We Reminisce Over C.H.R.I.S.
A look back at a legend and a legendary writeup.
Generally, the “Where were you when…” moments in life are reserved for the big things: life, death, marriage (which can be either of the two previous, depending on where you’re looking at it from), Bryon Russell push-offs that lead to championship-clinching shots, etc.
My “Where were you when..” with Chris Webber admittedly pales in comparison to the birth of a child, or of basketball lore being etched in front of your eyes. Its effect on me, 15 years after the fact, is as evident and thanks to CWebb’s broadcast success is as relevant to me today as it was back then. Let me explain.
I was 15 years-old when SLAM first hit the stands. From Day 1, Issue 1, I was in love. That summer, crammed into a minivan with my family, I started in on Issue 4 with the intention of burying my face in the magazine, killing as many hours as possible before reaching our destination of family fun and relaxation.
Driving through some thick-ass boreal forest with Poverty’s Paradise (an album that Webber makes a short cameo on) skipping and chopping its way through my way too sensitive discman, a long feature left me captivated with Chris Webber. At the time, I thought I knew Webb’s story. Dominant at Michigan as the leader of the Fab 5 (with perhaps the most unfortunate mistake ever made on court in a Championship game) he went first overall in the 1993 Draft.
The Rookie of the Year with G-State in ’94 and part of another Fab 5 (Webber, Spree, Tim Hardaway, Billy Owens and Chris Mullin were in my opinion the dopest starting five of the ’90s), he clashed with Don Nelson and found himself a Bullet in Washington by his second season. He was a big power forward with the skills to play all 94 feet of the court. Put him on a team that wanted to run and he’d around-the-back dunk on one of the top players in the League. Want him to bang in the paint? Play the halfcourt game and let him go to work. As he showed in Oakland, Washington and Sacramento through his career (Philly and the G-State blurb after that didn’t happen, did it?), Webber could do it all.
There was something about this feature—which I only recently found out was written by Mitch Albom—that ingrained an anonymous stretch of road in northern Alberta, Canada into my memory. Albom’s description of Webber swoop-dunking as a youngster made the player in me want the ride to stop so I could jump out and at least dribble the ball on the side of the road. It didn’t matter that we were literally in the middle of nowhere, with bugs the size of infant’s hands splattering on the windshield in front of us. I had to play.
Re-reading the story today, it does the same thing for me as a writer. Albom’s closeness with and understanding of Webber shines through in every sentence of the piece. He’s equal part observer, reporter, fan and friend to Webber. It’s also interesting to look back at the piece now, with Webber the player a part of the past and to see how many of the traits Albom examines that are relevant to Webber the broadcaster today.
The negatives from Chris Webber’s career could easily typify his basketball existence. The blown timeout call in the ’93 NCAA Final; his rep for not being clutch as a pro; the way the girl I chased through my senior year of high school only gave me time when she was swooning over him while we watched games in her parents’ basement—it could all cast a dark cloud over him. But it doesn’t.
In his story, Albom talks about how Webber’s mother dreamt that her son would be a preacher. The million-dollar smile that has lured people to him through his life still lights up TV’s just about every night through the NBA season. His congregation may not be the one his mother envisioned, but sometimes those kinds of dreams are like that, giving only a veiled glimpse into what will be. Clad in a suit and a pair of sneakers, Webber is reaching millions. He’s just doing it from a desk at Turner studios, as opposed to an alter.
Enjoy these videos and what is in my opinion, one of the best features I’ve ever read in this magazine.
Number one with a Bullet
With a killer power game, a killer contract and a killer smile, Chris Webber most definitely is…
We sorta saw it coming: Chris Webber—A Detroit native seemed way out of place in sunny Cali, even with the gazillion dollar contract and a trillion dollar smile. Something about him playing his games when most of his pals back home in Detroit were busy sleeping, did not make sense. Still, many people were surprised by the trade that sent him from the Golden State Warriors to the Washington Bullets a couple of months ago. Not Mitch Albom. The Detroit Free Press writer columnist and author of Fab Five, a tome chronicling the life and times of Webber and his Wolverine teammates, knows Webber, first as a subject, and later, a friend. In other words, he’s supremely qualified to take us into Chris Webber’s mind. Which, Incidentally, begins with a capital “M”.
