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Chris Crossed The return of Chris Webber was supposed to boost Sacramento. Instead, the Kings are struggling, and their star is feeling the heat

Still not fully recovered from off-season left-knee surgery,
Chris Webber had just finished limping through a 127-117 loss
at Dallas last Thursday when he was approached by a couple of
Mavericks fans. Webber was tired and upset, but as he slowly
walked toward the Sacramento Kings' bus, he turned on the
500-kilowatt charm. "You're wearing a Dirk Nowitzki jersey, and
you want to take your picture with me?" he said with a smile as
the fans' friend clicked away. ¶ "Hey, Chris, look at this,"
said another fan, handing him a snapshot of Webber from his
Michigan days. Webber grinned as he studied it. "I got my
little high-top, part in my hair, no mustache," he said. "Man,
I look so young."

The 31-year-old Webber wouldn't mind turning back the clock--and
not just because of his balky knee. The Teflon coating that has
long protected his image has eroded; even the absurdly loyal fans
at Arco Arena have booed Webber recently. Last July he pleaded
guilty to criminal contempt charges, admitting that he'd lied to
a Detroit grand jury about repaying $38,200 to a Michigan
booster. (The Wolverines forfeited 112 wins as a result of this
and other players' NCAA violations.) Then, after missing the
first 50 games of this season because of his knee, Webber had to
serve an NBA-imposed eight-game suspension: three for lying to
the grand jury and five for violating the league's drug policy.

Still, the old no-stick Webber could have counted on winning back
the faithful with his smile and a few double doubles. What no one
could have figured was this: After his March 2 return the Kings
would play like the Queens--as Los Angeles Lakers center
Shaquille O'Neal is wont to call them. They may have begun to
regain their swagger with a 99-94 victory over the Rockets at
Houston on Sunday, a much-needed boost that kept Sacramento
(53-23) atop the Pacific Division at week's end, percentage
points ahead of the rampaging Lakers (54-24), who had won 11 of
12. But it's difficult for the Kings to forget that they're only
10-8 since Webber's return, and that just five weeks ago their
lead over L.A. was six games.

Granted, injuries to all-purpose guard Bobby Jackson (out for 23
games, through Sunday, with a strained abdominal muscle) and
7-foot Brad Miller (out three games and counting with bursitis in
his right elbow, which followed hard upon his missing seven games
with a sprained right foot) have turned Sacramento into what
coach Rick Adelman calls "a mix-and-match team." But the Kings
shouldn't be playing this badly, particularly since Webber's
production (18.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists) has been

"I keep saying that it's not about

Chris Webber," says Chris Webber, practiced in the art of
third-person discourse. "It's not about one guy coming back and
changing a team one way or the other." His teammates, always
loyal, echo that sentiment, and his station among them remains
elevated despite his troubles. Co-captain Vlade Divac gathers the
Kings for encouraging words during games. But it is co-captain
Webber who skewers them behind closed doors, as he did after a
107-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on March 31.

Webber has always been the artful dodger, a charismatic star who
could charm a mongrel dog out of a meat wagon. Since his Fab Five
days at Ann Arbor, he has come across as the thinking man's jock,
possessed of street cred and brains. Yet as he was wowing
eggheads in panel discussions on sports and society, he was
paying a $500 fine for possession of marijuana (in '98, during a
promotional tour for Fila USA overseas) and repeatedly denying
the improper payments from the booster, Ed Martin. Last week he
called former college teammate Juwan Howard, a man for whom being
booed is a way of life, and asked him how to deal with the fans'
treatment. Howard, now with the Orlando Magic, told him to focus
on the positive. To that end Webber deflected SI's requests for
an extended interview last week "because I know it will be about
the negative past, and I don't want that dredged up."

But the Kings were built to win a championship, and if they fail,
most of the fans will blame Webber. "Logic says we'd be better
with our best player coming back, but sometimes logic doesn't
prevail," says assistant coach Pete Carril. "That's why World War
I broke out." Carril usually follows up such observations with
trenchant analysis; this time he has none to offer. "Everybody
seems to have hit a wall and a dull spot at the same time," says
Adelman, "and I don't know why."

