This is it, Chris Webber swears, the time and place where the
mystery dies. Until now, he knows, it has been nearly impossible
for people to understand him, because he has scattered his
talent and interests, had the best and worst sides of himself
flash on the news, in game highlights, on the police scanner,
and at the end of nearly a decade in the public eye, it has
added up to...what? Is he, at 26, a winner? A rapper? A pothead?
A spokesman for his race? A leader, a follower, a con artist?
Out for his team or out for himself? A problem or a solution?
"Who is Chris Webber? What type of person is he going to be?"
says Webber, who, after six seasons of largely unfulfilled
promise, is playing the best ball of his NBA career. Averaging
19.8 points and 12.9 rebounds through Sunday, the 6'10",
245-pound Webber has put himself in position to succeed Karl
Malone as the NBA's premier power forward and enabled his new
team, the Sacramento Kings, to make a run at only its second
playoff berth in 13 years. "For every good instance in my
career, there's been a bad instance, so people worry and wonder,
Who is this guy?" Webber says. "This is just do or die now.
Hopefully, I can make them see."
It will be no easy task. Webber is, after all, a man who talks
reverently of education but has yet to earn a college degree, a
selfless player who has left two NBA teams wondering about his
selfishness. His old high school coach speaks of his
thoughtfulness, his college coach speaks of his loyalty, but his
pro coach of last season, the Washington Wizards' Bernie
Bickerstaff, doesn't want to speak about him at all. "I don't
really know who Chris Webber is," says Don Nelson, who coached
Webber in his rookie year at Golden State and now heads up the
Dallas Mavericks. "No, I really don't."
Indeed, Webber so often presents conflicting images that even
his ardent supporters have stopped trying to reconcile them.
"You wonder how somebody this tough and at times mean on the
court can be so sensitive in another realm," says Kurt Keener,
who was Webber's coach at Country Day High in suburban Detroit,
"but that's him. That's the essence of Chris Webber."
That Webber's essence now takes him to Sacramento, though, seems
like some sort of cosmic joke. It's as if, in sending his
abundant talents to a franchise renowned only for its
ineptitude, the basketball fates have decided to punish him for
squandering one too many golden opportunities, starting with the
infamous timeout in Michigan's 1993 NCAA title-game loss to
North Carolina. At Golden State, Webber won the NBA Rookie of
the Year Award and claimed he wanted to spend his career with
the Warriors; six months later he executed an out clause in his
contract. He arrived in Washington, an ideal city for someone
professing to be passionate about urban and racial issues and
pondering politics as a career. Yet once again, he
Reunited on the Wizards with Juwan Howard, his Fab Five teammate
from Michigan, Webber's can't-miss career unraveled over the
course of four injury-scarred seasons and last year's annus
horribilis: In January 1998 he was arrested, after being pulled
over for allegedly speeding, on charges of second-degree
assault, marijuana possession and resisting arrest; and then
three months later he was named along with Howard in a complaint
by a woman accusing them of sexual assault at a late-night
gathering at Howard's house. Webber was exonerated on all
charges in both cases--Howard was also cleared of sexual assault
and went on to win $100,000 in punitive damages from the
accuser--but nonetheless found himself under fire for partying
too much. On May 14, Washington general manager Wes Unseld
shipped Webber, his team captain, to Sacramento for guard Mitch
Richmond and forward-center Otis Thorpe.
Unseld, comparing this year's Wizards, 13-19 at week's end, to
the underachieving team that finished 42-40 last season, says,
"We're not winning a lot of games, but there's a different
attitude." While he doesn't attribute that change solely to
Webber's exit, he adds, "This is quite a privileged life we
have. We could all work for a living." Asked if he thinks Webber
grasps that, Unseld says, "To be perfectly honest, I would say
But then, by the end of last year, Webber was having as hard a
time figuring out Chris Webber as anyone else. "I doubted
myself," he says. "I started to second-guess anything I did, any
way that I lived."
Webber spent the off-season in his hometown of Detroit,
isolated, bitter, intent on "breaking myself down" and trying to
boil away in a blaze of work the parts of his personality that
have stopped him from realizing greatness. But even after all
that, Webber can't help himself. On March 16, under his own
label, Humility Records, he released 2 Much Drama--a funny,
slick, self-puncturing and self-pitying slice of his life, his
unfiltered chance to reveal the real Chris Webber (a.k.a. C.
Webb). The album cover features a picture only a pastor could
love: A shirtless C. Webb squats on his haunches and prays while
holding a gleaming silver crucifix, looking very much like a man
begging forgiveness. In the notes on the back is a Biblical
quotation in large type: "For he shall give his angels charge
over me to keep me in all my ways."
Inside, the liner notes feature 14 photographs. One of the
largest has Webber staring dead-on into the camera, extending
both middle fingers to the world.
Really it seems silly to deal me.