By Mitch Albom
C is for charisma. If you are breaking down Chris Webber’s mystique—and doing it by letters is fitting for a guy who can quote both Malcolm X and Ice T—then start with his charisma. It’s his trump card. People fall in love with Webber, always have—and not only women, but teammates, neigbors, parents, kids, businessmen, grandmothers, and recruiters. There’s a story about a Michigan State assistant coach who so desperately wanted Chris at his school that when he found out Chris had chosen Michigan, he sat on the floor and wept. It’s true. Wept. Like a baby. And not just because Webber has the wingspan of a Pterodactyl and the moves of an ice dancer. It’s charisma. The feeling that you’ve just encountered someone special, someone connected to a force, an energy, someone touched. “He was the greatest kid I ever gone after,” that recruiter later recalled, “I never met anyone like him.” This sentence is constantly repeated. You can meet 50 NBA players in a single night. You will remember Webber.
It begins with his smile. The great faces have that, don’t they? Magic Johnson defined the basketball smiling business. Webber—who, fittingly, is the sophomore since Magic to be the no. 1 draft pick in the NBA—continues the tradition. Great smile. Get him laughing. You’ll see. Perfect teeth across a wide jaw that makes you feel like whatever you do is OK, whatever joke you made was funny, whatever you said was taken to heart. This is a gift that builds Webber his audience, that draws people to him—his smile plus his machismo/innocence, and most important, his ability to glide between two worlds, from the row-house streets of his native Detroit to privelidged mansions of his suburban Oakland, from the sweat-box church gyms of his youth to the gleaming arenas of the NBA, from the predominantly white private schools that educated him to the funky recording studios he hangs in with rappers. Webber has—what’s a good word here?—universality. When Michigan’s Fab Five were still intact, there were people who adored some of them, hated some of them, but all of them liked Chris. In street talk, it’s called “knowing how to deal.” But with Webber it doesn’t seem like dealing. He simply has a drawing power. “Before he was born,” says his mother, Doris, “ I had a dream of him. He was addressing people, like a preacher. And that’s what people always thought he would be. A preacher.”
OK. So she missed by a few inches. But he does preach—you’ve seen him telling opponents on the floor, “Go home, it’s over—and he has a congregation of both peers and fans. The former, in fact, voted him NBA Rookie-of-the-Year this season. I saw him a week after he received the letter and asked him about it. “You get a trophy,” he said. “I broke it, but it was nice—”
“Wait. You broke it?”
“Yeah. I dropped it the day after they gave it to me, and it broke. But it was a nice trophy. I appreciate it.
“Did you try to glue it back together?”
“I gave it to my dad to fix. He wanted it anyhow, so now he has it at home.”
OK. See what he just did? In a single question, he was 1) talented enough to receive a major award, 2) awkward enough to drop it, 3) honest enough to admit he dropped it, 4) young enough to give it to his father to make it better, and 5) unassuming enough to let his father keep it.
Oh. Something else…
He was smiling when he told the story.
H is for headstrong. Some might say stubborn. But you can’t talk about what makes Webber universal without talking about what makes him unique. The oldest of five children, Webber was in charge at a early age. He got used to the responsibility, and he harkened to a mother who told him never, ever, let anyone rob you of your dignity. So a young Chris learned to steel himself against the Detroit school kids who laughed when he wore the same clothes to church every week and who teased his family about being the “Waltons.” And when he got older and bigger and tougher, you couldn’t berate him. You just couldn’t. Steve Fisher found this out in Michigan, during film sessions, when every time he had a criticsm, Webber retorted, “Yeah, but…Yeah, but…”
Stubborn. See things his way. Last season, when Don Nelson, known for his volume, tried the age-old practice of breaking down the rookie in order to build him back up, Webber coiled, then struck.
