Behind the Booster

Duncan MacLean • Feb 15, 2019 at 12:30 AM

SPRING LAKE — Most literary villains believe they are doing the right thing; justifying unlawful action for the greater good, whether that be for forward progress or misguided virtue.

The same is true in the real world, as evident in Carl Martin's telling of his father's caring heart and clandestine support of the University of Michigan's greatest basketball team — the Fab Five.

Martin's book, "The Booster," was drawn from the mind of a son defending his father and his actions for the first time since his death. Spring Lake native Jim McFarlin did the honors of relaying the story to the page as Martin's ghostwriter.

The 1970 graduate of Spring Lake High School had witnessed the rise and fall of the Fab Five as a writer for the Detroit News, making and solidifying his judgments of Ed Martin, the man with the $50 handshake.

His long-standing judgment of the situation made Carl Martin's pitch all the more compelling. Ed Martin's story runs infinitely deeper than slinging money to promising basketball players in the Detroit area.

McFarlin visited the Spring Lake District Library on Tuesday to discuss the book and his journey writing it.

"I said, ‘How has no one told this story before,'" McFarlin said of his first meeting with Carl Martin. "'This is a great story!' Ed was a man who was doing the right thing in the wrong way, and his son wanted the world to know his dad as he did."

The process began as the final wishes of Carl's mother. In life, she opposed the idea of calling more attention to her husband's illicit dealings. In her final days, the tune changed, and she asked Carl to tell the story as it should be told.

The reversal triggered an immediate reaction. Not a writer himself, Carl connected with a literary agent and started compiling interviews. The agent brought McFarlin into a process already in motion.

Time constraints forced McFarlin out of the project, believing the proposed pace was too quick for such an in-depth story. Martin then went with another writer, who produced a fine manuscript.

In a curious move, Carl sent the draft to McFarlin for a second opinion.

"I had never had that happen before," he said. "There was already a lot of work done when I came on, but after talking through it, I couldn't do it in the time he said. I figured that it would have been a nice project, but it wasn't meant to be. Then, he asked me to read it."

The manuscript wasn't exactly what Carl Martin was looking for. According to McFarlin, it missed the mark on the core of the story — the father-son relationship that motivated it all, and the love Ed had for his city, basketball, money and clout.

"It is really a love story," McFarlin said. "It isn't just a story about the NCAA. It's a story about college athletics in general. It's about race and segregation. It's about prison and coordinated raids on a family home. It's about people."

That ambiguous perspective was tough to bring to a story most thought was fully told. The book was released in late summer 2018, coming 25 years after the fateful phantom timeout in the Fab Five's second national title game and seven years after ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary on the team and their scandal.

"People know what they think they know," he said. "Ed Martin took down the best basketball team in University of Michigan history. But, there is so much more to the story than that. Things that surprised even me the first time Carl and I sat down."

Those details of Ed's previous life fill out the book, casting the widely vilified figure in a complex light.

Ed Martin was a hard-working man. One who grew up in the Deep South attending segregated schools — frustrated and limited by his lot in life and bent on helping those in a similar position, especially ballplayers from Detroit.

He was Ford Motor Co.'s first African-American head electrician, but made the majority of his money running an underground gambling operation.

He was a loving father who shared his wisdom with his son, from running numbers to helping neighbors.

"Ed was doing illegal things, but he really just wanted to help people," McFarlin said. "I learned a lot about his life I didn't know through talking with Carl. As a ghostwriter, I'm here to tell his story, but I also had to be careful not to be captured by the story. It was a real tight rope and tough to balance.

"We had many hours of lively debate and discussion. I think ghostwriting is harder than being an author for that. I tell people I write for, ‘We are going to be married. I need to think as you do, I need to hear your tone, dialect, and mannerisms. We are going to be conjoined.' To do that and keep some distance from a complex story, it was tough."

Now, with the book on shelves and readers digesting that story, McFarlin finally gets to enjoy the spoils.

"Finishing this book was one of the most intense things I have done professionally. It is one of the best feelings in the world," he said. "I think it is as close that men come to childbirth. You get that box delivered to your doorstep and open it and take a book out and think, ‘I made this. Wow.' All it does is make you want to do it all over again."

The victory lap included Tuesday's presentation at the library, where McFarlin got the chance to visit with old friends, teachers, mentors and his brother, who still lives in the area.

For now, he will return to Detroit to continue his work as a freelance writer. This summer, he will visit Hope College as a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, with plans on visiting his hometown once again.

"This is home for me. Spring Lake means the world," he said. "I got more out of this community than I probably should and it will always hold a special place in my heart."

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