NCAA championship game was examined with impressive detail.
(Mitch Albom didn't come off very well, did he? He may as well have put his hands over his ears and eyes while explaining that he never saw Webber flaunt any money that would've been provided by Ed Martin. And he watched that team more closely than anyone in the media! Never mind that Webber always tried to portray himself as an inner-city kid when he really wasn't, as the film establishes. Or, gee, maybe Webber realized that paying for dinner or pulling out a billfold in front of a journalist might not be a good idea.)
As I was watching, there were a few times when I thought, "Why aren't they talking to so-and-so?" only to see that person pop up on the screen moments later. For instance, upperclassmen Eric Riley and James Voskuil talked about how they felt when the decision was eventually made to put all five freshmen in the starting lineup.
But there were also several other people I wanted to see interviewed in the film. I realize that decisions have to be made for time considerations, and Hehir probably couldn't fit in everything he wanted to use. Of course, if certain people don't make themselves available to talk, then they're not going to make an appearance.
Having said that, here are five people I kept hoping would show up on camera to talk about the past, but didn't.
5. Bill Martin
Michigan's decision to forfeit all of the wins and vacate the NCAA Tournament appearances earned with ineligible players who took money from Ed Martin makes the tragic ending of the film. School president Mary Sue Coleman was interviewed to explain the decision, and since she's in the position of ultimate power, maybe that was appropriate. But when the next person to speak was current athletic director Dave Brandon, who took that job just a year ago, it was natural to wonder why the AD at the time wasn't talking about what had happened.
4. 1991-92 Duke players
A formative moment in the development of the Fab Five legend was their 1991 game versus Duke at Crisler Arena. Rose, King and Howard speak quite candidly about the resentment they felt toward the Blue Devils, and how much hatred had built up going into that game. In particular, they single out Christian Laettner, calling him "soft," overrated," "a pretty boy" and "a bitch." Rose also admits he thought Duke's black players were "Uncle Toms," and expressed the jealousy he felt toward Grant Hill and his privileged upbringing.
How compelling would it have been to hear from Laettner, Hill or anyone else from that Duke team? What did those guys think about these brash upstart challengers who were playing in high school just months earlier? What sorts of trash talk did they hear from Rose and Webber on the court? Did it feel good to stick it to that team while winning a national championship in the process? (Bobby Hurley apparently thinks so.)
3. 1992-93 North Carolina players
Perhaps the best part of the documentary is the dissection and analysis of Webber's misguided attempt to call timeout at the end of the 1993 national championship game versus North Carolina. (I particularly enjoyed the arched eyebrow from King when he explained that it was made quite clear in the huddle that Michigan had no timeouts remaining.)
The film covers the incident from almost every angle, as Rose and Rob Pelinka describe Webber's mindless dribble up the court before he was trapped in the corner. Freeze-frames and spot shadows are utilized to show how confusing the situation could've been for Webber, with some players telling him to call timeout and coaches imploring him not to.
But I wanted to see the Tar Heels' perspective on the play, too. How about hearing from someone on the UNC bench when Webber had so obviously traveled? (Who was the guy who jumped up and down on the floor when no call was made?) How worried were they that the no-call might cost them the game?
And why not talk to the UNC players defending Webber when he tried to call timeout? What did George Lynch and Derrick Phelps hear from Webber or the Michigan bench? Did they immediately know that Webber had made a game-ending mistake?
2. Michael Talley
For years (now decades), Michigan fans have talked about guard Michael Talley's role in Webber's timeout. Was he the player who yelled from the bench to call timeout, thus making Webber believe the team still had one remaining? (Riley seemed to dispel that, as he made it sound as if several players weren't sure about the timeout situation.) The documentary highlights Talley in a spot-shadow on the Michigan bench, making the timeout gesture with his hands.
So what really happened? Did Talley not know that Michigan was out of timeouts? And why the hell was he clapping after what virtually everyone knew was a terrible mistake? Unfortunately, we don't know because Talley wasn't in the film to talk about it.
Another reason to talk to Talley would've been to get his perspective on the five freshman usurping starting jobs from the incumbent upperclassmen. That must have been especially galling for Talley, who was Michigan's Mr. Basketball in 1989 out of Detroit Cooley and surely thought he would be a star for the Maize and Blue. But really, we just want to know if he was one of the "m-f'ers" that told Webber to call timeout.
1. Chris Webber
Four of the Fab Five participated in the making of the film. But it was that fifth guy -- the signature player of that class, that era -- that everyone wanted to hear from.
To the documentary's credit, the story is told well enough without Webber's participation. The footage of his long walk off the Superdome court after Michigan lost to North Carolina is powerful, and it's difficult not to feel sorry for a 19-year-old kid who had to explain one of sports' biggest mistakes to a postgame media throng. (Webber gritting his teeth in barely restrained rage after answering one of the questions is a poignant moment.)
Also extremely telling is Webber's press conference nine years later in which he defended himself against perjury charges by stabbing Ed Martin in the back. (At least we got Rose's feelings on the matter, admitting it caused a rift between him and Webber.)
Although Webber's absence leaves a hole in the film, perhaps it's ultimately better without his presence. Because not having Webber there to offer explanation is truer to the story. Webber has never explained himself -- whether it was his thought process during that timeout, taking thousands of dollars from Ed Martin while crying poverty to Mitch Albom, or his disdain for a system that allows schools to sell player jerseys for big money while those athletes see none of that money -- and he probably never will. Not to teammates, not to friends, and certainly not to fans or media.
Even after the NCAA sanctions expire in 2013, does anyone expect Webber to finally come clean? He called talking about it "a waste of my time" when he signed with the Detroit Pistons in 2007. Why would that change now? Webber alludes to "hopefully" telling his side of the story someday, but why should we believe him? Especially considering that explaining everything might not be in his best legal interests. (Martin was targeted in a federal investigation, after all.)
I'll admit that I still hold a huge grudge against Webber. I've been told by almost every one of my friends and fellow sports fans that I need to get over that after all these years, but I just can't do it. Webber's sense of entitlement and attempt to always portray himself as some persecuted victim still infuriate me. And the "Fab Five" film dredged up those old feelings.