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March 15, 2011The recent ESPN Fab Five documentary shed some new light on the five Michigan freshmen who changed college basketball, making for interesting theater. But given how much the theme centered on team and brotherhood, a few details - and omissions - were, at the very least, disappointing.
'Team, Team, Team' adorns the practice shirts of this year's Michigan squad, and for the most part, they wear it well. The bond spans one through 13 and beyond to the walk-ons, with equal treatment among all. That was the difference between Duke and the Fab Five teams, Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski - whose teams finished 3-0 against the brash frosh - said in offering his opinion of the rivalry. Whereas U-M had a team of five within a team, his group was 12 deep, without schism.
Sunday night's documentary was intended to focus on Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, The Fab Five - we get it. But it didn't have to be at the expense of a few of their teammates (a term probably best used loosely, given the treatment they received).
Jalen Rose, who has made a name for himself as a successful analyst and with his charity work (and deservedly so), laughed about how he and his freshmen teammates would tell the upperclassmen (paraphrasing), 'you're only here to shoot and raise the team GPA.' The closest he came to praising them for their contributions to the team came when he said, 'they handled it better than I would have' in speaking of claiming their starting jobs.
How hard would it have been to add, "but we never would have gotten past the round of 16 that first year if not for Eric Riley. And we wouldn't have made it out of the Final Four without James Voskuil's shooting against Cincinnati?"
Because that was precisely the case. Webber was a non-factor in the regional semifinal, and Riley became the story in Michigan's Sweet 16 win over Oklahoma State, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a 75-72 win. Voskuil saved his one shining moment for a bigger stage, scoring nine points and hitting two huge treys in the final 11 minutes against the Bearcats to lead U-M to a rematch with Duke in the national final.
Guard Rob Pelinka earned a cameo in the Fab Five docudrama, a three-second mention for a pair of triples he hit in the first half of the 1993 national championship loss to North Carolina, but other than that, the reserves' contributions were essentially ignored.
"I wonder how those guys really view the Fab Five?" someone asked on the message boards today.
The answer: very graciously, all things considered. In three separate interviews over the last eight years, we gave Voskuil, Riley and guard Michael Talley the opportunity to speak of their experiences on those teams. Not one had a bad word to say, or aired any grievances despite what several of them admitted had been a trying time.
Voskuil, a highly successful businessmen living in Paris at the time we spoke with him in 2003, came the closest in what really amounted to benign criticism.
"Maybe as I get older I might think, 'Could I have played more?' Yeah, sure," said Voskuil. "I think we had a Fab Three and a couple of guys like Eric Riley, Michael Talley and Rob Pelinka who probably should have played a little bit more. But there are a lot of things we don't like to admit in college sports, that it's in many ways a money machine. Fish [head coach Steve Fisher], I think, did a good job with the situation he was in. He was in a tough situation."
And inserting Ray Jackson in February to complete the freshman starting five was the right thing to do. Jackson was the spark that helped ignite the team down the stretch, and the chemistry was undeniable.
Voskuil was quoted a few years later as saying he would have transferred the moment Fisher wrote Jackson's name in place of his (on the locker room chalkboard at Notre Dame) if he could have. Instead, he sucked it up and - despite the disappointment - helped lead his team to the championship game with some of the clutch buckets of the year.
You won't see that in another documentary anytime soon. In fact, his father always had to convince him to relive the memory with him on the occasion he made it back to his West Michigan home. He'd gone four years without seeing it when we spoke with him eight years ago.
"Every now and then he corners me in Grand Rapids or Holland in the summer and says, 'Let's watch that tape again,'" Voskuil recalled with a laugh - and great humility. "That one game probably gave me more recognition than I deserved. But more than anything, it still pretty much sends shivers up my spine."
Making Lemonade out of Lemons
Riley, meanwhile, went on to play a few seasons in the NBA before embarking on a long career in Europe, proving he was no scrub. He started his High Rise Foundation providing assistance to help improve academic, athletic, and social skills to urban youth a few years ago, at which point he, too, recalled the early 90s fondly.
