Cinco de Mayo

My Cinco de Mayo celebration consisted of reading books with the number five in the title. It began with The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, who spoke at commencement on May 6th. Although I did not get to hear his keynote address on “Giving is Living”, I did begin reading his book that day and finished it a few days later. I was impressed by his original approach to the afterlife, and by the concept that our lives are more inter- connected than we are able to realize. I could do without all the Hallmark card platitudes, particularly at the end of chapters.

The same thing goes for the repetition of “So it goes” at the end of so many sections in Slaughterhouse-Five, the next book I read for Cinco de Mayo. I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut was trying to make a po-mo point by doing so, but I don’t really need a post-it flag marking each place a person dies.  Granted, people die meaningless deaths every day and it doesn’t reach the scale of the meaningless deaths of 25,000 civilians in the firebombing of Dresden. Complicated message well- and artfully-told received; please stop poking me with it.

Billy Pilgrim is both unstuck in time and abducted by aliens. The two casual chains are separate, although interconnected. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy to view time as they do, which includes their own perspective of the afterlife. Death is only a moment in a life as they see it, and the individual goes on living in the other moments of their life. Like the blue man in The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the aliens help Billy reconcile his survival with the deaths of people around him (and turn him into their own sideshow attraction).

For my third Cinco de Mayo reading I returned to Mitch Albom and the circus act known as the Fab Five. I have only seen portions of the documentary that Jalen Rose produced for ESPN recently, but I have read much of the commentary on the controversy it stirred up. That turned my attention back to Albom’s book. Of the three books discussed here (and the three books by Albom I’ve read recently) this one was easily my favorite. That’s to be expected, considering my personal connection to the subject matter.

I was a freshman in high school the same year that the “Fab Five” freshmen – Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Chris Webber, and Jalen Rose – came together at Michigan, and I idolized them. I adorned my bedroom wall with their photo clippings arranged in a giant block letter ‘M’. I taped the games on national broadcast. I didn’t run out and buy the extra long baggy shorts, but I did start wearing #4 like Chris Webber. He was an animal on the court, with the primal prowess of a big black cat. In the first meeting with Duke he had 27 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks … and 5 critical fouls which allowed Duke to tie the score and go on to win in overtime. Albom quoted Duke’s Grant Hill as saying afterward “We escaped today, pure and simple.” Contrary to what his teammate Bobby Hurley has recently told the media, Hill went on to say “They’re the best team we’ve faced in two years. They’re better than Vegas.” That was in December, before all five freshmen were in the starting line up together. When March Madness rolled around I saw a tournament bracket on my English teacher’s desk and informed her that Michigan would face Duke in a title game rematch (back me up on this, Mrs. Hunt).

As a tall, intellectual white kid with Ivy League aspirations, one might have expected that I identified with Duke’s star player Christian Laettner, but I couldn’t stand the pretty preppy boy. He was too picture perfect – as Albom pointed out, he even sweated neatly, like a model who had been misted. When he followed up his perfect shooting game against Kentucky with 7 turnovers in the first half against Michigan, I was thrilled. Then Duke broke the game open in the second half and ran away with it. That was the least competitive of the three meetings between the two teams, although it had the most at stake.

Duke would defeat Michigan again (without Laettner) in 1992, but this time there would be no championship rematch. In the Blue Devils’ place was their arch-rival, the North Carolina Tarheels. Once again the championship slipped through the Fab Five’s fingers as Webber signaled for that ill-fated timeout the team didn’t have.

Albom captures it all in his book, from The Greatest Class Ever Recruited to “T” is for the End. He covers the improbable championship run of 1989, and how that success led to a sudden exodus of Michigan players to the NBA. In that wake came the Fab Five: first Howard from Chicago, then King and Jackson from Texas, and finally Webber and Rose, the two local players from Detroit. Albom also looks at the heralded players they reduced to reserve roles: Michael Talley, Eric Riley, Rob Pelinka, James Voskuil, and Jason Bossard, without whom Michigan would not have made it to back-to-back championship games. He does a fine job of balancing the perspectives of the players, coaches, and the media. It is an all-inclusive view, right down to the postures of the players on the plane. There’s even a mention of the only team to start four freshmen and win an NCAA title: the Utah Utes, back in 1944. The only omission is the scandal involving booster Ed Martin, which forced the university to vacate the Fab Five’s Final Four appearances (among other sanctions). That wasn’t uncovered until three years after the book was published.

Perhaps the most telling quote in the entire book is found in the epilogue. It comes from the most loquacious member of the group, Jalen Rose. He said “Even though we never won a championship, they’ll be talking about us for 20 years.” Would you call that a self-fulfilled prophesy, mister executive producer?

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