The corridors of power in the Washington, D.C., area have never been thought to include the hallway outside the Washington Bullets' locker room in USAir Arena. But as 6'10" forward Chris Webber strode down that hall last week to meet the press for the first time as a member of the Bullets, clad in a serious gray suit and accompanied by his own personal Cabinet—agent Bill Strickland, attorney Fallasha Erwin and Webber's father, Mayce—it was clear that that had changed. The only thing missing was a chorus of Hail to the Chief to herald his arrival.
Webber is the newest member of the Washington power structure, which is why the story that ran across the top of the front page of The Washington Post last Friday didn't involve Bill or Hillary or even Newt. The article was about the trade, announced the day before, that brought Webber, last season's Rookie of the Year, to the Bullets from the Golden State Warriors for forward Tom Gugliotta and three first-round draft choices (in 1996, '98 and, most likely, 2000). It was appropriate that the 21-year-old Webber found himself in the spot in the newspaper usually reserved for political movers and shakers, because he became a Bullet by displaying characteristics that would make any denizen of Capitol Hill proud: a willingness to play hardball, an ability to broker a deal and the foresight to position himself shrewdly for the next move. "I just wanted to be in a place I could be happy," Webber insisted at the press conference. "It's not like I had some master plan."
Things could scarcely have worked out better for early-season holdout Webber if he had had a plan to relocate to D.C. Having exercised an option that made him a restricted free agent in July, he was able to negotiate with other teams (though the Warriors had the right to match any competing offer in order to retain him). Because he was unhappy playing for Golden State coach Don Nelson, Webber in effect used his leverage to force the Warriors to choose between him and Nelson. When new Golden State owner Christopher Cohan chose to back Nelson, Webber signed a one-year, $2.08 million contract with Golden State, which then, by apparent prearrangement, traded him to Washington in a deal that Strickland had been trying to nudge along as the middleman for weeks. (NBA teams are prohibited from directly negotiating the trade of a free agent.)
The deal reunited Webber with rookie Juwan Howard, his former Fab Five teammate at Michigan, who perhaps not coincidentally ended his own holdout the day of the trade by signing an 11-year, $36.6 million contract. And Webber's one-year contract allows him to become a restricted free agent again at the end of this season. It's worth remembering that when Webber, a Detroit native, gave the Warriors a list of six teams to which he would accept being traded, his clear preference was to play for the Detroit Pistons. That means it behooves the Bullets to keep him happy this year and to swing the door to their vault wide open at the end of the season, or else they will have given up one of their best players and a big chunk of their future to rent Webber for a year.
Like any good politician, Webber is doing his best to say what his constituents, the Bullet fans, want to hear without making a promise he's not sure he can keep. "Before I even came here, I said the next team I play for would be the team I'd be with for my entire career, hopefully," he says. That's good enough for now, especially if he and Howard continue to generate the kind of electricity they did in their Bullet debuts last Saturday at USAir against the Boston Celtics. In front of a frenzied sellout crowd of 18,756, Webber scored nine points, had nine rebounds and blocked four shots in 23 minutes, even though he hadn't practiced at all with his new teammates, and Howard had 10 points and 11 rebounds in 22 minutes after only one workout. It hardly mattered that Washington lost 103-102, dropping its record to 4-4. Webber's presence doesn't guarantee that the Bullets, who haven't appeared in the postseason since 1988, will make the playoffs, but it does ensure that they will be exciting.
It didn't take Webber long to find out how heavily the Bullets are counting on him. He arrived at their offices Saturday morning after flying all night on a red-eye from San Francisco. Coach Jim Lynam left it up to Webber to decide whether he would play that night, but team president Susan O'Malley gave him a factor to weigh in making his decision. "They [the fans] are going to burn the house down if you don't play," she said. Washington had taken roughly 1,200 orders for season-ticket plans in the 24 hours following the announcement of the trade. But O'Malley doesn't want fans to think every seat in the house has been snapped up. "Come on, there'll always be tickets," she says. "We still play the Timberwolves."
But now fans will be attracted by the Bullets as much as by their opponents. Webber gives Washington its first hoops hero since the 1970s glory days of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. (Washington jerseys bearing Webber's number 2 should begin to appear with increasing frequency any day now.) Essentially, Webber could do for Washington what he was once expected to do for Golden State: establish a powerful inside presence at both ends of the floor. In Gugliotta, a 6'10" third-year forward who scored exactly the same number of points (1,333) last year as Webber did, the Warriors acquired a fine shooter and a hard worker. But he can't begin to match the shot-blocking skills and inside strength provided by Webber, who in 1993-94 averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.16 rejections. With Webber the Warriors would have been title contenders. Without him, they go back to being a finesse team whose inability to handle the Western Conference's dominant inside players, such as Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns, Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, will be especially evident in the playoffs.
Bullet team officials can only hope they don't find themselves a year from now holding the kind of funereal press conference Cohan and Nelson held last Thursday, when they tried to explain how Webber's tenure had gone so sour. The beginning of the end arrived two weeks before the trade, when Cohan met with Webber and came away with the impression that his problems were "mostly about Don," as Cohan put it. "The coach was going to have to leave. That's the bottom line. [Webber was] concrete on this issue."
Webber disputes that. "I never demanded they fire Coach Nelson, and I never demanded a trade," he says. "There were some things that needed to be settled, that I wish he and I could have settled like men, but unfortunately that never happened." Webber remains vague about the specific causes of his rift with Nelson, but it wasn't just the occasional tongue-lashing a coach gives a player that he objected to. Webber and his advisers believe that Nelson, not wanting Webber to have too much success too fast, tried to sabotage him. They point to the 32 minutes per game Webber averaged and claim it was unusually low for a player of his caliber. And they note the vigorous campaign the Orlando Magic put on to boost Anfernee Hardaway's Rookie of the Year chances and wonder, even though Webber ultimately won the award, why the Warriors didn't do something similar for their rookie star.
But Nelson remains baffled at Webber's unhappiness. "I don't know what I've done in the past that made Chris so angry at me that he would not want to play for me," he says. "I thought I was soft on Chris. I tried to love him."
One thing Nelson didn't try to do was seek Webber out to settle their differences. He maintains that he was advised by the Golden State front office to stay out of the negotiations, but it should have taken a SWAT team to keep him from showing up at Webber's front door and confronting him about their problems. Nelson's offer on Nov. 11 to step down as coach, if that was what Webber wanted, did more harm than good in the negotiations, since Webber took it as a ploy to turn the public against the player.
A significant portion of the public already believed Webber to be the epitome of the spoiled athlete. "But the players and coaches in the league know what kind of person I am," he says. "They know I'm willing to listen to instruction. I'm not going to try to prove to anyone that I'm a good person. I'm not going to make sure I have my ear right next to Coach Lynam's mouth when he tells me something just so you guys [in the media] will see it. I'm going to be myself, and the kind of person I am will become evident."
Ironically, when Webber entered Saturday's game, he was matched up at center against Boston's Acie Earl. Playing center was one of the things Webber objected to at Golden State, but Washington, which already has centers Kevin Duckworth and Gheorghe Muresan, won't call on him to play the pivot very often. Webber won't have to play any position he doesn't want to. He has become what he has always wanted to be—a power forward, in every sense of the term.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS
New Bullets Webber (2) and Howard staged a class reunion.
Even before their breakup, Webber and Nelson very rarely saw eye-to-eye.
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS
Against the Celtics' Dino Radja, Webber tried to reverse the Bullets' fortunes.