“The truth of that whole thing,” Webber says, speaking now of his highly publicized blow-up with Nelson, “is that we were playing in Charlotte, and I came down and made a stupid turnover, and then I came over and made another mistake. So I came out and [Nelson] said some things to me I didn’t agree with. Not coaching techniques. Just how he talked to me. It’s like, if you’re a nurse and the doctor says to you ‘Why didn’t you get that bedpan? You’re so ignorant!’ Well, that’s not part of the job.
“I’m a man. Respect me as a man. Talk to me as a man. In so many words, that’s what I told coach.”
Nelson at the time was 53 years old.
Webber was 20.
No matter, you push, he pushes back. He says that he and Nelson have long since buried the hatchet, if not the memories. But Nelson—“the smartest coach I’ve ever met,” Webber adds—was only getting a glimpse of what Chris had been doing since his voice changed. He’s been using the words “speak to me like a man” since high school.
So it’s no surprise that, despite critics who said he should show less emotion on the court, he continues to wail and wave and laugh and celebrate. And despite critics who said he was too raw to make it in the NBA, he left college after his sophomore year to go pro. Before the draft, when he was brought down to Orlando so that the Magic could look at him, Webber was high on the idea of playing there. Webber and Shaq. The new Twin Towers. But from the moment he arrived, he says, they kept reminding him that “this is Shaq’s team, Shaq is the man.” Shaq this, Shaq that.
“That turned me off,” Webber says. “My opinion is it’s no one’s team. I don’t care care if it’s Michael or Magic. They’re the leaders, but the team is its own.”
He left Orlando with no desire to play there. And he let that he be known. So, true to form, when asked about the draft-day trade that sent him from Orlando to Golden State for Anferneee Hardaway and three first-round picks, Webber grins and says: “They made a mistake.”
R is for rooted. All athletes seem to credit their mothers. But they don’t all speak to them every night from the West Coast, adding up to phone bills that average nearly $1,000 a month. And they didn’t all sleep in the same bed with three brothers and one sister even into the teenage years, even when they didn’t have to. And not every great athlete repeatedly tells the story about his great grandfather being lynched by racists in the South, or how the image still haunts him, or how his father took him to work at the Cadillac plant one day, in a filthy, pit section of the line, and said, “This is not the life you want.” Not everyone chooses to make his debut sneaker commercial in a barber shop that mimics the one he still goes to when he goes back to Detroit. A place with a pole outside. It’s cheap. It’s old. It’s home.
That is all that matters.
“They ask you what kind of commercial you would be comfortable with,” Webber says of Nike’s marketing campaigns.
“They propose like four or five ideas. I didn’t like any until they just said the barber shop, with me just talking junk like I always did. That I could do. I said I like this one.”
There are roots that can’t withstand the pull of money, and there are roots too deep in soil to be budged. Talk to Webber for five minutes, and he will make some reference to his childhood, his upbringing, his siblings. He almost can’t help it. Corny as it may sound, Chris and his mother used to sit and wait for the school bus while hugging on the couch. She called it, “hug time.” You may not want to admit this when you’re older. But you don’t lose it.
“Going pro for me has changed things, but not that part. I have money now, but I’ve put the money in such a way that unless I really, really need it, I can’t get it out. I just want to keep the same basic lifestyle. Be the same person. My family has a harder time, because everyone around them expects them to change or expects them to be handing out money. We’ve never been like that.
When I got my [Warriors] contract, I bought my mother this really expensive jewelry, just because I wanted to get her something. She made me take it back. She said, ‘I can’t wear that where I work (with learning disabled students in Detroit). It would make other people uncomfortable.’”
As for friends, well, Webber doesn’t just make friends, he makes lifers. He still hangs out with high school buddies, flying them to him whenever they can make it. And his psychic connections with his Fab Five teammates—most notably Jalen Rose, his best friend since they were 11—is almost spooky. On the Warriors, he was tightest with Billy Owens (now with the Miami Heat).
“He’s a good guy. And Latrell Sprewell is just like Jalen. And Victor Alexander is kinda like Ray Jackson (from Michigan.) I’m lucky. We were the second youngest team in the NBA, so I had a lot of younger guys to hang with. If you go to an older team, it’s not as easy to make friends. Look at Acie Earl. He goes to the Celtics where they’re all like 40 years old.”
Hmm. This leads us to….
