25 Years After the Timeout, How Should We Remember Chris Webber?

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterApril 5, 2018

SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 6:   Former Sacramento King Chris Webber has his jersey retired at halftime against the Utah Jazz at Arco Arena on February 6, 2009 in Sacramento, California.  The Jazz won 111-107.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2009 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
B/R

Remember the conundrum posed by that damn dress a few years ago? How it appeared to be unmistakably white and gold to some people, while others would swear it was black and blue?

If you were looking for the equivalent personified, Mayce Edward Christopher Webber III and his basketball career just might be it.

For the second year in a row, Webber, the leader of Michigan's groundbreaking Fab Five and one of the most gifted passing big men the NBA has ever seen, was a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame but did not make the final cut. Some found it particularly vexing that players of lesser talent (Mo Cheeks), lesser roles (Ray Allen) and/or fewer career achievements (Grant Hill) were selected this year ahead of him.

It set up a double whammy of a week for C-Webb. This is also the 25th anniversary of The Timeout, his infamous attempt to stop the clock in the waning seconds of the NCAA tournament final between North Carolina and Michigan. The Wolverines trailed 73-71 when Webber, having dribbled the ball into the frontcourt directly in front of the Michigan bench, stopped and signaled for a timeout with 11 seconds left. However, Michigan had already used all of its timeouts, so North Carolina was awarded a technical free throw and possession of the ball. The Wolverines thus effectively forfeited the title to the Tar Heels.

The Webber family eventually embraced the gaffe. Mayce Sr. got a Michigan license plate that read "Timeout," and his son started a charitable organization called the Timeout Foundation. Little did anyone realize that a pattern would develop: Every extraordinary accomplishment would be overshadowed by a misdeed or someone greater.

What do you remember most: Webber's two NCAA championship appearances or The Timeout? His leadership of the Fab Five or his indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to an FBI probe into the loans he accepted from a Michigan booster? His NBA Rookie of the Year campaign for the Golden State Warriors or his franchise-melting feud with coach and general manager Don Nelson? His first All-Star season that helped the Washington Bullets clinch their first playoff berth in nine years or the multiple misdemeanors (later dismissed) he received while driving to practice? His role in transforming the hapless Sacramento Kings into a Western Conference force or the fact that it all happened in the shadow of the three-peat Lakers led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal?

It's the damn dress question on repeat: Is it white and gold or black and blue?

For his former teammates at every stop, it's undeniable Webber had Hall of Fame talent. ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler played with him in Washington. At various points throughout his 10-year career, he also played alongside Hall of Famers such as Karl Malone, John Stockton and Chris Mullin.

"I could make the case Webber was the best, overall talented player I ever played with," Legler told B/R. "But he was never the driving force on a championship-caliber team."

Mullin takes no offense to Legler's first statement. In fact, he topped it.

As a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic squad, better known as the Dream Team for its collection of NBA stars that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, Mullin scrimmaged for several days against Webber and other top-tier collegians in a pre-Olympic training camp. Webber had just completed his freshman year at Michigan.

"Whatever year that was for him in college, he was ready to play in the NBA right then," Mullin said. "He was the best player in the gym in a few sessions. Now, Michael might've played 36 holes that morning, but the bottom line is he was in the gym with Michael, Bird and Magic, and at times, he was the best player out there."

Every aspect of Webber seemed to have two sides to it. While he grew up in Detroit and often referenced a hardscrabble childhood, he was raised in a two-parent home and attended a private high school, Detroit Country Day School. As the leader of five freshmen that unseated a group of talented upperclassmen as Michigan's starters, he created a tough-guy persona with his shaved head and post-dunk sneers that belied an all-inclusive nature and warmth for every teammate. While he enjoyed taunting opposing fans with defiant poses and tongue-wagging facial expressions, teammates at every one of his professional stops adored him.

Webber was one assist shy of his first career triple-double when he pulled Mullin aside and asked him to be ready for a dribble handoff, looking to make Mullin part of the crowning achievement.

