When Chris Webber was a superstar

by January 16, 2007

Chris Webber, as you know, is about to sign with his “hometown” Detroit Pistons. For the most part, the news of this signing has been greeted with the reaction “Decent pickup if he can be a role player. But his defense is terrible.” Instead of piling on, here is a look back to when CWebb was one of the most dominant players in the league. This is from SLAM 70 back in June 2003, a split cover with Webber on one and Jason Kidd on the other. The Webber coverline was “King of Kings.” And here is the story “Heart of a King” by Bonsu Thompson, portraits by Clay McBride.

Chris Webber has been taking hits—on his character, on his game—since he was in junior high. He’s cool with that, provided he gets the last laugh.

Summer ’85. A Detroit gym. It’s not just a regular practice day for the 13-and-under squad of the local AAU set, the Superfriends. The collective of inner-city young’ns—known around Motown for their blacktop-edged guard play, especially by their cocky, left-handed pg—are hungering more than ever to win nationals, but to do so, they need big help in the paint. That’s why their coach has been trying so hard to lure, quite possibly, the state’s best preteen big man onto his roster. It’s today that the promising 12-year-old walks through the door.
Mayce Edward Christopher Webber III is skinny, but he still stands over six feet and is much bigger than your average sixth grader. He rocks a nappy fro, dingy tube socks and a tight, Hawaiian Sophie-styled matching shirt and short set, courtesy of Doris Webber’s sewing machine. But instantly there’s a problem worse than his fashion statement. Chris may be key to the Superfriends’ title strategy, but he can’t be the man, not with the team’s cock-sure point holding the reins. Jalen Rose isn’t about to let go of the wheel, especially not for someone he doesn’t think can drive as well as him.

“All right, everybody get on the line,” the coach screams. “We’re going to run.”
Chris just missed three straight lay-ups
during a scrimmage. All three times he was fouled. He’s the biggest on the team, but, in the team’s eyes, far from the toughest. “Come on man, I ain’t gotta run, that was a foul!” Chris yells. “Well, we don’t call fouls,” the coach shoots back. “And matter of fact, next time you’re dunking on him. And if you don’t, you gonna run again.”

“Ah, this cat can’t play, man,” Jalen sprays for everyone to hear. “He’s soft!”

For the next two weeks, Chris tries to prove his heart is as big as his body. The task prepares Chris for his manhood. It would be his first major test, but definitely not his biggest, or his last.

Chris Webber has been misunderstood at least since he rocked those blue and gold unis in Ann Arbor in the early ’90s. His two years as the nation’s top big man for the team that brought hood style to the NCAA were stained by Wolverine haters’ warped perception of them as “hoodlums who hoop.” Even when Chris entered the League as the No. 1 pick in ’93, he carried the residue with him. Chris’ ROY award came after he’d butted heads with Warriors’ coach Don Nelson. He says he only asked to be treated with respect. He took a stand before Iverson had to, wanted to remind coaches that they’re coaching men first. His reward? He was sent to the cellar-dwelling Bullets. He’d get used to that sort of treatment.

“They say God puts you in situations so He could get the glory. Maybe it’s the way I am on the court…I don’t know, but I just try to be a humble dude,” Chris says. “I’ve even watched games with Bill Walton and these cats dogging me, and I’m like, What is it?’ They want me to confront them? If I’m quiet, it’s, I’m too quiet. If I say something, I said too much, so I don’t understand it.”

Even in Washington, Chris’ emergence was eclipsed by minor situations that were stretched with media yeast. A marijuana charge here, an argument with a coach there, all mixed with CWebb’s oncourt thuggin’, and all of a sudden the hype was bigger than his averages of 20.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 4.4 apg in his four seasons as a Bullet, bigger even than the fact that he led DC to its best record in 18 years. In the summer of ’98, he was sent to the woeful Sacramento Kings.

In Sacto, even on his best behavior, Webber was made the bad guy again, this after exploding on the local media for a perceived violation of his personal life. Steamed because he felt reporters were prying about him and girl/friend Tyra Banks, Chris went off. Disrespected? After what he’d done for that team, that town? It was enough to make a man wanna leave town—on his own.

Spring ’03. The Sacramento Kings practice facility. “Man, I’m so happy. I thank God every day,” Chris Webber smiles uncontrollably, sitting on the chain of chairs that separates the two full courts inside the gym. The Kings’ All-Everything has the day off with the rest of his mates, but his freedom from practice is not the inspiration for his Kool-Aid grill.