"That whole situation wasn't as bad as everyone thought it was. I went from a stacked team to a team with pretty much no talent, one of the worst in the Big Ten at the time [in 1991]," he recalled. "That was a rough season, going from the luxury of being able to do anything on the court to struggling. It was like, 'man, we don't have enough talent.' When [the Fab Five] came in I was sort of relieved, knowing at least we had more now.
"I knew I was going to be able to play because I was able to block shots and rebound. I knew there was no way they couldn't play me. Those guys came in cocky, which was understandable. They were so talented it was unreal. Juwan, Chris and Jalen could have skipped college - they were that good. If it was five years later, they probably would have."
But Riley almost didn't stick around for the Fabs, which would have cost him two more NCAA Tournament finals appearances. Riley had a great relationship with coach Bill Frieder and nearly went to Arizona State with the coach.
"I really never had a conversation with [newly hired coach] Steve Fisher up to that point. It was one of those situations where I never had a relationship with the guy - I had to build one quickly or leave," he laughed. "But that's something I tell my kids - certain situations can be bad in the beginning, but turn out to work and you make a bad situation good. I felt I did that at Michigan."
His performance against Oklahoma State did provide some vindication, he added.
"That was probably the first game where they got a sense that we were valuable, the ex-starters and the bench guys. It was an opportunity to show we could carry the team if we had to," Riley recalled. "All year long there were opportunities, just not in a game that important where people really got to see it.
"During the year, Rob Pelinka stepped up at certain times, took over at times when he had to. Whoever was coming off the bench had to fill their roles. It was amazing, really, because a lot of guys that feel like they've been slighted might cheat a bit. When it's your turn, you might slack off. I give them a lot of credit."
That includes former Mr. Basketball Mike Talley out of Detroit Cooley, perhaps the biggest casualty of the Fab Five revolution. Though not the biggest guard, many expected Talley to be the face of the program for years. Instead he was relegated to bit player - and to top it off, made the scapegoat for Webber's gaffe that ended U-M's hope for a championship against North Carolina.
The documentary shows Talley on the sideline signaling for timeout with Webber dribbling up the floor and only seconds remaining. They even highlight him and call him out by name, even though teammates insist only those within a foot of Fisher (a group including Webber) could have heard him say there were no timeouts remaining during their last meeting on the sidelines.
King added it was made abundantly clear to those in the inner circle not to call a timeout. Talley wasn't one of them, and Riley noted there were several others who had no idea how many timeouts were remaining. Webber shouldn't have been one of them.
Talley made the most of his Michigan degree and was teaching special education and coaching his son at the Melvindale Academy of Business and Technology when we spoke to him a year and a half ago. He had long since gotten over his career disappointments, and though he went from 11.0 ppg scorer as a sophomore in 1990-91 to role player in his final seasons, his years as a student-athlete had their highlights, too.
"There are a lot of them," he insisted. "One of them was just having the opportunity to be blessed as an inner city kid to go to the University of Michigan. It wasn't all basketball for me at Michigan. Growing up, you know how important it is to graduate; that's why I continue to move forward with my education, because I also have to be a leader and a role model for certain kids, to show what's necessary to succeed and not give up."
A refreshing take, frankly, after listening to an hour's worth of "we were exploited" presented in the film, even if Talley's jersey wasn't responsible for the $10 million in revenue the university generated largely from the Fab Five.
"Jalen Rose will always be a good friend of mine," Talley said in 2009. "I like to feel I was a part of Jalen and Chris going to Michigan. I always talked to them and played with them in the summertime when they were the younger kids, while I was already established."
Would he feel a bit betrayed and change his tune after seeing the documentary? Maybe, but probably not. The Michael Talley we spoke with a few years ago had matured into a great father and leader of young men with his focus on the future, not the past.
The same can be said of each of the four key reserves on those teams, something it would be a shame to ignore. The Final Four banners relegated to the Bentley Library's basement by the selfish actions of one player - Webber, who accepted loans from booster Ed Martin - are as much theirs as anyone else's, and if anyone deserves to point fingers, it's them.
We haven't heard a peep about it from any of the four. Here's betting you won't, either, further cementing their own legacy as the true ultimate teammates.