They blind? I'm braille, so feel me....
Hopping...giving me lip, I should flip
It's like I'm fightin' life with a gun but no clip....
--C. WEBB, 2 Much Drama
He hurt them all. His mom, his sister, his three brothers, his
old friends at Country Day all heard the news and rumors riding
through last season's second half. The tumult even put a strain
on his friendship with Howard. It didn't end there. On Aug.
14--a few weeks after his father, Mayce, defended his son at a
Detroit basketball camp when kids asked, "Why is Chris smoking
dope?"--Chris was stopped by U.S. Customs inspectors while
leaving Puerto Rico during a promotional tour for Fila sneakers.
Eleven grams of marijuana were found packed in a sock in his
athletic bag. Webber admitted possession and paid a $500 fine.
Two weeks later Fila canceled its multimillion-dollar
endorsement deal with Webber.
Webber has no interest in making a detailed defense of the drug
transgression, but it's worth noting that it's the only one of
the 1998 run-ins with the law that should leave any stain.
Still, Webber wants to make clear that he isn't shirking his
share of blame for all three incidents--if only because he
placed himself in harm's way. "I've analyzed night after night
why this all happened: What could I have done different? This
isn't my fault. That's my fault. They just don't understand. I'm
stupid," Webber says. "I need to react like a champion and let
that be the last word. I'm not blaming anyone. There were
situations I definitely could've handled better. I just hope
from now on I can handle them the way I should."
Whether words will translate into deeds is the question, of
course, but Mayce's experience doesn't bode well. There's nobody
Chris respects more than his father, and after the arrest in
January 1998, Mayce flew to Washington and sat down with Chris
for "a man-to-man" during which he stressed the need to be smart
when confronted by police. Chris said he understood. When the
assault complaint was filed in April, Mayce again supported
Chris but also upbraided him for his irresponsibility. Chris
said he understood.
During the late spring and early summer, while forgiving Chris
and defending him, "I was really upset, really hurt...really
angry," Mayce says. In the months leading up to the trip to San
Juan, he kept harping on the same theme. "I always tell my son,
'The name Webber? I had it first,'" Mayce says. "You represent
me. Make sure you carry my name right."
And Chris said he understood.
You were the wind beneath my wings....
As I stare at your image in the picture frame
I know if I'm to fail, you ain't to blame.
My man...my Pops
--C. WEBB, My Pops
Mayce made sure Chris would have no excuses. He brought few
things with him when he fled Tunica, Miss., for Detroit in 1966:
a loathing of his own father's sharecropping existence, a
childhood memory of seeing a family friend lynched and, perhaps
most important, a country boy's appreciation for hard work and
independence. "Earn respect, and Don't beg" were two of Mayce's
cardinal rules, and to reinforce them he'd pack up his lunch and
go to work on the assembly line at the General Motors plant at
Clark and Michigan, building Cadillacs day after day for 30 years.
Doris Webber, a high school special education teacher,
insisted--over Mayce's objection--that their son attend Country
Day, a predominately white private school in exclusive Beverly
Hills. At first Chris hated it. He was an athletic, 6'7"
ninth-grader, praised and publicized, but he yearned to be
ordinary. Showing up every day in the same suit, pulling up in
an old van while the sons of auto executives stepped out of
shiny cars, he stood out as never before. He was there on an
academic scholarship, but as a freshmen he tried hard to flunk
out. Doris wouldn't hear of it. She has never bought into her
son's need to fit in, and warns him to this day, Don't dim your
But Chris's adjustments didn't come only in the halls of Country
Day. While mixing daily with old friends like Jalen Rose, who
would take the public school path to join Michigan, Webber found
himself fending off jabs at his street bona fides when he would
get home each night to his mostly black neighborhood in
northwest Detroit. Some of the people yapping at him were
joking. Others, like the man who stood and yelled, "Webber, you
guys ain't nothing but house niggers," during an AAU game in
which Chris played with many of his Country Day teammates,
weren't. "There was a great deal of resentment [against Chris],"
Keener says. "It made Chris ultrasensitive, and that caused him
to bend over backward to appeal to that urban population.
"There's no doubt that Chris could have been, image-wise, a
Grant Hill or Michael Jordan. He's articulate, he's got a
Madison Avenue smile. But that would be a sellout. His thing is,
I want to relate to these urban kids. These are the ones most at
risk. If it means I have to relate to them through rap and the
way I present myself, so be it."
That focus earned Webber praise when, three years ago, he broke
with Nike because he felt its high sneaker prices exploited
at-risk kids. Few athletes are better qualified than Webber to
bridge the chasm between the streets and the corporate
boardroom: While at Country Day he raised money for books on
African-American subjects, pushed the administration for a
course in African-American history that it has since added to
the curriculum and spoke out about the value of diversity.
