Mitch Albom: Chris Webber finally gets the gold star, but remains a mercurial figure

Detroit Free Press

The Basketball Hall of Fame waited eight years to admit Chris Webber. Can you blame them? Even those who have watched him forever aren’t sure what to make of him.

Here is a 15-year NBA veteran who is still best known as a college player, an athlete with tremendous skills but an intangible game, a smart and likable personality who often made himself seem the opposite of both.

Here’s a guy who went No. 1 in the NBA draft, yet was traded minutes later, who was named Rookie of the Year with Golden State, then forced his way out of that town, a player who wore five different jerseys during his NBA career and consistently racked up impressive numbers, yet was always defined by his near-misses — calling a timeout that didn’t exist to end a Final Four championship bid, bowing out in Game 7 of a Western Conference finals.

[ Chris Webber’s revolution of Michigan made him a star, and now a Hall of Famer ]

For years after he left Michigan he insisted he never took money from a Detroit booster named Ed Martin, then admitted that he did. He was accused of lying to a grand jury, then made a plea bargain to avoid serious punishment. He talks incessantly about the special “bond” of the Fab Five, yet has been the biggest impediment to them reuniting.

In short, the man is a paradox. I spent a lot of time with him and the Fab Five at Michigan, talked to him a lot, and because I wrote a book about that time, many have assumed I am some kind of Chris Webber expert.

I am not. Not the current Chris Webber, anyhow. And therein lies the issue for many people around here. When Webber steps to the HOF podium Saturday, many local folks will recall a Birmingham Detroit Country Day moment, a St. Cecilia’s gym moment, or a Crisler Arena moment.

But all of that was a long time ago.

Not exactly what it seems

A long time ago, I can tell you about. Webber was born a little giant. He was walking at 10 months and catching a ball at 13 months. Doctors predicted he would reach 7 feet. Contrary to the way Webber often portrays it, he didn’t grow up in a hardscrabble, mean streets world. His family home on Biltmore in Detroit was modest but loving, guided by his mother’s quiet faith and his father’s discipline. Neighborhood kids use to tease the Webbers, calling them “the Waltons.”

Chris was, by his parents’ account, a thoughtful, obedient kid, protective of his younger siblings, helpful to his mother. He attended Country Day High School in Beverly Hills, wore a uniform, had access to some of the best educational resources in the state of Michigan.

And, of course, he won everything in basketball. He was the national high school player of the year, he dunked as easily as he breathed, and, as a 6-foot-9 senior, was the biggest recruiting prize on the table.

When he chose Michigan, the last of the Fab Five to do so, Steve Fisher had the ultimate freshman class, and Webber was united with Jalen Rose, his pal from AAU basketball. Together they led a chaotic, roller coaster era for two years, before Webber bolted to the pros. During that time, my impression was Chris often tried to be like Jalen, in manner and in backstory, sometimes painting himself as badder than he really was. But then, a collective identity was what pulled that team together.

“The Fab Five was special,” Webber told ESPN. “It’s more special every day that we get older.”

They were special. They shook expectations of college basketball in things like trash talking, long shorts, black socks and attitude. And they won a lot of games. What they didn’t do was win what mattered. They never captured a Big Ten title. Never won a national championship. That may be a high bar to set, but it is how sports are measured.

The truth is, the last championship Webber won was in high school. In college, he made the finals twice but lost. In the NBA, he never even got that far. That hardly disqualifies him from the Hall of Fame. Dave Bing, Artis Gilmore, Dominique Wilkins and Pete Maravich never reached an NBA Finals either, and all are in the Hall.

But it’s part of the reason people straddle the fence when evaluating Webber’s NBA career. The game’s ultimate measurement is rings won, not statistical highlights. Webber was a terrific player with serious big man power. He once led the league in rebounding. He made a handful of All Star teams and was a solid 20-point/10-rebound guy for his career.

But never did one of his squads ride him to a title.

And more than once, he wore out his welcome with coaches and management and left. His best years were with Sacramento, where he rejuvenated a losing franchise and helped make them a legitimate contender. Webber often felt he was traded out west to be buried, and in a nice moment when the Kings retired his jersey, Webber told a cheering crowd, “You guys stood by me when the world left me for dead.”

Time forgets some wounds

How many of you remember that Webber was a Piston? For one season, 2006-07, a year they went to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to LeBron James and the Cavs. Webber had always dreamed about playing for his hometown team; it should have been a joyous and extended homecoming. But it only lasted one season. They parted ways. It was never the lovefest Webber hoped it would be.

That was a telling chapter. They say you are never a hero in your hometown. With Webber, it’s more complicated. People appreciate what he did at Michigan, but he left early, never got the brass ring, and then became embroiled in the NCAA controversy that erased the Fab Five era from the record books. Fans were angry. There were even calls to have all of Webber’s high school wins at Country Day vacated, once he admitted he’d been taking booster money since high school.

Webber’s refusal to take serious responsibility was an issue for some people. His posture with his former Michigan teammates didn’t help. When asked about them over the years he often said — as he did to ESPN — “we’ve always been communicating,” but relations with Rose, his best friend, soured and getting them all together seemed to be harder than reuniting the Beatles. Webber made cryptic comments, shifting between being hurt, open and betrayed.

In the end, so many years passed, that people stopped caring. When and if he, Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King are side by side — as is reported to happen this weekend — it will be a nice photo and a pleasant cutline. But the world isn’t waiting with baited breath. Too much time has passed.

An enigma personified

And in the end, time is what shades judgement. Webber is now 48. He recently made news when he was let go by TNT after a decade of game analysis. Critics said he talked too much about himself and his career. Whatever the reason, it was another less-than-great departure in a career that has had several.

I remember something Fisher once told me about Webber. That during coaching sessions, Chris would often respond to criticism by saying “Yeah, but…” then proceed to make a point about how it wasn’t his fault. We’ve seen him do that in interviews over the years, and as recently as the ESPN sitdown, he was pointing fingers at people whom he felt criticized him wrongfully. He’s good at playing the victim.

But Hall of Fame blazers aren’t given out for personality. Webber, for all his quirky moods and head-scratching quotes, must be recognized as one of the better big men to play his position. He was a consistent inside force, with great hands and a keen eye for passing. He torched many college and NBA rivals. He was powerful near the rim from any number of angles. And I agree with him when he laments the way bigger men were limited in their roles back when he played. Someone with his size and skills coming into the league today might be utilized differently, allowed to roam and drive and pull up more freely.

But OK. The local kid made good. That should be celebrated. There aren’t that many Detroit-born, Michigan-educated players who wind up in the Hall of Fame. It’s a big deal for Chris, for his family, for the many friends he still has in the area.

It is worth noting that Ben Wallace, the former Detroit Pistons star, will be going into the Hall as well. And even though Wallace didn’t grow up here, you could argue there is just as much positive passion for his induction as for Webber, who remains mercurial right up to the moment his career gets a gold star.

This is how he summed up his feelings about his career to ESPN:

“Isiah Thomas has a saying that there are bus drivers and people that ride the bus in the league. I was a bus driver. Didn’t do a great job and didn’t win a championship. Or I did a great job, but I didn’t win a championship. And I’d rather have my role as a bus driver than to have gone and teamed up with Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever, to win one. I’d rather be sitting here right now than to have one with him.

“Because at the end of the day, my son could say, ‘How was it with you and Tim?’ We could look at stats. I could say he was cold. But he’d go, ‘Dad, he beat you.’ I’d go, ‘Yep’.”

Honestly, I’ve read that 10 times and still don’t know what he’s trying to say. Perhaps, in the end, with Webber, that’s par for the course.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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