Unfairly or not, Chris Webber’s career will always be somewhat defined by the brass ring that was forever just out of his grasp, and later by a controversy that hurt his alma mater. But 90’s basketball fans know better: Webber was one of the most talented and mercurial big men of his generation, a centerpiece of one of the most exciting and beloved teams in the bridging-the-gap period between Jordan’s Bulls and LeBron’s Cavs.
A Michigan schoolboy legend at historic Detroit Country Day high school, Webber chose the University of Michigan, where he became a member of the legendary Fab Five recruiting class. Along with Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King, Webber took the Wolverines to the NCAA Finals in both of his college seasons.
Along the way, the Fab Five became hip-hop icons and a cultural touchstone, forever eradicating John Stockton-style tight shorts in favor of baggy ones, and wearing murdered-out black socks and Nike Huaraches. They were viewed as a counterculture alternative to the clean-cut dominance that programs like Duke, Indiana and North Carolina projected; as one might expect, that era’s Michigan squad was immensely popular. Even today, the fascination remains: ESPN’s Fab Five documentary was among its best.
And yet, the Fab Five fell short of the requisite championship that would have landed them among the greatest teams of all time. In 1992, they fell to the Laettner-Hurley-Hill Duke team; no shame in that, the early-90’s Blue Devils were one of the best teams of their generation and it was their second straight title.
The following season’s title game, however, resulted in Webber becoming an icon for all the wrong reasons. With time dwindling and Michigan down two to North Carolina, Webber brought the ball up the court himself before getting trapped. He instinctively called for a time out when his team had none, an automatic technical foul that ended his team’s championship hopes, and his Michigan career — he went pro after the season. (Webber has a good sense of humor about it; the first charity he created was named “The Timeout Foundation.”)
Webber was drafted No. 1 by the Orlando Magic in 1993; rather than creating a dominant frontcourt duo with Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando shipped him to the Warriors for Anfernee Hardaway in a Draft Day trade that would reverberate for years to come. Webber was immediately one of the finer up-and-coming big men in the NBA, but he famously clashed with Golden State coach Don Nelson, resulting in his quick exile to the Washington then-Bullets.
Webber found some success in Washington, leading his team to the playoffs, where they were beaten soundly — as most teams were — by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.. But it wasn’t until he was traded to the Kings in 1998 that he truly found his groove in the NBA. Along with high-scoring point guard Peja Stojakovic, fellow multitalented big man Vlade Divac, slick guard Doug Christie and flashy point guard Jason Williams, the long-moribund Kings became a favorite of fans everywhere with their Showtime-esque style of play. Webber, who initially was reluctant to go to Sacramento, flourished as the focal point of the offense.
Though the Kings would become one of the truly elite teams in the NBA, they had the bad fortune of playing in the same era of a dominant Laker team featuring O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. In two consecutive West Finals, the Kings led 3-2 and looked to be on the cusp of fulfilling Webber’s championship destiny. But both times, Los Angeles found a way to prevail.
Webber would eventually bounce to Philadelphia, Detroit and finally back to the Warriors before bowing out to begin a successful broadcasting career on TNT and NBATV. A renaissance man of sorts, Webber has produced two songs for rapper Nas, and he has been active in several charitable pursuits.
A decade after the Fab Five, Webber found ignominy when it was alleged by a federal investigation that he took $280,000 from a Michigan booster named Ed Martin while on campus. Though Webber insisted he had not taken money while at school, Michigan was hit with heavy sanctions and forced to dissociate with Webber and other athletes associated with Martin over the course of the next decade. Webber was accused of perjury in front of a grand jury, but pleaded it down to a lesser charge.
Months before the 10-year “dissociation” period was to end, Webber attended the Final Four to root on the Wolverines, his first involvement in years. As the public’s stance toward the NCAA has changed over the years, what Webber — and other young athletes in his position — did seems far less egregious.
Regardless, Webber is yet another example, much like Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing, of a player with the talent to win championships but not the circumstances to allow it. All of those players fell victim to an era dominated by Jordan, and then Shaq and Kobe, with a good amount of Tim Duncan mixed in for good measure.
But perhaps it was Webber’s flaws that endear us to him. None of us are perfect, after all — it’s just that most of us don’t have our biggest failures play out at the Final Four or in front of a Grand Jury. And though one can’t gloss over those things, it’s just as worthwhile to revere the early-90’s Kings or that time he went behind his back on the break and dunked over Charles Barkley. Besides being an amazing player, Webber is perfect evidence that we are all so much more than the things we do wrong.