He was my favorite basketball player during the years when I was learning to play basketball. From the moment he first donned the maize and blue at Michigan in the early 90s through his first five years in the NBA playing for the Warriors and Bullets/Wizards, Chris Webber was the coolest player playing.
The shaved head and baggy shorts combined with the brashness to go behind the back and dunk on Barkley made Webber appealing to me as a kid and so did his vulnerability after committing a mental error on the big stage of the NCAA championship. I wrote about Webber’s influence on me briefly a couple weeks ago in my “15 Years After The Timeout” post. And fair or not, that single play is the most universally recognizable moment in Webber’s career.
A Rookie of the Year, five-time all-star and five-time all-NBA selection (one 1st team, three 2nd team, one 3rd team), Webber is a borderline Hall of Famer. But he never won, or even reached a championship during his NBA career. And in two NCAA championship games, his Wolverines fell short twice, including the heartbreaking loss to North Carolina in 1993. For critics, that’s enough to label Webber’s career a disappointment.
When Webber was traded to the Sacramento Kings in 1998, I was put in a bind. My favorite player was suddenly suiting up for a team in the same division as my favorite team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Webber’s arrival vastly improved the fortunes of a Kings franchise that had won exactly one playoff game since moving to Sacramento in 1985.
My allegiance was to the Lakers, and so it was a bittersweet feeling as Webber’s Kings proved to be a stepping stone on the way to three straight NBA championships. The Lakers’ third title team, in 2002, was pushed to seven games in the Western Conference Finals by Sacramento. If it weren’t for a clutch three-point shot by Robert Horry in Game 4 of that series, the Kings probably would have won it all that year, and Webber likely would have had a Finals MVP to vindicate his career.
I didn’t know back then that he would never be that close to the top again. The 2003 season ended in the second round, and Webber played just 23 games in the ’04 season. In 2005 he was traded to Philadelphia. His numbers and production dropped and despite featuring two former #1 overall draft picks in Webber and Allen Iverson, the Sixers couldn’t get out of the first round. The 2006 Sixers failed to even make the playoffs.
Then last year, when Webber was picked up mid-year by Detroit, his hometown team, he started 42 games. But he was not the same player he once was. The man who was once the lead dog of the Fab Five was the fifth wheel on this Pistons team that fell to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That brings us to the present. In a year when big names like O’Neal, Garnett, Kidd and Gasol switched teams, it’s no surprise that Webber’s return to Golden State this season went under the radar. However, his reconciliation with coach Don Nelson was big news. If not for the Warriors or C-Webb, the basketball player, then certainly for Webber as a man. But just nine games into his comeback, Webber’s knee got the best of him. First The Timeout, then Big Shot Bob and now the bum knee. Webber’s story is seemingly void of happy endings.
But that’s OK. If everyone had a fairytale ending, no one would enjoy fairytales. Webber’s more like a tragic hero. Incredibly gifted, yet significantly flawed. From the recruiting scandal at Michigan to his trade demands after one successful year in Golden State to his injury plagued final seasons, Webber’s legacy is as much about the lows as the highs, but it’s not limited to the lows.
The average fan doesn’t want to admit it, but there’s more Chris Webber in everyman than David Robinson or Tim Duncan. Most people don’t get to ride off into the sunset as a champion or stay at a peak level year after year. Webber didn’t get that chance, but don’t hate him because he wasn’t always great.
If Webber proved anything over his career it’s that everyone makes mistakes. Being a fan of Webber was no mistake for me.
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