FINALLY, U-M STARS MUST TELL THE TRUTH

Alot of people knew about Ed Martin. Very few actually knew him. And the fastest way to land in the second category was to ask questions.

“What does the guy do?”

“Where does he get his money?”

“How close is he to the Michigan basketball players?”

You asked those questions, you were frozen out. Shoulders shrugged. Eyes turned away. It was like a secret society. The Ed Martin Inner Circle. Those allowed inside included high school and college basketball players, who were happy to take free gifts, no questions asked.

For years, apparently, Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock were in that circle. They benefited from their silence. I personally asked Webber about Ed Martin several times while Webber was at Michigan. He would smile coyly and say, “Aw, what do you want to know about Ed Martin for?”

Here’s what for, Chris. You are no longer a kid. You and the others are all grown men, and three of you are extremely wealthy. Yet to this day, you have kept mum on Martin, stayed inside his secret club, talking only when the government yanked you in with a subpoena. Even then, no one is sure what you said.

That should all end today. Martin, 68, has been indicted by the federal government, accused of laundering money from illegal gambling operations. He is charged with giving Webber $280,000, Traylor $160,000, Taylor $105,000, and Bullock $71,000 — and all of it came when they were prep or college players.

That’s not pizza money.

And like it or not, those players owe their schools and the public some answers.

Will it ever end?

Michigan has gone through two coaches and two athletic directors since Martin’s name first surfaced in the mid-1990s. You can tie all of that, in some way, to the long shadow of Martin and his handouts.

Yet did any of the players come forward and admit anything? No. The secret remained tight — even as the basketball program crumbled.

The rumors about Martin, during that stretch, were legendary. He was a basketball nut who paid for access. He drove Detroit high school stars around in his car. He kept birthday cakes and free liquor in the trunk. He paid for plane tickets and hotel rooms. He gave out cash.

He was supposedly around the U-M program since Bill Frieder was coach, and he gained enormous access once Perry Watson joined Steve Fisher along with the Fab Five. He was considered a booster — but who knew how much he was
“boosting”?

Which is where this turns from just another NCAA story to something much weightier. Martin allegedly was running a racket, the money he allegedly made was illegal, and he allegedly gave a good chunk of it to these Wolverines at least partly as a way of laundering it. He gives $100,000 in dirty cash to a player. Poof. Money’s gone. Somewhere down the road the player gives it back
— tada. It’s clean.

This isn’t about a buying a recruit a hamburger.

And Webber, Taylor, Traylor and Bullock have some explaining to do.

Onus falls to Webber

Now, let’s focus on Webber, because he’s the oldest, the most famous, the most successful — and allegedly got the biggest wad from Martin.

“Chris wasn’t living any extravagant lifestyle when he was attending college or even before college,” his former agent, Fallasha Erwin, said.

I agree. I knew Chris in high school and his two years in college. I knew his parents and family. I went to his home. If he had $280,000, he did the best job of hiding money that I’ve ever seen. And he was a heck of an actor. Chris always moaned that everyone was making money off of him except him. He lamented that Michigan could sell his No. 4 jersey, while he didn’t have enough to go out for dinner.

You mean $280,000 won’t buy dinner?

A more likely scenario is that most of that money came to Webber late in the process, his sophomore year, when he was headed for the NBA and most likely to pay it back.

But if so, he needs to say it. This secret society should end now. These guys may have not liked the college system when they played for Michigan, but by attending, they accepted the rules. They filled out forms each year disclosing income. If these charges are true, the players lied, and in lying, they helped smear the very program that was developing them.

They won’t go to jail for explaining. They are not being charged. But what they will do is broom these shadows, give U-M a chance to finally get past this, and send a message to the next young recruit that nothing is free, and dirty money is dirty money.

Webber, ever since I have known him, has hung by this sentence: “Treat me like a man.”

It’s time to act like one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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