Commentary

After Fab Five: Ray Jackson at peace

Updated: March 11, 2011, 6:00 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

There's a whole lot about life they don't teach us in school.

Like learning how to break up with someone. Or just how meaningless words such as "never" and "always" really are.

And then there's happiness.

In school, we learn that the Declaration of Independence says we're free to pursue happiness, but teachers fail to tell us exactly what it is supposed to look like, how to obtain it or that the very idea of pursuing it is a misnomer in the first place.

Take former Michigan Wolverines legend Ray Jackson.

He spent years chasing happiness in the form of the NBA dream -- from free-agent camp to the Continental Basketball Association, from one side of the globe to the other -- all the while seeing former college teammates become multimillionaires. Every year, there's a handful of big-name college players who don't play at the next level, but Jackson's case was different. He wasn't a part of something we see every year. He was part of a cultural phenomenon, and with that came the glitz and immense expectations. In 1991, each member of the Fab Five arrived in Ann Arbor in similar fashion, but by the time Jackson moved back to his hometown of Austin, Texas, in 2001, he couldn't have been living more differently from his one-time teammates.

[+] EnlargeRay Jackson and Michigan Wolverines
US PresswireRay Jackson, No. 21, wasn't the most highly touted player, nor did he have the best stats, but his teammates credit his importance to the Fab Five.

"Everybody has their own path, their own road they must walk," said Jackson, who owns a moving company and operates Ray Jackson's Rising Stars, a nonprofit dedicated to helping young people achieve academically and athletically. "It took me a real long time to get over not being able to do what the other guys are doing, but today I can honestly tell you that I'm happy. I'm coaching, working with young people and trying to make the world better. I'm happy for them and their success, but I'm happy for me, too.

"But getting to this place wasn't easy."

How could it have been?

Even though he was the lowest-ranked of the five in high school and the last to be inserted into the starting lineup their freshman year, Jackson was still a part of a brilliant combination of talent, intelligence and confidence that energized college basketball. These men rewrote history, influenced fashion and ticked a lot of people off. The "Fab Five" documentary, which airs on ESPN on Sunday, has a segment in which the letters from unhappy white Wolverines fans read as if they were taken from a stack received by the five black players of the Texas Western squad in 1966. But that's what game-changers do: They incite, and Jackson was part of that game-changing movement. He knew he would never outshine Chris Webber or Juwan Howard, but how could an 18-year-old in the middle of that media circus not daydream about the next level? Or be hurt by the subsequent dismissal?

"I was going to transfer," he said. "I was a big star in Texas. I wasn't used to coming off the bench. I wasn't used to sacrificing my shots. I wasn't used to not playing in crunch time and all of that stuff.

"I understood how important it was for me to humble myself and do some of the things we needed to get done in order to be successful … but that didn't mean I liked it."

Jimmy King said that although he, Webber, Howard and Jalen Rose (who produced the documentary) got all the accolades, the most important person on the team was probably Jackson.

"We were a tight group, and everyone contributed to winning, but if Ray doesn't do all of the things that he did, we wouldn't have won all of those games," King said. "He kept us together in ways people didn't see or notice. He was our No. 1 player."

There are a lot of numbers attached to members of the Fab Five, but rarely is "No. 1" mentioned next to Jackson.

For instance, 56 is the number of wins they racked up together, but Jackson was never the go-to guy. Two is the number of Final Fours they reached, but Jackson was never named Most Outstanding Player. My favorite Fab Five number is 1,189 and counting -- that's how many NBA regular-season and playoff games Howard has played thus far. Rose appeared in 982 games, including the NBA Finals. Webber played in 911 plus five All-Star appearances. King played in 64.

The number that stings is 0.

That's how many national and Big Ten championships the group won. That's the number of banners hanging from Crisler Arena rafters reflecting their legacy after the scandal surrounding booster Ed Martin scrubbed the Five from the books.

And 0 is the number of NBA games Jackson played.

Despite being a two-time All-Big Ten honoree and the school's leading scorer his senior year, Jackson was never even drafted.

So just how important could he have really been?

"I knew there were times in Ray's career that he was unhappy," Rose said. "I just really stressed that what we were trying to do was a marathon and not a sprint and that this was an opportunity to play with special guys and get a good education. That was my brother, and I loved him and I knew he meant just as much to our success as any of the rest of us."

King said that Jackson was the spiritual leader of the squad.

"He was the one who always reminded us what was important and to stay on the right track," he said. "He just has this anointing."

That's all fine and dandy, but being a good guy alone never paid the bills. And when you see the men you sacrificed for pulling in more than $15 million a year -- as Webber, Howard and Rose all did at some point in their careers -- how can you not be bitter?

"I would be lying if I didn't say there were times in which I wondered 'Why not me?'" he said. "I was never jealous of the other guys; I just wanted the opportunity to show what I could do. I played in the CBA, I played overseas, I did all I could to try to get in the NBA, and it just wasn't meant to be. I was really angry, and it wasn't until I was about 27, 28 that I began to appreciate what I did have."

That was around the time he came back to Texas to help take care of his ailing mother, Gladys, who was battling cancer. It was returning home to family, and the principles they taught him, that reminded Jackson of who he was before the Fab Five hysteria. And it was in his mother's passing in 2003 that he realized happiness isn't about getting what you want but wanting and appreciating what you have. Sure, Jackson wanted to play in the NBA like his Wolverines brothers, but seeing his mother fight to stay alive taught him "there was so much for me to be thankful about that I wasn't looking at."

"Now I'm in a place where I can share what I know and hopefully help other young athletes," said the 37-year-old husband and father.

There are a lot of things in life that come easier when you have a lot of money, but to loosely quote the song "Chicken Fried," "There's no dollar sign on peace of mind." If that sounds like a consolation prize, chances are you are still trying to figure out what the big prize actually is. That's not your fault; as I said earlier, there are a lot of things they don't teach us in school. Jackson spent four years at Michigan, but he didn't learn that happiness is something you embrace, not pursue, until years later. Even in that, he was lucky. Some of us never do learn that lesson.

Jackson said he remains close to his fab teammates 20 years later, even Webber, who opted not to participate in the two-hour documentary. There's no beef; he's just not ready to talk. At least not to us. But he still has his brothers -- the philanthropists, businessmen, involved parents, positive contributors to society. Not bad for a group of young black men whom many painted as thugs because they wore baggy shorts and black socks. Jackson said that they weren't trying to be anything other than themselves and that the only thing he would change about his time at Michigan would be when he left.

"I should have came out my junior year with Jalen and Juwan," he said. (King also stayed for his senior season; Webber left after his sophomore season.) "I probably would've gotten drafted and had a better chance of playing in the NBA. … But as I said, that's in the past, and I'm fulfilled at this point in my life."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine