Posted by: Lunchbox | June 6, 2007

Is This the End of the Line?

Short shorts + Ray Bans = Basketball StudIt has been sixteen years. Sixteen years of being just within his grasp on more than one occasion. If one of many possessions ends with a missed basket for the opponent, or a made basket for his team I wouldn’t be writing this post. It’s been a career of personal excellence tarnished with last second heartbreak and no ring or trophy to show for it. The last time Chris Webber held up a championship trophy, the USA had just invaded Iraq for the first time, Terminator 2 was tops at the box office, Bryan Adams was topping the Billboard charts, the Dow Jones average had just topped 3,000 for the first time in history, and the Soviet Union was just collapsing. This year’s Pistons team was probably his last best chance to win it all.

Everyone knows about Webber’s days at Michigan. Two years of baggy shorts, black high-tops, super high fades, and tough guy smirks defined the Fab Five. With teammates Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson, Webber dominated much of their competition for the two years they were together in Ann Arbor. They reached the NCAA championship game both years. In 1992, as a #6 seed they reached the title game, but were blown out by #1 seed Duke, 71-51. As a #1 seed in 1993, Michigan was down 73-71 with 11 seconds to go in the championship game with North Carolina when Chris Webber called the timeout his team didn’t have, ensuring the most ignominious of defeats.

Webber entered the NBA draft that year and was taken #1 overall by the Orlando Magic, who immediately traded him to Golden State for Penny Hardaway and three future first round picks. It was the first time since Magic Johnson that a sophomore was taken with the first pick of the NBA draft. As the rookie of the year, Webber averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.6 assists. Webber didn’t enjoy Nellie-ball though and demanded a trade. He was sent to the Bullets for Tom “Googs” Gugliotta and three first round picks. He played well that first year, recording 3 triple-doubles, but his team was just 21-61. Two years, no title.

In the following years three years he had a lion’s share of ups and downs. Webber averaged 21.2 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 4.3 assists during his final three years in D.C. The numbers were good, but he suffered through several injuries during that time including a dislocated shoulder. In addition to his ongoing fragility, Webber had some run-ins with the law over marijuana possession and alleged assault charges. He was ultimately traded to the Kings prior to the 1997 season for fading stars Mitch Richmond, Otis Thorpe and some grade-A northern California cannabis to make up for Webber’s absence. The Wizards were less than forthcoming with him about the deal though. Webber found out that he was traded while shopping at a liquor store. The clerk, after hearing about the trade on the news, asked him how he felt about being traded. I’m sure he was thrilled to be coming to Cowtown, CA. That’s the Washington Bullets/Wizards for you, keeping it classy since 1973. Three more years, still no title.

Now, the great thing about being a Sacramento King is that the hometown fans absolutely adore you…unless your name starts with “O” and ends with “stertag”. Kings are the biggest celebrities in town. The Sacramento faithful embraced C-Webb from the get-go. Obviously, it helped that he was named to the All-NBA second team after scoring 20 ppg and leading the league in rebounding at 13 per. His arrival, coupled with the drafting of circus-passing Jason Williams and the free agent signing of the wise basketball-sage that is Vlade Divac turned around the struggling franchise in a hurry. The Kings had only been to the playoffs once in the previous 12 years. That year, with new owners, a new coach, and new players the Kings made it back to the playoffs, beginning a streak of 8 straight trips to the post-season. Webber helped turn around the fortunes of the franchise, and seemed to be genuinely happy for the first time in his career.

At this point, I should let you know I have been a huge Kings fan since I was in middle school, when ARCO Arena was graced by the likes of Wayman Tisdale, Mitch Richmond, Lionel Simmons, etc… The immediate difference that started in the 1998 season is difficult to describe. It was quite literally a whole new ball game. The crisp passing and team-first play typical of the Princeton offense was a night and day difference from the stand-around-and-watch offense we’d been subjected to in previous seasons. For the next 5 yeas or so, the Kings were perennially one of the best teams in the West. I still think about what could have been from 2002…I hate Robert Horry.

