Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and the Battle for the Legacy of the Fab Five
Webber was the star, but Jalen was always the leader. That hasn’t changed.
The Michigan Wolverines basketball team of 1991–1993 is my favorite sports team ever. Even more so than the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies or the 1992 Dream Team. Two decades before everyone wondered how John Calipari was going to manage the egos of a group of superstar freshmen, the members of the greatest recruiting class ever — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson — not only managed to coexist, but thrive as a team. Michigan coach Steve Fisher was initially hesitant to start all five freshmen, but halfway through the year it became apparent that the youngsters were ready.
They changed the culture of basketball, wearing black socks, baggy shorts, and blue warm up t-shirts, questioning why the school and NCAA made millions off their likeness while they received no actual money — an issue that is still raging today. At a time when hip-hop was still being dismissed by the boomer generation and white kids who liked the music and the culture were branded as “wiggers,” the Fab Five were embraced by kids of all races and backgrounds. Meanwhile, old, white sportswriters decried that they were disrespecting the game, pointing instead to that bastion of integrity, Bob Knight, as a proper example to follow.
Critics often like to say that for all of the attention they received, the Fab Five never won anything, yet those same people praise Tom Izzo for reaching seven Final Fours. If reaching the Final Four is an accomplishment — and most schools not only tout their appearances, but also raise banners — then the Fab Five should be lauded for reaching not just the Final Four, but the championship game twice in their two years together. (Perhaps even more impressively, after Webber entered the draft, the remaining four returned as juniors and made it all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion Arkansas.)
With all that they went through — arriving on campus together, being criticized incessantly, helping to revolutionize the way players looked and acted, reaching two title games only to lose, the booster scandal tied to Ed Martin — one would expect that the five of them would share a bond that could never be broken.
Ever since he was indicted and ultimately pled guilty to criminal contempt in 2003, Chris Webber has gone to great lengths in recent years to distance himself from his past at the University of Michigan and, in particular, his association with the Fab Five. He declined to participate in the ESPN documentary of the team — the other four were all credited as executive producers — and recently criticized the film, claiming he was only asked to participate a week before filming, and took veiled shots at Jalen Rose. Rose and Jimmy King both responded, calling Webber delusional and a liar. Webber has promised a book and a documentary that will tell the so-called “real” story, but it’s clear that this all boils down to one thing: legacy.
Most people attempt to portray themselves in a favorable light and often have selective memory when it comes to their flaws, but the difference in how this manifests itself in Webber and Rose is not only conspicuous, but also telling.
Unlike the other four, Webber has always tried to take great care of his image and he always wanted people to like him, something King calls a “character flaw,” and Mitch Albom documented in his book, Fab Five. While Webber had a solid NBA career — one I have defended repeatedly — it never reached the expectations that were placed on him after winning three high school state championships and being the most sought-after recruit that year. He has spent the past twenty years trying to reshape his image: attempting to escape the embarrassment of calling a time-out when his team had none left, battling the perception that he would rather have a teammate — Rose in college, Mike Bibby in Sacramento — take the big shot in his place, and refusing to ever address the recruiting scandal. Plus, there’s his attitude. As Ian Casselberry wrote for SB Nation:
Webber’s sense of entitlement and attempt to always portray himself as some persecuted victim still infuriate me.
Rose, meanwhile, had a better career than most people expected and since his retirement has been painfully honest about his own attitude and misconceptions, addressing and defending Ed Martin (rather than refusing to talk about it), and in general embracing the history of the Fab Five, for better and for worse.
In hindsight, maybe the writing was always on the wall. Webber always seemed to distance himself from the others a bit, something that only increased over time and became glaringly obvious when the other four sat a few rows off the floor for Michigan’s appearance at the 2013 title game while Webber — who only showed up after succumbing to public pressure — watched from a luxury box high above by himself. It was like 1994 all over again, when Webber was in the NBA and the rest were still at Michigan. The Fab Four Plus One.
Rose isn’t perfect and he has placed himself and his teammates on perhaps a higher pedestal than they deserve, but he is not afraid to address any issue and will accept his share of credit or blame. He’s also right about Webber being delusional. In trying to control the narrative of his legacy, Webber is once again proving that it’s Jalen, not he, who is able to withstand the pressure.