Ray and Sam would fool around in the dorm rooms late at night. Sam claimed he knew all the words to a rap song, a really long rap song, and to prove it, he made Ray start the disc, then turn the sound off. Sam walked down the hall, singing to himself, maybe brushed his teeth in the bathroom, while Ray sat by the stereo, hand on the volume knob. When Sam returned, he was still singing. He’d nod, Ray would turn it up, and sure enough, they would be in perfect sync, Sam and the song, word for word, and Ray would just roll over laughing.
“Man, Sam was silly,” Ray says now, still laughing, almost crying. “We’d be trippin’ on that all night.”
Sam was Sam Mitchell, who at the time was a sophomore while Ray Jackson was a freshman. This was back when freshman and sophomore basketball players didn’t get along so well at Michigan, because the freshmen were the Fab Five, who got all the ink, while the sophomores sat like forgotten puppies.
But Ray, well, how could anyone not get along with Ray? He was a Fab Fiver, but he was the least hyped, the last one to start. And besides, Ray Jackson has always made the best peace. He has that easy Texas drawl and the smile so big it shuts his eyes as he tumbles into a belly laugh. It figures Ray would be the one Fab Freshman to room with a sophomore — and enjoy the hell out of it.
“Even after Sam transferred, we got along great. He’d call me on the phone, and we’d start laughing all over again.”
And then, last month, three years after they’d shared a dorm, Ray found out Sam Mitchell was dead. He died in Italy, where he was playing pro ball. A faulty gas heater had leaked during the night, killed Sam in his sleep.
“It messed me up bad,” Ray says. “I had to go somewhere and sit down, try to make sense of it all.”
They say college is for the experiences outside the classroom as much as for the ones in it. If so, the fifth member of the Fab Five, the quiet, smiling one in the back, has had the richest education of all. The accidental recruit
Did you know Michigan never planned to recruit Jackson? Mike Boyd, then an assistant coach, was in Texas at a tournament scouting another player named Lukey Jackson. When someone asked whether he was there to see “the Jackson kid,” Boyd nodded. He was then told “Yep, that Ray Jackson is some player.”
“Ray Jackson?” Boyd asked.
From that, to joining the most famous class ever recruited, to reaching two national championship games, to watching his famous buddies leave for the NBA, to this, senior year, where the 17-13 Wolverines had to pray to make the tournament. That’s a lot of mileage in four years. People expected Ray and Jimmy King to burst like novas once Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard departed. Instead, the team went up and down. Ray admits he pushed too hard at the start of the season, forcing shots and losing his rhythm “because I was so anxious to prove myself.”
He slowed down, his game picked up. He leads the team in points, assists and rebounds, a reliable force in an unreliable season.
“I’m happy,” Ray says now, tugging the brim of his cap as he sips a pop in Mr. Spots on State Street. “I guess, if I had my way, I’d rearrange the years,
so that my sophomore year was my senior year, because we had the best team then . . .
“But I’m straight. I came in here as this boy who thought he knew everything, and I’m leaving a man. I’m getting my degree. I’m a lot smarter, too.”
Part of that education came last year, the infamous “beergate” incident, in which Ray and teammate Jimmy King were among a group of athletes who took beer from a convenience store with the blessing of a female cashier. “It was a stupid thing to do,” Ray says.
“I mean, I wake up, and Jimmy and I are on the front page of the Free Press, alongside murders and killings and stuff. Man.”
Smarter now. Part of the education. The Fab Friendliest
And who knows? Maybe the basketball part ends tonight. Michigan, which plays Western Kentucky, is a wacky team this year. It could go near or far in this tournament.
Ray Jackson knows better than to make predictions. He was the starting small forward in a one championship game when nobody expected them to be there and in another when everyone expected them to win. All he knows is that the hair is getting shaved off tonight, like the old days, and the black socks are coming back, too.
“Gotta go with what worked,” he laughs.
Over the years, in interviewing the Fab Five, I asked them all who they got along with best. At one point or another, each of them — Webber, Howard, Rose, and King — answered “Ray.” He is the only one I can say that about.
I think there’s a reason: Unlike the others, Ray Jackson didn’t enter college already molded by high school fame. He was, instead, good clay, and in four very rich years he has absorbed it all, from coaches, teammates, the spotlight, roommates who are no longer with us. The good and bad.
He wants to play pro ball, but once again, he is being overlooked, uninvited to the premier NBA camp in Phoenix. “I guess I’ll have prove myself. But my life doesn’t depend on basketball. I’ll be OK.”
He finishes his pop, tugs on his cap, a fan wishes him luck, calls him
“Ray” as if he knows him, and Ray smiles and says, “Thanks a lot.” The player who always made the best peace seems to have — just in time for graduation — made peace with himself. What more can they teach him?