At Country Day, Webber made noise about someday becoming mayor
of Detroit, rebuilding the city's shattered neighborhoods block
by block, and he still says, "It isn't just talk." He has also
been building a private collection of African-American
historical documents and hopes to build a museum to house them.
But since appearing subdued and defensive on a nationally
televised panel on race and sports in 1997, Webber has been
quiet on social issues, though he still gives generously to
"For those of us who know his complexity and intelligence, it's
like, O.K., Chris, when are you going to do it? When?" Keener
says. "We're kind of impatient. When this trade came, I thought
it might not be bad: It's like he's gone off to Siberia, and that
can be a cleansing experience. And when Chris comes out of the
wilderness, he may finally be the thing we all want him to be."
I'm frustrated, but...never jaded
Even though I'm on the road with Sacramento
I'll never let none of this--change my mento!
I got to give it all I got!
Give me my props!
--C. WEBB, All I Got
Over the summer Webber hid in his Detroit apartment, pouring
himself into twice-daily workouts, into reading, into thinking.
He told his family he wouldn't be talking to them for a few
months. At midnight Webber would go to some theater and watch a
movie. It became increasingly clear that Sacramento had no
intention of trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers, for whom
Webber most wanted to play, or anyone else. He made no secret of
his desire to move on but figured that his time with the Kings
would force him to learn something he'd never known before:
patience. He worked through the fall, getting into the best
shape of his pro career as he waited out the lockout. He felt
numb. "It's like I put breathing on hold," Webber says, "waiting
for my time to shine."
His time came. He shone. Despite refusing to allow Sacramento to
stage the customary post-trade press conference and missing the
first day of training camp, Webber has almost persuaded wary
Kings fans that maybe, just maybe, he likes their sleepy town.
Since announcing himself with 25 points, 15 rebounds, eight
assists, nine blocks and three steals in his home debut against
the Vancouver Grizzlies, Webber has led the NBA in double
doubles, racked up a revenge triple double in Washington and
showcased himself against the Lakers in Los Angeles with a
game-winning, one-handed rebound-and-toss-in with .4 of a second
left. "I didn't realize how talented he is, how well he sees the
floor," says Kings coach Rick Adelman. "And I tell you: He
doesn't care if he scores 12 or 26. He wants to win. He's
definitely someone you can build around."
Webber can still disappear more easily than a man his size
should be able to in front of thousands of eyes. Through Sunday
he was shooting a career-low 47.4% from the free throw line and
had imposed his will in the fourth quarter far less than he
could. "What makes me mad about Chris is when he goes on court
and doesn't give his best," Mayce says. "It just kills me."
Webber sits on a couch in his living room, exhausted. His eyes
are slits. It's not so much the 29-point, 11-rebound,
six-assist, five-steal performance he turned in the night before
in Houston as much as losing a night's sleep because the Kings'
plane had mechanical trouble on the way home. He works a rubber
band between his fingers. He keeps saying the right things: how
the play of rookie point guard Jason Williams has fueled his
enthusiasm, how he loves Adelman, how he could see himself
recruiting top players to Sacramento and staying to build a
champion. He is ready, he says, to take the best pieces of
himself and funnel them finally toward the only goal that matters.
"I'm not at peace with my career," Webber says. "I need a
stretch of just worrying about basketball. I want the next 10
years to go smooth. I want the game to embrace me. I don't mean
the media, I don't mean the people within the NBA structure. I
want the game. It embraced me in high school, it embraced me in
college. I want that same feeling. I want the pressure of being
It sounds wonderful, as lyrical and irresistible as a
well-crafted song. Maybe this is indeed it, the time Webber will
finally unify his life and heed his father's words. Maybe he'll
let his light blaze and the game grab him, and become who he
should be. But even the best song is nothing but a song. And
sooner or later, it gets old.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF VINNICK/NBA PHOTOS C. Webb dunk Webber, who leads the Kings with 19.8 points per game, has won over Sacramento fans by taking his game to a higher level.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS
When it comes to games with double figures in scoring and
rebounding, no player in recent years has equaled the pace set
by the Kings' Chris Webber in 1998-99. Here are the leaders in
double-double frequency over the last three seasons.
DOUBLE % OF GAMES WITH
PLAYER,TEAM SEASON GAMES DOUBLES DOUBLE DOUBLES
Chris Webber, Kings* 1998-99 30 26 86.7
Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers 1996-97 51 44 86.3
Charles Barkley, Rockets 1998-99 25 18 72.0
Tim Duncan, Spurs 1997-98 82 57 69.5
Tim Duncan, Spurs* 1998-99 32 22 68.8
*Through Sunday's games
"There's no doubt Chris could have been, image-wise, a Grant
Hill or a Michael Jordan," says Keener. "But that would've been
"What makes me mad about Chris is when he goes on the court and
doesn't give his best," his father says. "It just kills me."