“I definitely could’ve been other places,” he tells. “New York and Indiana were really serious considerations, ’cause I had Jermaine O’Neal that’s younger than me to play the center and Jalen was there. I grew up loving Isiah. Playing with Spree would’ve been something, too. But I’m happy with my team. I think we have our own identity here with the style of play. These are people I want to go to war with every day.”

No doubt, the Kings’ image has undergone a metamorphosis. Forgotten are the days when Mitch Richmond served a bid year after year, putting up All-Star numbers while the team failed to bring its fans anything to be proud of. But the new-millennium Kings are fresher than ever. With Webber, the best passing PF in the game, teamed with Vlade Divac, the L’s best passing center, and versatile perimeter dwellers Mike Bibby, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson, there are nights when Sacto looks like it’s playing in The Cage instead of Arco Arena.

Despite Webber’s happiness, it’s that gray cloud that seems to keep his superstar from truly shining. It seems the L accepts him as one of its premier players, but doesn’t really embrace him. His game parallels those of TD, Dirk Nowitzki and KG, but he’s rarely treated with the same love. “It’s probably because of the trouble that he’s been in, in his past, but he’s got a lot of fans out here,” says Kings guard Bobby Jackson. “Everybody’s going to have their opinions, but he’s definitely up there with the best ballers to ever play the game.”

When Chris’ name was once again dragged through the mud last year, he wasn’t surprised. Last spring, accusations surfaced that Chris and his family accepted more than $200,000 from former Michigan booster Ed Martin. As Chris told the Sacramento Bee last year, “I was definitely asking for money, to help me get gym shoes here and there…but that was the extent of it. As far as $200,000, that’s crazy numbers.”

Chris chalked it up as another small deal blown up to expose a person who doesn’t exist. Staring blankly onto the court, Chris addresses the situation. “If somebody said, ‘In order to make the League, you’re going to have to go through people lying about you, dogging your character, dogging you on TV,’ and asked, ‘You still gonna take it?’ Knowing that and still
having my blessings, I still would take it.”

Spring ’03. Arco Arena. The night before. The Kings have just survived a late-game run by the Houston Rockets to escape by a single digit. While Webber appeared to have a typical evening at the office, producing a routine line of 24, 9 and 6, his “average” game was actually more than met the eye.

Webber steps through the doorway of the Kings’ treatment room, hands bandaged, both knees strapped with ice packs, his left ankle wrapped like there’s two feet under it. Walking gingerly with a side-to-side limp, the King’s paint monster is looking more like a mummy. Chris is having an All-Star caliber year with half his body on the fritz. There’s his maimed ankle, which led him to miss most of February. Then there are his sore knees and jammed right hand, which he messed up so bad trying to guard Shaq in last year’s Western Conference Finals, he can’t make a fist to this day. “I know I came back earlier than I should’ve, but I did that so I wouldn’t still be getting used to playing,” he admits. “Now I’m kinda in the groove, getting use to playing, so hopefully when the playoffs come around it will be like second nature.”

If Chris isn’t feeling natural quite yet, he’s positioning himself to be downright scary in the postseason. His first game returning from that ankle injury, Chris gave the Knicks 20, 11 and 9. The following week, the Sixers got 29, 10 and 8 and the Jazz took 24, 15 and 8. All this on a very sore wheel, limiting CWebb to two-legged dunking. Injured or not, it’s damn near impossible to stop Chris Webber. How you want it? A defender backed down and a one-handed, cave-man slam, a hook shot (with either hand), an 18-footer, or the drive, spin and finger roll? Too many options. And if any part of his arsenal attracts too much attention, he has four other options all wearing the same jersey. Sacramento’s leading scorer and rebounder is also the team’s assist king.

But even with CWebb putting up some of the best numbers in the League—23.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 5.4 apg through early April—many still aren’t satisfied. Despite career averages of 22.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 4.4 apg through his decade of service, Webber is still criticized by some for the way he accumulates his numbers. After overpowering the centers in college, Chris had to learn to diversify when he arrived in the NBA. “I remember playing for Don Nelson, and his thing was he wanted me to be outside,” Chris says. “I remember saying to myself, I’ma have to get a lot better because right now I’m not confident in my jump shot, I’m not confident in my off-the-dribble moves, and things like that. And I tried to get better.”

