An Open Letter to Chris Webber: You Are Loved
Dear Mr. Webber,
You don’t know me. And I don’t know you, though I know some of your close friends. So let me first introduce myself. In 1993, when your heart was broken in front of a national television audience, I was 27 years old and near the end of my first year as a professor at the University of Michigan. I watched the game and when it ended I cried — not because of Michigan’s loss — but because of what felt to me like the enormously unfair tragedy that had just befallen you, a young man the age of my students. Yes, you were already a celebrity baller, but in that moment, I just felt what it was to be a kid making an honest mistake under a terribly harsh spotlight. Years passed, and as my own career at the University unfolded, the scandal erupted, and once again I could only feel sympathy for you. Maybe you made a mistake, maybe you did or said things you shouldn’t have. But I still could only see a young man, a human being like myself, who, like myself was trying to navigate the harrowing waters of life — except the world was watching you do it, and feeling entitled to judge your every move. I too watched as you moved on with your brilliant professional career, your philanthropic efforts, and, more recently, your charismatic, sensitive, and informed work as a broadcaster.
As for me, I’m still at the University. I teach a course called “Cultures of Basketball.” It’s pretty popular. As part of the course, I have my students — most of whom weren’t even born in 1993 — watch the “Fab Five” documentary. I want them to learn about — I want them to feel — the beauty of what you and your teammates did on the court and the enormous impact of what you set in motion off the court. In fact, in just a few hours, I’ll be going to teach that class. This semester, I have five freshmen in the class who are members of this year’s UM Men’s Basketball team (that’s them in the picture above, I’m in the middle, with my head shaved as part of a deal I made with them if they made it to the Final Four – I promised them I’d show up for class with head bald, Fab Five style. They were excited.). They are respectful and sensitive and fun-loving kids, and intelligent and diligent students, probably a lot like you were. You probably know who they are from the news media. And maybe, because you seem sensitive and empathetic yourself, you probably have a sense, better than my own, of how they are feeling as kids, as young human beings, heading for what is probably the biggest weekend of their lives to date.
I’m writing you to ask you a favor. I’d like you to go to their game
this weekend Monday tonight.
It’s not that I think they need you to. Like the elite athletes they are, I thinkthey are focused on their team and on the individual and collective tasks they are preparing to undertake with a nation watching them. But I know from the discussions we’ve had in class — some of them with your former teammate Jimmy King, who was generous and gracious enough to take time away from his job to come and speak to them — that even if they don’t need you to be there, it would mean the world to them if you were there. One of these young men was even wearing a “Fab Five” snapback lid to class on the day of Jimmy’s visit, and also the day after. And, you know what else, it would mean the world to the rest of the students in the class who aren’t basketball players. It would mean the world to me too. Because, however the institution may present it, and however the media may paint it, you are loved.
I imagine it must be hard to be you right now. Everybody is talking about you like you’re not a real person, like you’re some doll or character in a drama they are playing out in their minds and in print. Many are judging you in anticipation of what you might or might not do. I don’t mean to be adding to that with this letter, but I didn’t know how else to communicate with you. I’d have written you a private letter but I didn’t know your address or e-mail. I can imagine how you might be feeling, but of course I don’t know.
So let me just speak to you from the heart of my own experience. I know that I have experienced estrangement from people that I love. It was terrible. I don’t want to exaggerate. Life moved on and I did my best to try to remain whole despite the sense that a part of me had been taken and that, at least partly, I contributed to it. I was lucky to have others in my life who loved and supported me and helped me to keep moving and to feel as whole as possible. But still, at quiet times, I could feel that pain well up and threaten to split me apart. It might have gone on like that forever. But it didn’t. For recently, I had the experience of finally capturing — through a combination of luck and virtue — the opportunity to reach out and begin to heal the pain of that estrangement. It was terrifying and it is not done, but it is begun, and all that was already great in my life is just that much better now that this process is underway.
So I’m thinking that maybe you could see
this weekend Monday today as such an opportunity. I’m not talking about apologies to the University of Michigan or any of that nonsense. I’m not talking about some spectacular gesture. I’m just talking about the opportunity to go catch a game with some of your former teammates (who are already there and have made impassioned public pleas for you to join them) and, in the process, inspire a young group of ballers who feel themselves to be connected to what you and your teammates did. I bet you’d feel better, maybe only a little bit better, but still, unquestionably better if you did.
Forgive me if it sounds as if I’m lecturing you or telling you what to do. It’s not what I mean. I mean to be encouraging you — grown man to grown man — to consider all this from the vantage point of seizing an opportunity to show love and to be loved in a short life that presents all of us with precious few such opportunities.
You no doubt have many people in your life who let you know you are loved, and so you probably don’t need this, anymore than the ball players, or my students, or me, really need this. But I can’t help but feel that if you went to the game in Atlanta, it would be like a massive, overwhelming flooding statement of love and humanity that would sweep away, like so much irrelevant garbage, the judgment and villification you have endured and the pain you have experienced.
Whatever you do, Mr. Webber, please know that in my classroom, you are loved. And that in my heart, now, as twenty years ago, you are also loved.
Comparative Literature and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities
The University of Michigan
P.S. Thursday, April 11, 2013. You went to the game on Monday night. Thank you. I still don’t know if you read this letter, or, if you did, if that had any influence on you, but I was happy you went to the game, as were many other fans I know, and as were — most importantly to me — the students I mentioned above. I hope that next time you come to a Michigan event you will join your former teammates. It is good to be among one’s brothers. I know that the University you attended and represented on the court twenty years ago, the University whose undergraduates I have been teaching since you were one of them — that this University cannot officially “associate” with you for another month or so. And I don’t know what they will do when they can.
But I want to say here publicly, in a place that many people still seem to be finding their way to, two things. First, I think it took courage for you to come to the game. I think it was the right thing to do, but I still think it took courage. The right thing is not always the easiest thing to do.
Second, I recognize that it will take courage for the University’s administrator’s to seize the opportunity of the ban ending. Just from the bitter, hateful comments I received to this letter, I know that many alumni, fans, and others connected to the University still cling to their pain. So I know it would take courage for President Coleman and Athletic Director Brandon to publicly embrace the 1992 and 1993 Michigan basketball teams, hoist the banners, and engage in genuine community discussion of the meaning of those teams and their legacy. But, it is the right thing to do.
I’ve told them this before here and — more pointedly — here; but I’ll keep saying it anywhere and everywhere. It’s not because I”m hung up on the Fab Five. It’s not because I don’t appreciate this year’s team. It’s not because I can’t or don’t want to move forward. It’s because it’s the right thing to do for a group of teachers of young people, for an institution dedicated to the formation of young people, to show those young people that moving forward with integrity can only occur when we move forward with our whole selves, even the parts that are scary or embarrassing to talk about, even the parts we fear others won’t like.
On every page of my Cultures of Basketball syllabus I have written: “Notice your fear. Now go there.” It’s there for me as much as for the students. It reminds me that my own fear — of being wrong, of being thought foolish, of being wounded by meanness –can turn me away from the very words and deeds that will most fulfill me and most inspire my students. And I hope it serves as that sort of reminder for the students. I hope they notice their fears: acknowledge that they have them and that those fears may be barring them from their potential, and I hope they go toward their fears: exploring and examining them and even, courageously, confront them by doing exactly what they are afraid of doing.
That’s what I want my University to do now with the 1992 and 1993 teams and their legacy. Thanks again for going to the game, hope to see you around campus one day soon.