From 1970 through 1998, the Michigan basketball program endured just two losing seasons. In the four years since then, its had three.
And the losses are killing Lester Abram and Graham Brown.
Both are lifetime Michigan fans. Both have grown up with their eyes fixed on Crisler Arena, living and dying each winter with the fortunes of their beloved Wolverines.
Watching the once-proud program falter has been torture.
Now the two have the opportunity to do something about it. Abram and Brown make up two members of Tommy Amaker’s six-man freshman class, the first that the Michigan coach has hauled in during his brief tenure in Ann Arbor.
And if you listen to the two youngsters, they’ll tell you that they don’t plan on letting Michigan lose anymore.
“We’ve followed Michigan and seen the losses, all the embarrassing losses and it’s important that we want to improve on that,” said Abram, a two-time Class A state basketball champion at Pontiac Northern High School. “In high school, games that we should’ve lost, we always came back and won – I don’t want to get adjusted to losing.”
‘A basketball Mecca’
Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Glen Rice. Terry Mills. Chris Webber. Jalen Rose. Mateen Cleaves. Morris Peterson.
The significance of these players? They’ve all been a part of spectacular basketball teams from either Michigan or Michigan State – teams that won national titles or lived in the Final Four.
The connection? They all grew up in Michigan.
Be it the “Fab Five” or the “The Flintstones,” every successful team coming out of Ann Arbor or East Lansing has been built around talent from within the state. It’s that homegrown talent that doesn’t have to be preached to about the tradition of a program, or how hard the locals take losing.
Just like current Michigan seniors LaVell Blanchard, Rotulu Adebiyi and sophomore Chuck Bailey, Abram and Brown come in as hometown heroes, well aware of the Michigan legacy.
“It’s always nice to have a couple of guys on the team that really love the Michigan program,” said Brown, who had two brothers attend Michigan. “People out of the state don’t know the pride that goes into the Wolverines. Living in the state and having both of my brothers come to school here, I bleed blue and maize.
“You’ve got to understand the power that comes from the Michigan name.”
That power and tradition is something that Amaker stresses, and is more than happy to see Brown buying in to.
“He is going to be a kid that has incredible passion for wearing the maize and blue,” said Amaker of Brown. “I think there is no one who is going to be above him that understands what it means to go to Michigan. When you talk about a kid who is going to put his heart and soul into everything, he is going to do that.”
Brown and Abram traveled different paths en route to Ann Arbor, but one pit stop along the way was identical. The two were teammates on the AAU team The Family, coached by Durand Walker.
Walker’s position has allowed him to come to the conclusion that if Amaker wants to restore Michigan to glory, he’s going to need more players like Abram and Brown to help him along the way.
“I think (having players from in-state) is vital, that’s the only way to get the Michigan program back on its feet,” Walker said. “You probably could build the team back up with talent from outside the state but why would you want to?
“We’ve got a basketball Mecca in this state, and you can build an entire program from it.”
‘A dream come true’
There was only a brief instant when Abram was unsure if Michigan was right for him.
Right after former Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe was dismissed from his position following the 2000-01 season, Abram, who had originally committed to Ellerbe and the Wolverines prior to his junior year of high school, withdrew his commitment. He decided to reopen his recruitment, and wait for Michigan to name a new coach.
When Amaker was tabbed as the man, Abram wasted little time reaffirming his devotion to the Wolverines.
“It was not real serious (when I reopened my recruitment), I always wanted to come here,” Abram said. “When they brought coach Amaker in, I had never met him before so I sat down with him, liked what he was talking about, and so I came here.”
Brown, too, despite what other programs might have believed, never had much of a decision to make when choosing to come to Michigan.
Rejecting schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown and several Big Ten programs, Brown opted not to let his childhood dreams pass by.
“Growing up, I was always looking out there and seeing the players, and I was wishing that I was out there,” said Brown of traveling to Crisler Arena with his family. “Coming to reality and having that happen, it just shows that everyone can get where they want to be. For me, it’s like a dream come true – it’s great to have this uniform on.”
‘High value on winning’
Saying they always love the Michigan program and proving they can bring the Wolverines back to national dominance are far from one and the same for Abram and Brown. But their desire to get Michigan back on top is a crucial trait.
Their talent also helps.
Abram comes into Michigan as one of the more highly regarded recruits in America – ranked as high as No. 38 nationally by recruiting pundits.
The 6-foot-6 swingman averaged 22.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game his senior year at Pontiac Northern, and poured in 19 points in Northern’s state championship win. He lit the court up, connecting on an impressive 40 percent of three-point attempts.
But more important for Amaker than Abram’s statistics are his two state titles and an 81-21 record in high school.
“We put a high value on winning, and to be able to attract some kids from winning environments that actually have won some championships and have been big-time winners is key,” Amaker said. “There is no bigger winner than Lester Abram. He understands what it means to be part of a winning tradition and a winning program.
“If we can continually bring kids into our program that have experienced that, that is an invaluable trait to have.”
Brown is far less heralded than Abram coming into Michigan. But the 6-foot-9 forward/center, who describes his play as similar to Chris Young, could be a big part of the Wolverines’ hopes now and in the future. He averaged 21 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and eight blocks for Mio High School last year, including a spectacular 38-rebound game in the first round of the playoffs.
“I believe he is going to be a very steady, consistent player for us,” Amaker said. “He brings to the table that he knows what he is – I love that about Graham. He is not trying to be anything he is not.”
Walker agrees with Amaker’s praise, and believes that the Wolverines have landed two key components in their attempt to return to postseason play.
“They are both hard-working, dedicated, old fashioned athletes,” said Walker of his former players. “Athletes today are so spoiled, but these two work extremely hard, and that’s their greatest asset.”
‘This ‘M’ means tradition’
Amaker often preaches the ideal of patience, the thought that turning the Michigan program around in a flash is most likely improbable.
But Amaker has also done enough in one year to have people noticing Michigan’s increased impact.
Recruiting guru Rob Matera of Baketballnews.com wrote “Look for Amaker to challenge Michigan State for the top in-state talent for years to come” and ranked Michigan’s 2002 freshman class as the 10th best in the nation.
Amaker confirmed his desire to land the state’s best talent. Michigan has already received verbal commitments from current high school senior Dion Harris – a top-40 recruit from Detroit Redford – and Romulus High School junior Ronald Coleman, considered one of the state’s best players who both recruiting experts and Walker have compared to Abram.
As important as landing players as talented as Harris, Coleman, Brown and Abram are for the future, their emotional levels of involvement with the Michigan program are critical for restoring pride in the present.
“It’s priceless,” said Adebiyi, a captain on this year’s team, about Brown and Abram’s desire to be Wolverines. “They understand that the ‘M’ means more than just one or two games – this ‘M’ means tradition.”
Amaker concurred with the fifth-year senior.
“Those are the foundational things that we put in – a work ethic, an attitude, a way in which we carry ourselves here at Michigan. All of those things are a part of what we teach, coach and ultimately will lead us to become a winning program that we demand.”
If Abram and Brown have as much to say about Michigan’s success as they hope they do, Amaker’s demands won’t take any longer to be fulfilled.