First of all, Michigan basketball players, their coaches and fans must understand one thing: The game didn’t begin with them. There is a bad news history in this sport, and much of it has to do with fancy cars and hidden envelopes of cash and outsiders who get too cozy with the players.

So regardless of whether these latest allegations against U- M prove true
— that a suspected booster gave players money and improper favors for years, thereby threatening the very existence of this program — Michigan should have known this much: Fancy cars and shady characters can only lead to trouble.

And they should have cut it off long ago.

And yes, I did say shady characters. If you don’t think that word applies to Mr. Ed Martin, you’ve never tried to track him down. This guy’s phone number is a well-kept secret. He has an intercom outside the gate of his Detroit home. When you talk to basketball types in the city, they all admit they know him, but they quickly add, “I haven’t seen him in a long time.” When you ask what he does, they say, “I’m not sure.”

I have stories about Ed Martin from years ago, when I was researching a book on the Fab Five. Stories about him carrying wads of money in his sock. Being at recruiting visits and picking up players at the airport.

Chris Webber knew him, took rides from him in junior high. Mayce Webber, Chris’ father, described Martin as “a man who always had cakes and things in the trunk of his car . . . always trying to give you stuff.”

Jalen Rose knew him. So did Voshon Lenard and Howard Eisley. Perry Watson knew him. The word used to be that Ed Martin delivered star prospects to Watson at Southwestern High. But when I called Watson — who is now at Detroit Mercy — he said, quite predictably, “I haven’t seen Ed Martin since I left Michigan.”

Nobody wants to be too close to this guy — except apparently, when they need favors. Bills paid. Hotel rooms rented. According to several sources, Martin is always there for the big-time players, ready with the cash.

And if these sources know it, and if I know it, then Michigan’s coaches and players surely know it.

And that’s where the real guilt begins.

The recruiting game

Let’s face it. Martin didn’t just crawl out from under some rock. Steve Fisher admits “he’s been around since I got here in 1979.”

Why, then, didn’t Fisher lock the guy out? Tell players if they were seen with him, they would be off the team?

Well, of course, it’s not that simple. College basketball is a game of recruiting. And the war to sign players is so bloodthirsty — yet so restricted by NCAA rules — that any little edge is seen as vital.

This is how guys like Ed Martin exist. While college coaches are severely limited as to when, where and how much they can talk to players, Ed Martin is free to roam the gyms and playgrounds, to buddy up, to put in a good word. A man like him, driving kids around in fancy cars, giving them cakes, giving their parents liquor — especially in poor neighborhoods where most of the talent comes from — can have a cozy relationship with recruits long before a coach makes his first visit.

And the coach, worried about offending someone, figures he had better make nice with the guy.

Ta-da! The Ed Martins of the world become . . . necessary.

But that doesn’t keep them from being poison — a poison you can’t invite in with free tickets, as U-M did. Better to say, “I may lose a few recruits, but it beats losing my program. This guy is banned.”

The history lesson

Now, I’ve known Steve Fisher for a long time, and I believe him to be a fundamentally honest guy. I know he strongly disagreed with Robert Traylor’s aunt, Lydia Johnson, letting him drive her new, white, Chevrolet Suburban — a
$48,000 vehicle equipped with TV and two stereo systems.

Her reaction? No one should tell her what to do with her cars.

But she’s wrong. In college basketball, even the appearance of impropriety can get you in trouble. And don’t tell me “if he were white, it wouldn’t be a problem.” A white college player driving a $48,000 vehicle should raise just as many eyebrows.

The point is that it looks bad — even if the car is leased in an aunt’s name, which, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legit. Why ask for trouble?

Which is the question that should have been asked about Ed Martin. Fisher told me that once he learned that Martin tried to lease an apartment for a couple of his players, he banished him and reported the infraction. But was that too little, too late? The big question is, what did Martin get out of all this? Who was he really working for?

We’ll see. At the least, Fisher and his program are guilty of benign neglect. At worst, their whole ship could crumble. It’s a mess. It’s ugly. And yes, the NCAA is an annoying organization. But if sport is to mean anything, you have to play by the rules.

As for people shouting that the press investigates too many charges? They need to understand the history of college basketball, from point-shaving in the 1940s to money in envelopes in the 1990s. The press does not investigate because it’s fun. It investigates because, too often, the charges are true.

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