So he worked on his game summer after summer, trying to lure his jumper out of the paint. In DC, he learned those nifty dribble-drive moves working out with then-Maryland star Steve Francis. His passing, already impressive from his Michigan days, continued to mature. Now that all of his cylinders are firing together, he’s like a brand-spankin’ new Escalade, powerful enough to roll over anything in its way, yet swift enough to maneuver around it.

But while there seems to be little Chris can’t do on court, that little is actually quite big. Chris was a roughly 50-percent free throw shooter his first five years, but after shooting a career-low 45 percent in ’98-99, his first season in Sacto, Chris decided to get help. That help came in the form of shooting coach Buzz Braman. Famous for lessening (slightly) the number of bricks Shaq puts up at the charity stripe, Buzz seemed like Webber’s genie out of the bottle. The following three seasons, Chris averaged better than 70 percent from the line, and his ’99-00 average was a full 30 percent higher than what he’d shot the year before.

Chris started taking his touch for granted, though, and the result was a 15-percent drop from last season to this one. That’s why, by the middle of the ’02-03 season, Chris and Buzz were inseparable again. “This summer I worked on a lot of other things beside my free throws, ’cause I was so confident in it last year,” Chris says. “I tried to work on my game, get my jump hook back, get my ankle ready, and in doing those things I started thinking, You don’t have to keep it tight. I blame myself for that, but it won’t be like that next year.”
“The [shooter’s] stroke is a lot like the golf stroke,” Buzz explains. “It’s a lot of small parts, and when you do one thing wrong, sometimes it sets off a chain reaction or two or three others. Chris had some problems in certain technique areas, and we do a lot of video tape breakdown, watch it in slow motion to get him to do the reps the right way. If you do a movement enough times, your muscles memorize it.”
Buzz seems to be working his magic once again. Ever since the two were reunited, Chris’ FT precision has been much improved—and just to prove the point, after our interview, Buzz had Chris shoot 100 free throws. He made 92. Their goal is to have Chris shooting at 80 percent by the playoffs.

Summer ’02. Arco Arena. Game Five of the Western Conference Finals has just been won on a Mike Bibby jumper. The Kings take a 3-2 lead on the Lakers and are in prime position to dethrone Shaq and Kobe. But Chris Webber can’t fully enjoy the victory. He’s catching the backlash of Bibby’s glory. According to his critics, Chris’ option to pass instead of taking the last shot was a sign that he wasn’t fit to be the King of the Kings. “It’s funny,” Chris remembers. “I even talked to Mike about this. Coach called the play, and Mike was like, ‘I’ma hit the shot,’ and I ain’t think nothing of it except for taking the pass for him, and that was a hell of a great shot. It’s just funny that when he made the shot and I didn’t take the shot, I got criticized for it. But I learned that it ain’t too much that I can do right. I just got to try to make sure that I just do me and get this championship.”

This season looks more and more like it might be the one in which the Kings wear the crown. Last year’s team, especially Bibby, kind of took the L by surprise, turning up their play after the regular season. But this year, Sacto came in highlighted as one of the L’s elite. The Kings’ defense is like a giant web, their high-powered offense is fundamentally sealed and blacktop-styled, and their second five is probably good enough to snatch a playoff spot in the East.

Webber can’t front. “I feel definitely like this year is the year,” he says. But Webber predicts that this season, the story’s gonna end a little different. “If we lose this year, it’s goin’ be my fault,” he affirms. “It’s not going to be the fact that I listened to what we should’ve did or how the play should’ve been. It’s gonna be a collective unit when we win, but if we lose it’s goin’ be my fault. I want the last shot.”

Pressure is nothing new to Chris Webber. He’s been proving himself on the court all his life. He doesn’t just want that ring, he needs it. Needs it to thank Mayce Webber II for insisting he continue playing with the Superfriends after that practice 18 years ago. Bringing the Fab Five their first NBA ’ship will allow him to thank Steve Fisher for respecting the art of expression, and Jalen for making him wipe his tears after that infamous timeout in New Orleans. And don’t forget Juwan, who helped him hold his head in DC. Chris will also get to thank all those haters who stand by with dirt-piled shovels. And don’t forget those Lakers.

“I think everybody thinks we fear them,” says Chris. “We’re not scared of them, man. I know that they got rings and Phil Jackson coached Jordan, but we don’t care about all that. It’s more like, I’m just waiting, ’cause right now words don’t mean nothing. I hear what they saying…I’m a be like Jay Leno when we win the championship, with a whole bag of jokes to start off every show. I’m a have my own monologue. I’m saving them up.”