I, for iconoclastic. It’s not that Webber doesn’t have role models,. He just believes in beating them.
So he dunks on Charles Barkley in their first meeting. You think this is new? Ha! The day Webber arrived in La Jolla, CA, as part of the college squad that would scrimmage against the Olympic Dream Team—this was two years ago, remember, when Webber was 19—he was in the elevator with a few teammates. In stepped Larry Bird. The college kids were awestruck.
“You guys better get your sleep tomorrow,” Bird said, grinning, “We’re gonna run you tomorrow.”
The others laughed.
Webber shot back. “Listen Larry. Your back’s already hurt. Maybe you better rest tomorrow. You’re getting kind of old.”
He did it with a smile—that’s his trademark, remember—but he did it, and he continues to do it. Webber was second only to Jalen Rose in trash talk during the Fab Five era—he once recited Jamal Mashburn’s statistics while Mashburn was trying to shoot free throws, and told Christian Laettner after a dunk that he’d “just been embarrassed on network television, how did it feel?” This tradition of trash talk is one he continues today.
“Karl Malone, I talk to him the most, probably, of any player out there. First time we played him, I started to talk about this ugly truck he drives. Then I asked him if he used steroids. Then the hair thing. You know, hey, ‘You’re getting a little bald there.’ I’m just messin’ with him.”
Of course, Malone is 6 foot 9 and 256 pounds of gold medal under his belt. But that’s the way Webber likes ’em.
Bigger they are, the harder…
Well, you know.
S is for spectacular. Which means we have reached the basketball part of Chris Webber. There are surprises in the NBA, undrafted players who develop into heroes, but the biggest stars, well, you see them coming down the highway. Magic Johnson was no secret—he won a national championship at age 20. Michael Jordan was a blur at North Carolina, and everyone knew he’d be a star. Patrick Ewing’s glory was foreseen in high school.
Chris Webber was in eighth grade when TV cameras found him. He was swoop-dunking on kids whose voices hadn’t changed. By high school, he was a local legend who caught missed shots off the backboard, one handed, and dunked them in. In his senior year, his coach took the team on a statewide tour, just so the curious citizens could see what everyone was talking about. They mobbed the bus when it pulled into town, and hounded Chris for his sweatbands and his socks.
Webber has extraordinary hands—they were huge at birth—and size 16 feet. These are the bookends of his talents. His height and build (6-10, 250 pounds) are perfect for his power game, and his coordination allows him to make like a guard on that fast break. His wingspan (7-3) means rebounds even when he’s out of position. And remember, last year he was the youngest player in the league. There are those who insist he is still growing. So it is no surprise that Webber posted first-year numbers like these—17.5 points per game, 9 rebounds, 2 blocked shots. He’s still not a great free-throw shooter—OK, he’s lousy, 53 percent, but he has something to work on—and oddly enough, he never hit that proverbial “wall” veterans predict for rookies.
“You do get tired. But the wall thing, I think that’s because people keep telling you you’re gonna hit it. They tell you and they tell you and so the next thing you know, you think you’ve hit it.
“I learned a lot this year. I was happy to win Rookie of the Year, but to be honest I would rather have had a college championship. I watched Michigan play in the tournament, and I really wished I had flown to Dallas for their last game [a fourth-round loss to eventual national champions Arkansas.] I should have been there at Juwan (Howard) and Jalen’s first game…
“As far as the difference between pros and college, you know you’re getting paid out here. It’s a business. But I figure if you’re paying me, you’re paying me to be myself. You pay Dennis Rodman for his technicals. You pay him for his hair. You pay him for his antics. And you pay me to have fun on the court. That’s the way I want to keep thinking about it.”
When we finished speaking, Webber headed back home, to the street where he grew up, to the people who know him best. He is rich beyond worry, talented beyond imagination, and yet if here we spell him Charismatic, Headstrong, Rooted, Iconoclastic, Spectacular, in his mind, he is simply part of the same story that began on the block he thinks of as home.
“People there, they still look at me as little Chris, the kid who came around eating their food.
“You know, I think I’ve gotten a wupping by every adult on that block at some point or another.”
He was smaller then.