After being drafted by the Warriors in 1993, Chris Webber spent only a season with the team after he and coach Don Nelson clashed.
After being drafted by the Warriors in 1993, Chris Webber spent only a season with the team after he and coach Don Nelson clashed.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"He was misread in a lot of ways," Mullin said. "Webb was actually a really, really sweet guy."

Nelson did not share that sentiment at the time. Team sources said he preferred drafting Shawn Bradley to be the long-missing rim protector to complement his small-ball approach, but the Magic, who held the No. 1 pick, weren't going to select Bradley when they already had Shaq. Instead, they were willing to take Webber, figuring he could operate as a high-post power forward. Philadelphia, which had the No. 2 pick, was as desperate for a center as the Warriors and refused to make a deal. Nelson, pressed by the rest of Golden State's front office—and Mullin—dealt No. 3 pick Penny Hardaway and three future first-round picks for Webber on draft night.

Nelson's tough love and occasionally demeaning approach wore on Webber. He arrived with a Fab Five reputation to uphold, the Timeout flub to live down and the desire to become a Magic-Barkley hybrid. Nelson moved him to center, which was stocked with bigger, stronger, legendary talent, many of whom were their primes—Shaq, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo, to name a few.

Webber won Rookie of the Year honors and, for once, had a moment that overshadowed an otherwise disappointing outcome: circling the ball behind his back before throwing down a breakaway dunk on Barkley in a playoff series Sir Charles and the Suns swept.

None of that prevented Webber from opting out of his contract after his rookie year and refusing to re-sign with the Warriors unless ownership gave him assurances that they would broker a better relationship between him and Nelson.

The Warriors started 7-1 while he held out, buoyed by the expectation he'd eventually join them. When Nelson instead dealt Webber to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three future first-round picks, the team crumbled, only winning 19 more games out of its final 74.

"One of the most unselfish talents I ever played with," Legler said about Webber. "The best part of playing with him was his personality. He was always laughing and smiling. He never expressed frustration. I've played with some talented players who could be moody. That was never him. I loved the time I spent talking with him on the bus or in the locker room."

Because he had such a big personality, his absence was even more greatly felt—and there were long stretches of absence. His first game back in the Bay Area in a Washington uniform ended with a dislocated left shoulder that kept him out for six weeks. He elected not to have surgery, hoping to avoid the three- to six-month recovery period, but he then re-injured it in training camp the following season. He again tried to play through it but finally conceded to have it surgically repaired in February.

"You felt so much more confident when he was out there, that when he wasn't, it became something that wore on us," Legler said. "I saw him turn a doorknob too hard coming out of the locker room and grab his shoulder, so you knew he was trying to play through something bad. But it just felt like for his career in Washington, he was more unavailable than available."

Not being on the court and getting into trouble off of it took its toll on Wizards management. Aside from the multiple misdemeanorsincluding possession of marijuana—that arose out of a traffic stop for speeding, Webber's time in D.C. included being investigated for sexual assault, a case that was closed a month later when a Maryland state attorney determined prosecution was "not warranted." While reuniting him with Fab Five teammate Juwan Howard and point guard Rod Strickland led to a playoff appearance, the Wizards opted to build around Howard and swap Webber for two aging but no-nonsense veterans, Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe.

"Moves are made and then everybody is on board," said Bernie Bickerstaff, then the head coach of the Wizards and now a senior advisor for the Cavaliers. "There is no finger-pointing, I've never lived that way. Suffice it to say, though, you don't miss what you have until it's on the other side. One of the great players of all time as far as skills and IQ."

Corliss Williamson played against Webber at the AAU level and then spent two seasons as his teammate in Sacramento. After stops in Toronto, Detroit and Philadelphia, Williamson would be traded back to Sacramento in a deal that sent Webber to the 76ers.