"It's not one big thing," says Webber. "It's a bunch of little
things." Looking more closely at why his return hasn't improved
the team may help decode what general manager Geoff Petrie calls
"a matrix."

*Webber is struggling physically. The decision to activate him
was made mutually by Webber, the training staff and Adelman, all
of whom felt that bringing him back any later would have given
Sacramento insufficient time to readjust before the playoffs. Yet
Webber limps noticeably, comes down gingerly on his left foot
after a jump shot and, instead of just pivoting and jetting
upcourt, turns carefully and steadies himself before taking off.
"That's always how it is when you come back," says Divac. "You
are always thinking too much until one day--boom!--you do
everything without thinking about it." Webber better hear the
boom soon because the Kings thrive at an up-tempo pace.

*Sacramento is vulnerable on D when Webber's healthy, let alone
when he's not. As one Western Conference coach puts it, "Chris
can defend; he just doesn't." Webber certainly can't make up for
the absence of Jackson and Miller--"our two sets of balls," one
Kings exec calls them--on the defensive end. Since the off-season
Adelman has been concerned that the exits of Jimmy Jackson, Keon
Clark, Hedo Turkoglu and Scot Pollard, willing and able defenders
last season, would come back to bite the team. At week's end
Sacramento ranked 25th in the NBA in points allowed per game
(98.1) and 26th in opponents' field goal percentage (.456), so
it's time to check for teeth marks.

*Having Webber on the floor limits the team's principal offensive
strength: the ability to flow seamlessly from transition into
half-court offense. Adelman insists that a larger problem is that
"for whatever reason we've stopped running to the correct spots."
Perhaps. But consciously or unconsciously, Webber's teammates
tend to wait for him to set up in the paint. "We throw it in
there and think, O.K., Chris, show us something," Divac says.

*The return of Webber displaced Peja Stojakovic as the king of
Kings. The suggestion that the offense should continue to revolve
around Peja and, to a lesser extent, point guard Mike Bibby is
greeted as pure heresy. "Chris is the main man and will always
be," Stojakovic says. But with Webber back, Peja has gone from
17.7 shots and 25.6 points per game to 15.5 and 21.7,
respectively. A more subtle flaw in the Sacramento offense is
ineffective screening. Stojakovic needs help to get open, and
Webber is a screen-and-slip player who barely gets his body on a
defender before putting himself into position to get the ball
back. The less-gifted Miller and Divac, on the other hand,
regularly give up their bodies. Webber is by no means
selfish--he's one of the most willing and able big-man passers in
the game--but he has to do more dirty work to free up Stojakovic
and Bibby.

There is no easy fix for the Kings, not in the brutal Western
Conference, though the return of Jackson ("I'm the energy man,"
he says, correctly) and Miller will be a plus. Adelman might
think about reducing Webber's minutes to help him go all out when
he's in there and to give more playing time to Miller and
hard-banging reserve Darius Songaila. And though Sacramento is a
read-and-react team on offense, it has to set more double screens
for Stojakovic and Bibby. It was Stojakovic's 13 third-period
points that helped the Kings reverse a 58-50 deficit and salvage
the victory over the Rockets.

With the Lakers and the Spurs peaking, Sacramento's prospects for
a full recovery are slim. Whatever happens to the Kings down the
stretch and in the playoffs, however, don't look for a schism
within the team because of Webber's difficulties. Sturm und Drang
is for the Lakers, not for the likable and cohesive lads from
Sacramento. Twenty-four hours before their win in Houston, there
was Webber offering postpractice commentary as Stojakovic did an
interview shirtless. "Oh, yeah, I'm showing my abs, I'm looking
all good, all European, all sexy," cooed Webber, as Stojakovic
cracked up. Webber then turned his attention to the other side of
the court, where Divac was chatting with a camera crew. He began
lobbing sneakers and basketballs and rolled-up towels at Divac
and finally pushed a ball rack into the frame, completely
disrupting the session.

It was good stuff, team stuff, charming stuff. But, then, turning
on the charm has never been a problem for Chris Webber.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK CENTERPIECE The Kings need the scoring of Stojakovic (left) and the toughness of Miller, but Webber's still their main man.


COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN OFF STRIDE While Webber's production has been solid, he still hasn't recovered fully from off-season left-knee surgery.

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