Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Your Silence is So Loud

March Madness brings out a lot of passions about alma maters, busted brackets and office pools. It also revisits controversies such as what both HBO and ESPN did this weekend with two stirring documentaries about two of the most polarizing, but talented programs in college basketball history.

You can find rundowns and reviews of “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV” and “The Fab Five” everywhere else (though I recommend The Post Game). Depending on your view on college athletics, either you thoroughly enjoyed the interviews and clips of the games of the era or you’re more disgusted at how those teams succeeded brashly in the face of the sports you held in reverence. Either way, both documentaries shared a common thread: the absence of the most significant players of both UNLV and Michigan.

More people are discussing and lamenting the absence of Chris Webber from ESPN’s two-hour retrospective, yet the lack of Larry Johnson also stood out from HBO’s offering.

The void left by both men spoke to a paraphrased saying my father used to say when I was too angry to speak to him; your silence is so loud.

Courtesy of ESPN
If you were in Webber’s shoes, you would probably have declined to speak about the Michigan days. It’s one thing to revisit the lowest point of your collegiate career; the infamous ‘timeout’ call in the waning seconds that gave North Carolina one last shot to win the national championship. Yet, knowing that the much of the footage regarding the game would be centered on that moment – notably your anger at camerapersons taping you walking from the court to the locker room – wasn’t exactly a sterling incentive for you to participate.

To follow that with an even bigger controversy – a relationship with a famed booster – wasn’t enticing, either. Because Webber didn’t appear in the documentary, the only way that his opinion was reflected was by adding at-the-time interviews, ESPN’s coverage of his involvement with Ed Martin and a corresponding press conference.

Some believe there was a chance for Webber to redeem himself from the aftermath of the Martin controversy. Yet, he could have asked himself a simple question; what would a public admission or at least recognition of the scandal have done for anyone now?

On the Johnson front, maybe the questions weren’t as loud, but they were certainly lingering for those who watched HBO’s program. Other than scant media appearances over the years, LJ has faded away since retiring with the Knicks in 2001. His final days were highlighted by chronic back problems, declining production and “forty million dollar slaves”.

Courtesy of SLAM
Ah, yes, four words (and plenty more) that unearthed a torrent of criticism towards him. He spoke on America one of most open secrets; the idea that though no longer shucking cotton and being whipped, black men were not only still being exploited, but unlike the Africans that were shipped over to the States as slaves, modern-day blacks sit under an ever-scrutinizing microscope of the media.

And that might be what we expected him to speak to.

Considering the penalties UNLV took on during and after Johnson’s time as a Runnin’ Rebel, you could only imagine what Johnson could have said about his days as a student-athlete. We saw the defiance of the student-athlete in “The Fab Five”; Webber and the rest of his teammates protested the profits made by interested partners of Michigan after discovering their likeness used as commerce in a trip to Europe. Johnson, on the other hand, could have picked up where some believe he left off in 1999. He could have written the epilogue to the book that bears his quote as a title or picked up the megaphone on behalf of a coach that took a chance on him and his teammates.

However, he may have felt even with the tremendous storytelling abilities of HBO Sports, too many would be looking for more controversial sound bites instead of his complete, honest opinions.

After having watched both programs, the difference between the two voids is pretty clear. At least with HBO, the central figure to the entire story was already there; former head coach Jerry Tarkanian. He was the undisputed leader of the Rebels, even if as we discovered initially, he was reluctant move to Sin City.

It’s understandable that fans of those programs are disappointed that Webber and Johnson were not involved with these stories. Overall, the perspectives from future NBA players in Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Jalen Rose and Juwon Howard provided depth from their own roles in the stories while they gave context to what, or rather, who was conspicuously absent.

Yet, sometimes, the best stories leave you hanging a little bit. They don’t believe in absolute endings nor provide simple solutions to the issues posed in the opening scenes. In the case of media offerings that look into a yesteryear of not too long ago, those clean conclusions are harder to come by. This is because the central figures are still around; hoping that new projects or occupations can keep that microscope fixated on something else as they show the world that they have evolved, or at least moved on. Webber’s rebirth as an analyst is arguably the brightest spot for NBA coverage in recent years and his number was deservedly raised to the rafters by the Sacramento Kings. Johnson chose to fade to the background quietly, though he had reconnected with the Knicks, founded his own beverage company and splits time between Dallas (his hometown) and Las Vegas.

There’s no question that what were already strong documentaries could have been even better if both men were involved. Though we shouldn’t hold our breaths, if Webber and Johnson ever choose to speak on their days as the Big Men on Campus, captive audiences eagerly await.


Ed The Sports Fan said...

They say "Silence is Golden" and i agree that their non-presence is damning. However, letting others preach the gospel about you is cool in its own way. Moreover, Webber and LJ were the two focal points of investigation, so its probably not even worth it to them.

Nice write up JC.


Jason Clinkscales said...

Gracias, Ed. If there was one NBA player - former or active - that I would love to have a sitdown interview with, it's Chris Webber. I was always fascinated by how he's had to shoulder these major disappointments, yet could still say "hey, I think I'm going to be an analyst now". In a crazy way, I see him as sort of a Pete Rose-like figure of college basketball in terms of how people want him to come clean. The only difference is that it was a situation where some fans actually side with him.

As for LJ, a few years back, I used to do Giants reports for a show at City College (this was when ChiChi was actually interning). I was supposed to call in at a certain time following his interview. I was more than happy to sit back and even be skipped because Johnson, himself, was such an interesting guest. He spoke of pretty much everything he had ever been involved with in basketball, for better or wose. So much changed when he came to New York that I almost have to remind myself he was once "Grandmama".