Fab Five billboard raises questions of its legacy   

Updated: October 19, 2007, 10:55 PM ET

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I was convinced Jalen Rose was wrong.

For the record, I like Rose. We didn't know each other growing up, but we're both from the same neighborhood on Detroit's west side. The Fab Five was a major part of my high school experience. Back then, we emulated those guys -- the baggy shorts, black socks. The bald look, though, wasn't for me.

But when I read this week that Rose paid for billboard space near our old neighborhood to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Fab Five, Michigan's freshman starting five that changed the culture of basketball, I had one thought:

Say what?

I won't deny the Fab Five's legacy is important or that they are one of the best teams in history, despite not winning a title in their two-year run. But this situation is complicated and uncomfortable.

Few can forget how Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard rocketed to fame after taking Michigan to the NCAA title game their freshman year and then again as sophomores. They were edgy, rebellious, talented and certifiable proof that just because it hadn't happened, it didn't mean it couldn't.

But years later, their accomplishments were tarnished when a federal investigation revealed former Michigan booster Ed Martin illegally lent more than $600,000 to four Michigan basketball players, including $280,000 to Webber, who eventually pled guilty to lying to federal investigators about his involvement with Martin.

The federal indictment never listed Rose as one of the players who received an illegal loan from Martin, but he admitted to a TV reporter he took "pocket money" from Martin -- nothing he said that could be considered excessive.

Now back to the first question I posed: What was Rose thinking with the billboard, which has the five players' jerseys and the word "Timeless" underneath? Did he not get that, while the Fab Five gave college basketball a flair and style that has yet to be duplicated, the colossal damage inflicted by scandal-stained reputations indirectly contributed to Michigan basketball's being irrelevant for nearly a decade?

I talked to Rose, hoping he could shed light on his thought process. He said he wasn't trying to be controversial. The billboard had actually been up since December. It's just now being noticed because the freeway where the billboard sits recently reopened.

"I've been riding past that billboard for 34 years," Rose explained. "At the end of the day, I was lucky. I played at Detroit Southwestern High School on one of the best teams ever. It went to another level when I went with Michigan. It's the 15-year anniversary. It was just a way for me to recognize that, because unfortunately we might not get the love on the national level. This is a grassroots thing."

I couldn't deny the Fab Five's connection to Detroit is special. Not just because of what they achieved 15 years ago, but because Rose and Webber, also a Detroit native, have kept their relationship with Detroit close throughout their careers.

Rose's foundation has distributed more than $1 million since 2000, including a batch of $10,000 scholarships to Detroit high school seniors and an endowed scholarship at Michigan -- the same university that pulled down the Fab Five banners and erased 112 of their victories from the record books. Webber recently put his collection of African-American artifacts on display at Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Considering the economic peril the city is in, Detroiters take pride in knowing native sons that could easily afford to abandon them haven't.

For sure, Rose couldn't buy a billboard in Ann Arbor, where mention of the Fab Five still brings about frosty responses. The NCAA banned Webber from the Michigan program for 10 years. The university erased his name and the others involved with Martin from the media guides and programs.

"What bothers me is that, at the end of the day, the checks that changed hands, from sponsors to everyone else, those were cashed," Rose said. "No checks were returned."

I pointed out that wasn't entirely true, since the university's self-imposed sanctions included returning the $450,000 it earned for postseason appearances in 1992 and 1993 -- the years the Fab Five appeared in NCAA title games, losing to Duke and North Carolina.

Still, it was a valid point. When college scandals happen, what the athletes received is always the focus, not the benefits the school gained. Who knows how much money Michigan made from selling the Fab Five's apparel, or how it translated into shoe sales for Nike, the Wolverines' sponsor at the time. If it's true Reggie Bush took more than $100,000 from marketing agents while at USC, who made more money while Bush was in college? USC or Bush?

"I'm not saying we were angels," Rose said. "We did a lot of things to ruffle feathers. But I felt Jimmy King and Ray Jackson deserved [to be acknowledged]. They didn't get a chance to play in the NBA and make millions of dollars, but millions of dollars were made off them."

The Fab Five married hip-hop to college basketball, and the one thing the hip-hop crowd loves to do is buy things. As successful as the football team is, the Fab Five can at least be partly credited with Michigan's national appeal. So no matter how much the university tries to expunge the Fab Five's existence, their imprint can't really be erased.

"If you really don't like the Fab Five, don't wear baggy shorts," Rose said. "Don't call Ohio State's recruiting class the 'Thad Five' or 'the next Fab Five.'"

OK, I'll concede there is a certain hypocrisy in a university's trying to erase a legacy it benefited from then and even now. But what Rose didn't understand is Michigan really didn't have a choice. The staggering dollar figures associated with the scandal called for an extreme response.

"Scandals happen in college sports daily," Rose argued. "Look at Maurice Clarett. No matter what, Ohio State is not going to snatch those banners down."

Clarett's accusations weren't proven true. The ones against the Michigan players were. And of course, Rose brought up UNLV, which was put on NCAA probation because of infractions that occurred under Jerry Tarkanian. Tark's 1990 championship team is still regarded as one of the best teams ever and the school doesn't seem to have a problem accepting them, even though most of us still remember that infamous photograph of Moses Scurry, Anderson Hunt and David Butler in the hot tub with convicted sports-event fixer Richie "The Fixer" Perry. Though Tarkanian was forced to resign because UNLV was put on probation in 1993, the court at Thomas & Mack Center was still renamed after him.

"I can understand why [Michigan] felt they had to do that," Rose said. "If your kid gets into trouble, you want to send them to their room and tell them to cut the TV off. But people have to remember that everybody wasn't implicated and you're punishing the fans, too. But again, no checks were returned."

This is the danger of having an in-depth conversation with an athlete you don't agree with. He starts to make sense after awhile.

Although Rose is a 12-year NBA professional who has played in the NBA Finals, the Fab Five is a defining moment in his life. His memories are not the collateral damage caused by Martin's scandal. He remembers how former coach Steve Fisher would read their hate mail -- a lot of it racist -- to them before games for motivation. He remembers wearing an EPMD hat to a news conference and the stir it caused. He remembers the odd stares when they had rap music blaring from the speakers during their warm-ups. Now, every team does it. He mostly remembers being himself and not caring what other people thought.

"If you came after the 1991-92 season," he said, "you have some of our DNA."

Maybe this billboard isn't the end of the world, as Manny Ramirez would say. I know. I waffled. Don't worry, Rose and I will always disagree on a few things. College athletes do operate in an unfair system that allows them to be exploited, but it's the fairest system we have. It's still not an excuse for players to not follow the rules.

But preserving a memory? I've got no problem with that.

Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.


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