|It's crunch time ... C-Webb disappear|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Unfortunately, an uneasy feeling of impending doom seems to go along with Chris Webber's game. You'd think not. Anytime dude drops 29 and 13 in a pivotal Game 5 in an NBA conference final, you'd think you'd be satisfied, you'd think he'd drawn all the water from the well.
You end up thinking, "Can't go to Webber in the crunch, when everybody's saliva glands dry up, game on the line, money on the table ... let him pick for Mike Bibby ... and then pray he doesn't screw that up. Somebody else has to step up ... somebody else has to be The Man ... it ain't the way Pop wanted it ... it ain't the way Mother Nature wanted it. But that's the way it is ... Webb's sure to try to go between his legs, and turn it over, or put up some inexplicable blind deep turnaround, or miss a wide-open dime, or be backing down somebody 30 pounds lighter, and then travel, or not get there in time to help on Shaq ... or something ..."
C-Webb should be his generation's Bill Russell. Squared. He should be in the head of every dude in the league. They shouldn't be able to butter their toast without suddenly wheeling around and saying, "Huh! Where is he? I know he's in here somewhere." He should have every frontcourt player in the league acting like John Nash on crystal meth.
Instead, Webber's a sidekick. He's the Lone Ranger saying he'd rather read for the part of Tonto. Ask him about Shaquille O'Neal, even on help side, and he'll smile his dazzling, disarming smile, and tell you a funny story of the sounds Vlade Divac makes when he's sacrificing his aging body, flopping like the death scene in "Camille," occasionally guarding Shaq.
"Oof! Ump-hmph-ftup-uhk-droomp-oof!" C-Webb says. "That's how Vlade sounds all game." Everybody laughs. Because C-Webb is cute. C-Webb ain't supposed to be cute. He's supposed to be cute to T-Banks, or your sister, or your girlfriend, but he ain't supposed to be cute to Shaq.
I ask you -- why doesn't C-Webb take his turn on Shaq and make some sounds? Can you imagine 6-foot-9 Bill Russell walking out for the tip against 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers, then glowering, with a real I-dare-you sourpuss, a downturned look of utter determination, over at ... Happy Hairston? Saying, "Don't worry, fellas. I got Hap"?
Wouldn't that inspire you, if you were his teammate?
I ask you, has anybody ever gone to war with C-Webb's equipment? Damn few. His hands make Michael Jordan's look like size 8 petite. They belong at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. If Webb was an aircraft, he'd be the Space Shuttle Endeavor. If he was dinner, he'd be prime rib. If he was a model, he'd be ... well, never mind that.
Webber has so much physical talent, it's a joke. The only guy who can cover him is Chris Rock. The only guy who can write about him is Dave Barry. The only guy who can guard him is ... him. Him and somebody's army.
Webber's smart. Engaging. Cunning, at times. He's proud. He's aware. He's handsome as hell. He's resilient. The only time I've ever seen him hurt is when he hurt himself. The only time I've seen him stopped is when he stops himself. He's everything you could want in a frontcourt player.
And you know what? The reason the L.A. Lakers still have a chance to pull this out, and burnish their own legend even further is ... aw, no, somehow you guessed. Chris Webber.
Why is that?
Well I'm not Chris Rock, and I'm not Dave Barry, and I'm not in the Smithsonian, or on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. But I can speculate with the best, and I see two issues here ...
Lack of mentoring & the Jelly Roll Effect
I grew to dislike seeing this way of doing business. It smacked of another way of life, long gone but apparently not forgotten. I hate to see people exploited, and even worse than that, I hate to see people exploit themselves.
So, 10 years ago, a friend of mine asked me to identify four college athletes who would be outstanding pros. Who could make a difference. Who could start a trend. Who could ball at the highest level in history, and also have a public face, a TV face, a film face, who could inspire others to be like that. Who could Way of Life. My friend wanted me to ID them to do business. Start a consortium, of sorts. Help them reach the top level of their potential. Put them in commercials. Feature films. Not rip them off, or just leave them to their own youthful devices. I said OK.
I ID'ed Charlie Ward as an NFL quarterback, Robert Smith as an NFL running back, Penny Hardaway as an NBA point guard and Chris Webber as an NBA frontcourt player.
Smith told an Ohio State coach he was going to med lab, not football practice, and when that coach asked him why he'd come to Ohio State, to go to school or to be a football player, Smith frowned and said, "To become a doctor."
So we knew he'd be all right, either way.
Charlie Ward was a deeply religious kid, greatly influenced by his father, who had been a superb collegiate quarterback himself. We met him in Tallahassee, Fla. Said he could be a 49ers quarterback and a Knicks backup point at the same time. But his genius was as a quarterback. Charlie was deeply religious, but considered Deion Sanders a saint, too. I wasn't as sure of that, and was too blunt about it. As it turned out, Charlie wanted no part of pro football -- he wanted no part of genius. He was a 10-year NBA player, a good backup, we all knew that, but in football, my God, he could have been Montana, Steve Young. Maybe better. I'm not Nostradamus, but I see these things, and they come true.
But Charlie Ward passed on the pain. He could've been like Bo, like Deion, like Joe. Now look at him.
Penny ... ah, Penny ... he only had his dear grandmother advising him. Said we'd have to go visit his friend and talk to him about his future endeavors. Where was his friend? Down at the jailhouse. The result of such mentoring was predictable. I won't go into it here, because really, it breaks my heart.
