- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Chris Webber is the recovering flavor of the moment from Detroit Country Day High School.

He was the next best thing since the last best thing back in the day, a star ahead of his time, and bound to the University of Michigan. He was part of the Fab Five recruiting class back then, the toast of college basketball, stylish, graceful, determined to be different.

We made stars of them all. We wrote odes in their behalf and extolled their virtues on television. We even measured the length of their baggy shorts. Oh, my. Those baggy shorts. What were those young men trying to say to the masses? What did it mean to social scientists? It was heavy stuff, and those were heady times for the Michigan basketball program, led by Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard.

It did not amount to much in the end. It was all a sham.

Ed Martin, a program booster at the time, was lurking in the shadows, playing the part of sugar daddy around the team, soaking it up, having a good time. We know what we know now. We probably don't know all of it, and probably never will.

The lawyers representing Martin told university officials last July that the one-time booster gave a total of $616,000 to four former Michigan players, including $280,000 to Webber and his family. Last week, in a preemptive measure intended to assuage the NCAA, the university imposed a series of sanctions against its basketball program. The two Final Four appearances by the Fab Five? The banners have been taken down from the gym's rafters. More than 100 victories in the '90s have been forfeited and $442,00 in postseason revenues relinquished.

Predictably, Webber is sticking to his version of events. He actually may believe it by now. He has told it enough. He has a father and aunt to consider, along with a federal charge of perjury. Webber has backed himself into a legal corner, and the room to wiggle free is limited because of the familial element.

"It was just hurtful, because we gave everything to Michigan," Webber said last week after Michigan's officials, in effect, asked for mercy from the NCAA.

As usual, Webber is the victim of the man on the grassy knoll. He is confused, hurt. He gave everything to Michigan, and Michigan responded by giving him the back of its hand.

There is one small problem with Webber's contention. The university studied the facts and decided that Webber's tale is a tall one. So who is really the victim here, if there is one?

In hindsight, the long-ago fascination with the Fab Five looks silly.

We should have known better. We should have known that if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is. Seeing is not necessarily believing in college basketball, mostly because of the intoxicating brew of money, celebrity and youth.

But no, here we go again, believing again, with another college basketball season on tap.

We already have uncovered a new flavor of the moment, LeBron James, the prep player from Ohio whose games have commanded pay-per-view treatment in that part of the country.

Who knows how the media's fullcourt press will play on that young man's head? Who knows who has his ear? James is said to be very special, possibly the No.1 pick overall in the NBA Draft next June, which he probably hears a zillion times a day. We probably should not be surprised if he loses his balance along the way.

We play this game within the game each season. We pass out superlatives as if they are breath mints. All the great coaches complement all the great players, as great is loosely defined. Everyone means well. This guy is great. That guy is great. This program does it right. That program does it right. It is all managed on blind faith, because no one really knows what goes on behind the closed doors of a basketball program. You know that they are all "great kids," in the words of the coach, and that each game is "big," and that a larger truth is sometimes only revealed in extreme form, either by suspicious graduation rates or police blotter material.

Otherwise, the illusion persists until the next program becomes overly sloppy and is exposed as something less than it purports to be.

Michigan used to be a fine, fine university, one of the best in managing the athletic beast around its principal mission, and now look at it. It has been brought to its knees.

Consider Michigan a warning around your cheers of devotion this winter.

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