After Webber blew out his knee against the Mavs in the ’03 playoffs, he missed the first 50 games of the following season. When he returned, the team finished the regular season 11-12 after going 44-15 in his absence. The team had clearly established a level of cohesiveness that was thrown out of sync by Webber’s late season return. From that point on, the rest of his Sacramento career was…tense. As Kings fans, we were asking ourselves if we’d be better off without Webber, but we figured we’d need to give his microfracture surgery some more time to heal before we really started contemplating life without Number Four.

Geoff Petrie, the Sacramento President of Basketball Operations, is well known for trading away players who are just about ready to hit the skids. Petrie (wisely) traded Webber away to the Sixers along with Matt Barnes (sans most of his tatoos) and Michael “Gold Star” Bradley and received Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson, and Brian Skinner’s facial hair in return. Webber showed flashes of his all-around offensive brilliance in Philadephia, but he was quickly becoming a shadow of his former self. He made the playoffs with the Sixers that year, but they were excused from the post-season by the Pistons. That makes seven more years, no championship.

Webber continued to experience soreness in his knees. However, that didn’t stop Maurice Cheeks from inexplicably playing him 38.6 minutes per game for 75 games in 2005-06, the most for him since his ’02-’03 season. Webber’s body was breaking down. He couldn’t give the team what they needed anymore. Chris was realizing that he could no longer be one of the main contributors on an NBA team anymore. He would only able to provide the support of a strong role player. Another year, and his team didn’t even make the playoffs.

This year, Webber only played in 18 of the Sixers first 35 games due to various ailments. Ultimately, GM Billy King agreed to pay $25 million so that Webber wouldn’t play in Philadelphia for the next two years. I wish Billy King were my boss. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig as long as you don’t mind losing. With the ridiculous buyout, Webber was able to shop himself around to offer his services to whichever team he wanted to play for…he didn’t have to worry about a paycheck. The Pistons were his choice for two reasons: they had a very good chance of winning a championship this year, and it offered Webber a chance to make a homecoming to the Wolverine State. He added another veteran presence on an already experienced team.

But was he bringing a curse with him? It had now been 15 1/2 seasons since a Chris Webber team had won any sort of championship. Could it be attributed to the way he plays, was he cursed, or was he just suffering a similar fate like Karl Malone and so many other great players to never win it all? Detroit could not turn him down because they only had to pay him a pro-rated share of the league’s $1.2 million veteran minimum, and no one really considers a player’s “star-crossed career” during contract negotiations. ESPN even said that Detroit “won the Webber Sweepstakes”. And for the rest of Detroit’s regular season and their first two playoff series, things finally seemed to be turning themselves around. The Pistons dispatched the Magic with ease and showed the Baby Bulls that they still had a few things to learn about the post-season.

Then the Eastern Conference Finals rolled around and Lebron decided it was time to live up to the über-hype that has been lavished upon him since he was dunking on people as kindergartener. After a couple close games in Detroit, the annual disappointment for Webber was in full swing. He played pretty well through the series, nothing spectacular. No one was expecting spectacular from Webber at this point in his career. Enough has been written analyzing the series so that’s not what I’m going to do here. The Pistons were eliminated in six games. I don’t know how many of you saw it at the end of game six when Webber was walking down the hall to the locker by himself, looking thoroughly defeated. It hurt to see that. My girlfriend, who appreciates the game but has little sports-attachment to Webber, even “awwwed” sympathetically when she saw the image. I definitely winced.

Ijust wanted to acknowledge what a great career Webber had, regardless of championships. As far as big men go, he had some of the best court vision in the game. His offensive repertoire made it necessary for teams to focus on him when he had the ball, which in turn allowed him to get his teammates involved effectively. He was one of my all-time favorite players…fun to watch and easy to like. Webber was directly responsible for the renaissance of my team. I was devastated when he was traded, even though I knew it was for the best. Not only was he a great player on the court he’s been a champion of black heritage and a collector of African-American historical artifacts in order to teach the younger black generations from where they have come. I have no doubt that he’ll be a great ambassador for the game when he hangs up the high-tops. Unfortunately, it looks like he’ll be doing so without a champion’s ring on his finger.

16 years...

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