What a waste. They all weren't wasted, but if some of these fellows -- not to mention their lessers -- had better advice, they wouldn't have ended up not reaching their potential. By advice, I mean somebody who's interested in more than skimming his cut off the top and moving on to the next fleece.
Once Webb got in the league, he was, really, a boy of 19 in a man's body. Well, no ... a man in a Titan's body. Webber's body is out of Greek mythology, or a Marvel comic. Always was. Believe it or not, this hurt him.
When he was out at Golden State, you know how he hurt himself? Hanging on the rim. He used to have this little move where he'd dunk and then pronate his shoulder, like a dunk with a twist; wrenched his shoulder out of joint doing that in Oakland. He found out he'd have to have surgery on that shoulder. Surgery? Moi? Many, if not most, pro athletes learn in college that their bodies are finite and can be hurt. Webber was so gifted, it was a shock to him that his body might betray him. Nobody had said it could happen to him.
Nellie? Nellie was coaching Golden State at the time, and he might as well have been talking to the wind.
So Webb moved on to Washington to great fanfare. You'd think with Wes Unseld around, at least Wes would be good for some advice about playing in the hole. Think of this: Washington once had Juwan Howard, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber on the roster, and unless I'm mistaken, all of them at the same time.
Put even an ancient Michael Jordan in that mix, and Washington might be sitting home right now waiting for the winner of the Lakers and Kings series.
But once again, a lack of mentoring and the Jelly Roll Effect raised their ugly bald-headed stepchild heads.
Webb never was really coached. Country Day School? Are you kidding me? They all but got down on their knees and begged him to come there. Same at Michigan. Webb got a posse together -- the Fab Five -- to run the school there. Webb always had a pat hand, an easy road-Jelly Roll Effect.
Life itself became a Jelly Roll. The game was like a Jelly Roll. It all came too easy to the body of Hannibal. The Fab Five was better than anybody just by throwing their jocks out there. I noticed that John Chaney of Temple got very exercised about the Fab Five when his team of B-listers played them. Actually, he told them to try and lay C-Webb out. Why, I can't say. Later, Chaney calmed enough to tell me, "It's not his fault he's never been shown how."
Well, Webber was at Michigan only two years, anyway. As to this whole thing about him getting money at Michigan, well, I'm sure he got money, they all get money, and the way they get it doesn't help them understand it's supposed to be an honest day's work, not just some jelly on the sly.
Life's all on the take. That's what we teach them, isn't it?
So anyway, Wes didn't do Webb any good. Not knocking Wes for that. He maybe was just a little too reticent, a little too long in the tooth to give this dashing nonpareil pause.
Personally, I would have brought in Rick Mahorn to mentor Chris Webber. To me, Mahorn would have been perfect for Webber. He'd been a Detroit Piston Bad Boy. Webber had loved the world champion Pistons as a teenager. Mahorn took any defensive assignment given to him. If he was told to check Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he checked him. He didn't have the luxuriant offensive talent or even the inclination to say, "No, I'm a power forward, I don't play center; no, I'd rather not guard Kareem, or Robert Parish. That's not me."
Mahorn did what he had to do. He grew, learned different techniques. He was the best post chair-puller in the history of the NBA. You know the move. The opposing center gets the ball in the low post, Mahorn braces his leg against them, they brace against him, they bump and grind and grunt, just like Webb hears Vlade grunting on Shaq, and then just as the center wants to pivot, Rick Mahorn would evaporate, leaving the opposing center leaning against air. The opposing center would travel, or lose balance, or even fall; Mahorn would smile ferally. The Pistons would win. Even against the Celtics. Even against the Lakers.
Mahorn would have been a good dude for Webber to study, in his approach as a player, and in his approach as a man.
You don't back away from the ultimate challenge.
You relish it. Relish a hot dog. Don't jelly it up.
Well, anyway, long story short, what happened was, Webb said he played the same position as his good buddy Juwan, and also Rasheed. They all played power forward. Juwan was stuck there. He didn't have the flexibility to play anywhere else. Webber did. Webber could have played Othello, as far as I know. He's that talented.
But it seemed like Juwan and Chris wanted to par-tay.
So did some honeys who later showed them a different way to pull the chair out from under a guy.
Then Chris got caught with some, ah, contraband over in P.G. County one day, while driving his big SUV with the tinted windows. You'll never hear me hypocritically knocking a 25-year-old man for experimenting with certain alkaloids. Why would Webb be different from anybody else who came down the pike in that way? It was his reaction that got me. He acted like he was insulted, that because he had experimented with alkaloids, they weren't immediately decriminalized and passed out as party favors.
Get me the hell out of here, his scowl said. So Wes Unseld and the Washington Wizards obliged him; actually, they obliged Geoff Petrie and the Sacramento Kings. They traded Webb for Joe Bagadonuts and a washed-up tomato can to be named later, two fossils, Odie Thorpe and Mitch Richmond. This wasn't a trade. It was grand larceny.
One $123 mil contract, one media tirade over him dating Tyra Banks and one 3-2 conference finals lead over the Lakers later, we have C-Webb standing on the cusp of ...
We're about to find out. Maybe this lack of hoop world mentoring and the Jelly Roll Effect only delayed C-Webb's ascension to his rightful place in the firmament of hoop history. Maybe he's about to get his game and his swerve on. Maybe in Games 6 and 7 of his career, we'll be slapping our collective forehead over his exploits. Maybe he'll take the Shaq-Bull by the Mahorns and take on the challenge and not need to have the edge to compete.
It'd make a hell of a story, if he did that.
I know I'd watch it again and again.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."