LEXINGTON, Ky. — The first newspaper I ever worked for, where I earned as much money as your average beggar, was also the first place I faced The Old-Young Thing. It didn’t last long. Just long enough for the publisher, a fat man with a goatee, to bring in a tall fellow whom, he told me, “will be the editor from now on.”
This bothered me, mostly because, until that moment, I was the editor. (It was a tiny newspaper; being editor only meant you got a desk.) But what really bothered me was that this fellow, who was otherwise a nice guy, turned out to be younger than me.
And he was being given my job.
There is something disturbing when this happens, especially for the first time. It feels almost unnatural, like swallowing a bone. Don’t the youngest start at the bottom? Don’t the oldest get to be in charge? It is like that through the early years of life, elementary school, the playground, summer camp. Big kids rule. Little kids listen. Freshmen behind sophomores behind juniors behind seniors. Life is simple. You know where you stand.
On Friday night in the NCAA basketball tournament, Eric Riley, a tall, bony junior, who has been a victim of The Old- Young Thing all season, was suddenly called upon to help save his team. Michigan’s star freshmen big men, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, had collected too many fouls. They had to sit down. The season hung in the balance.
“RILEY!” screamed U-M coach Steve Fisher . . . Younger not always better
And Riley came through. He scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He sank critical free throws. At the buzzer, he raised a fist in triumph and let his sad, doe-like eyes drift up to the scoreboard; Michigan had advanced to within a victory of the Final Four. For one glorious night, Riley was the old guy, leading the way, while the younger guys cheered from the bench.
Afterward, he was asked how tough sitting behind famous freshmen has been:
“It’s been tough, very tough. I’ve stayed up nights with my friends, with my mother, with anybody who would listen to me, just complaining about how I wasn’t playing.
“It took me a long while to accept all the attention (the freshmen) were getting. Everybody talks about the Fab Five. The Fab Five. To be honest, I got really sick of hearing those words. But what could I do?”
When Eric Riley signed with Michigan out of high school, he was the one who got the attention. A 7-footer from Ohio! Wow! He figured college would this way: Learn as a freshman, play as a sophomore, take over in his junior and senior seasons.
But last spring, Riley was at home, watching TV, when the news came on: Michigan had just signed high school stars Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, to go with the big Chicago kid named Juwan Howard. This could be the best recruiting
class in history.
“I remember being excited, thinking ‘OK, good. I’m gonna play with these guys.’ “
He didn’t think they would replace him. Happens to all of us
Eric Riley started 26 games last season. This season he started three. He is getting older. He is going backward.
But it is inevitable. The Five Freshmen have proven to be a lethal force. People whisper “dynasty.” There are front page stories and magazine articles and flashy highlight segments on ESPN and CBS.
This does little for upperclassmen such as Riley, Michael Talley or Kirk Taylor, who once thought they would take over. Let’s face it. College is a finite experience. You only get four years. If someone else grabs the stage during your time, well, you still have to leave when those four years are up.
“People stop me on the street and say ‘Are you one of the freshmen, are you one of the Fab Five?’ ” Riley said Friday. “I tell them no. I tell them ‘I’m one of the Forgotten Five.’ “
And he forced a laugh.
What Riley is going through is something many of us face or will face in the American workplace. We live in a country where young is good, and younger is better. Bosses dump their old trusted workers for younger, more aggressive types. Sports teams cut the experienced veteran, in favor of the kid with the spring in his legs. First-time screenwriters lie about their age, because Hollywood is hungry only for raw young talent. In some foreign countries, a person’s age is the absolute measure of his respect: the older, the wiser, the more revered, until the day of his death. But that is in foreign countries.
The young bucks of Michigan can do great things in basketball. They may even win it all this year. But for one night, it was nice to see the old pecking order in place, and watch an upper classman step into the spotlight and show the young world he’s not washed up yet.
By the way, Eric Riley is 21 years old.