Chris Webber is an extremely talented basketball player whose career has been tainted by off-the-court drama and a persistent lack of championships.
Webber's resume is certainly intersting. He went to two NCAA title games, losing both; he was the top overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft; he forced his first-year team to trade him away; he was booed away from his second team; he then settled in Sacramento, California, and came within a hair of reaching the 2002 NBA Finals. Oh yes, he has also been charged with four counts of federal perjury and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Plus, he's dating Tyra Banks. Life ain't hard, but it sure is weird.
Let's begin Webber's story in suburban Detroit. Webber's parents were lower-middle-income blue collar; his father worked on the General Motors assembly line, and his mom was a teacher. He attented a private high school (Detroit Country Day) on a scholarship, where he blossomed as a basketball player and wrote letters for the school's Amnesty International club.
For college, Webber went to the University of Michigan, where he joined one of the most successful recruiting classes in college basketball history. Webber and classmates Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson a baggy-shorts-wearing group known as the Fab Five were all starters for the Wolverines and went to two straight NCAA championship games. However, they lost both of those games, and the second defeat was the most gut-wrenching, as in the closing seconds Webber called an illegal time out, which sealed the win for North Carolina.
Webber says he cried for a week after that loss, but the sting of the defeat did not deter him from declaring for the NBA Draft despite having two more seasons of college eligibility remaining. He was picked first overall by the Orlando Magic, who shipped him to the Golden State Warriors in a pre-arranged deal for Anfernee Hardaway and a bunch of draft picks.
Golden State saw Webber as the final piece of the puzzle. The Warriors were a consistent playoff team that consistently lost in the second round, mainly because the team had awful players at center and power forward. Webber could play the post, and teamed with backcourt players Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway. But Hardaway missed the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Webber never got along with Warriors coach Don Nelson. Webber demanded a trade at the end of the season, and his wish was granted when he was sent to the Washington Bullets (now Washington Wizards) for Tom Gugliotta and a bunch of draft picks.
In Washington, D.C., Webber was reunited with Fab Five teammate Juwan Howard, but they could not recreate their Michigan magic. In their first season together (1994-1995) the Wizards went just 21-61; the next season Webber was afflicted with shoulder injuries and only played 15 games. 1996-1997 was better, as the Wizards made the playoffs (but were destroyed by the Chicago Bulls).
All was not rosy, however. The next season, the Wizards did not improve and were fighting again for the final playoff berth. Moreover, Webber and Howard were named in a rape lawsuit in the spring of 1998; though the charges were dropped, the Wizards felt that one of their high-priced stars had to go. They picked Webber, and he was traded again, this time to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond.
Webber initially hated the trade and threatened to leave when his contract expired in the spring of 2001. Sacramento had been a terrible team for decades, and no player was eager to suit up for the Kings. But things clicked in the 1998-1999 season. Webber had a great year, center Vlade Divac had a great year as well, and rookie point guard Jason Williams helped make the Kings one of the most exciting teams in the NBA to watch.
Webber's reputation got a makeover in Sacramento. He led the perennial doormats out of the cellar and into the playoffs. However, just like at Michigan, Webber has yet to come through in big playoff games. In the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Kings lost the series in seven hard-fought games. But it was guard Mike Bibby, not Webber, who was the biggest thorn in the Lakers' side. Webber seemed terrified of gargantuan Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and stayed away from the basket, shooting lots of jump shots instead. That's not Webber's game, and his inability to face Shaq contributed to the Kings' defeat.
Now, in the current 2002-2003 season, the Kings look like they will contend for the NBA title again. But it is Webber's personal life that is making headlines. Ed Martin, a Michigan booster (read: fan with money), was being sought after by Federal prosecutors for various crimes. He says he gave Webber about $280,000 while in college, which is barred by NCAA rules. In testimony, Webber denied this, but the Feds believe otherwise. Now they've hit Webber with charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the trial will likely take place after the playoffs. (The prosecution's case is hurt by the fact that Martin died of a heart attack on February 14, 2003.)
The University of Michigan isn't waiting for the courts; they punished themselves with a self-imposed postseason ban and struck all of the Fab Five's accomplishments from the record books. The Wolverines are being careful to appease the NCAA, which can levy brutal punishments against schools that don't try to make amends; but Michigan fans are blaming Webber, who isn't admitting anything.
Webber has no reason to look backward. Michigan, the Warriors and the Wizards all want to forget about him, so he's reciprocating. Maybe the Kings will be a different story.
New York Times Magazine, February 23, 2003