Webber helped lead the Kings to the playoffs in each of his six seasons in Sacramento.
Webber helped lead the Kings to the playoffs in each of his six seasons in Sacramento.ERIC GAY/Associated Press

"He changed the franchise," Williamson said. "He made everyone feel welcome. It was a family atmosphere with him. Anyone can score points and be an assh--e. He embraced guys and gave them confidence."

The essence of Webber's talent could be deceptive as well. While he had a sculpted physique and was perfectly proportioned at 6'9" and 245 pounds with wide shoulders and gargantuan handsplaced flat on an 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper, his fingertips spilled over the edgeshe was not particularly agile. When he fell, it was like a chest of drawers tipping over, which may have contributed to the knee and shoulder issues that plagued the better part of his career.

His floor vision, strength and shooting touch were the sources of his mastery. His wingspan and manual dexterity allowed him to snare rebounds, whip behind-the-back passes and finish shots with either hand around the rim, often flat-footed.

"He didn't have elite athleticism; he had an elite skill level," Legler said. "It was amazing how soft he could finish in the lane. He caught everything you threw at him. You could throw a pocket pass at his feet and he'd catch it."

The combination of Webber and Vlade Divac, another gifted passing big man, playing within an offense tailored for them by head coach Rick Adelman, resulted in the Kings enjoying the zenith of Webber's career. The seven-year run included an epic seven-game series with the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Injuries took their toll, though, and Webber played out his last few seasons checking off boxes—playing alongside Allen Iverson in Philadelphia, taking a turn with his hometown team, the Pistons, and finally a career-ending swan song with the Warriors.

Mullin, Legler, Williamson and Bickerstaff all believe Webber would've excelled in today's game, where passing and ball-handling big men are a staple. Mullin also believes the arc of Webber's career would've been far different had the rookie salary scale existed in his day.

"A guy with that talent, why did he move around so much?" he said. "It does raise a question in some people's minds. If he couldn't have opted out, if Golden State had him guaranteed for three years, no way they move him. You're not going to find another talent like that. You can find another coach."

Despite the reduced effectiveness in his waning years, Webber retired with career averages that reflected his well-roundedness: 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks. His free-throw shooting could be spotty, but he shot north of 70 percent in six of his 15 seasons.

But the overall wins he produced (as measured by win shares) are less gaudy: 84.7, according to Basketball Reference. For comparison, Kevin Garnett finished with 191.4 and Hill with 99.9.

Was the dress white and gold...or black and blue?

"All around, he's a Hall of Famer," Legler said. "When the balance of power shifted from the East to the West, he was a part of that. You can't dismiss Michigan and what he did there. It shaped modern basketball. If someone is going to question his Hall of Fame worthiness, they might ask, 'What real sustained winning did he lead? What was his career winning percentage?' That would be what stuck in their minds."

As with all of Webber's teammates, there's a wistfulness in knowing that what he accomplished didn't reflect how talented he was.

"It seemed like he never got traction," Williamson said. "Sacramento was a clean slate and he was great, but the time before that was kind of mixed, and then he was in the twilight of his career. It was like something was just missing. I kind of wished something better for him."

It's hard to know exactly how Webber feels about his career; he did not respond to texts and phone calls for this story. While he is now a regular analyst on TNT for its NBA and NCAA basketball coverage, he never has addressed the controversy and injuries that cast a shadow over his accomplishments.

Then again, maybe there's no need. After he threw down the behind-the-back dunk on Barkley, the two collided under the basket and Webber whispered in his ear, "I want to be just like you."

Considering that both players' individual talent was admired more than what their teams ultimately achieved, that they both have robust TV careers and even that they've now broken off with a former basketball brother (Barkley with Jordan, Webber with Fab Fiver Jalen Rose), maybe we're looking at this all wrong. Maybe Webber is comfortable with the mix that his career wrought: setting trends and challenging authority and being appreciated by his teammates more than he was by fans or the media.

Perhaps in Webber's eyes, the dress is a mix of colors he alone can see.

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher. 

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