Coach Beilein, Chris Webber, starry-eyed boys, and $100,000 worth of inspiration
As you probably know from the repeated forum posts, Beilein is in a close race with Ohio's coach Matta for the ESPN Inspiration is Contagious Award (vote now). I clicked over there today to vote for Beilein as much as I did to vote against Ohio. But then I saw that the winner recieves $100,000 for their charity, and Beilein's charity is the St. Louis Center... which brought back some powerful memories from the Fab Five era and my first job working at St. Louis. Please read my story (and first diary) below.
Back when I was an undergrad in the early 90's, I worked at St. Louis Center, a home for mentally/emotionally/physically disabled youth and adults. Probably around 1/2 of the kids had gone through some abuse and as wards of the state, were placed in St. Louis. Some of the stories that some of these kids went though would blow your mind. Two decades later, these boys and some of their stories are still prominent in my mind.
I took the upper youth home (middle school / high school) on field trips every weekend. We went to Crisler a few times for women's basketball games. We'd watch the game, and then afterwards, would help clean the arena and UM would pay St. Louis Center for our work. (our work was slow and low quality, but they would always hire us none-the-less).
One Saturday, as we finished our work and were walking back into the players tunnel, the men's team came out of the tunnel for their practice.
You have to understand what my boys looked like - some looked as disabled as you could imagine; some didn't know how to interact socially; many wore braces or helments, etc. For some people, for various reasons, it is hard to face people like this - even harder to connect with them in any real sense.
As you can imagine, as the players came out of the tunnel, my boys put up their hands to give them a high five sort of tunnel. They were so stoked! Back at the home, we would always watch UM basketball and the boys were well aware of the Fab Five. My boys called out their names as they passed...
Both Ray Jackson and Juwan said hello, politiely. Jimmy King looked terribly uncomfortable, but he smiled and said "Hi", and tried to act normally. I appreciated it becuase I could tell he was trying. But Jalen Rose and Chris Webber stopped and talked - for a long while.
I probably had at least 10 kids with me, and each asked them at least one question, often awkward and hard to decipher questions. Jalen and Chris laughed and talked with the boys. One kid asked Chris to dunk for him. Chris immediately ran onto the court and threw down one of his left-handed power dunks. Then he jogged back to our group and celebrated like they just won the game. He then promised that he'd dunk for real in the next game just for those kids.
Watching that next UMBB game back at St. Louis Center, you can probably imagine the excitement when Webber had his first dunk. All the boys really believed that dunk was for them. Why? Because Webber (and Jalen) were so real with the boys.
Weber and Rose saw through their disabilities; they saw through the wall that makes most people much more comfortable by just turning away. They treated the boys as real boys, as real people. It meant the world to my boys at the Center and was probably the highlight of their year.
Later, as Chris Webber went through all the scandals and problems for UM, I never could judge him harshly. I still won't. It might be illogical to give him a pass for those things simply b/c of that one day with my boys from St. Louis Center, but that's how I see it. I feel like I saw something in Webber that is hard to see from most people, let alone stars.
Webber was enjoying his time helping other people. He was doing it for the boys, yes, but he was doing it for himself also because he truly loved making people happy. That, I believe, says a lot about who he is. More than the money he took and the reasons why. In my mind, Webber will always be that guy could see the humanity in others and loved making them happy.
anyway, that's my story....
It's great to see UM basketball's connection with St. Louis Center is still active, and likely even stronger. Go Blue, Go Beilein, and you GO VOTE!