It’s the spring of 1993, and after watching Michigan takeover college basketball for the past two years, they have become somewhat of a phenomenon. The Wolverines have made back-to-back Final Four appearances but lost both times in the national title game. And yet, their swagger, confidence and tantalizing play on the basketball court are clearly evident and also quite intriguing to those from the outside looking in.
Basketball fans from around the world look at this team and have one of two reactions:
I. They hate these seemingly arrogant jerks
II. They want to emulate their games
Michigan basketball is now all about trash talk, behind the back passes and dunking on your opponent and letting him know about it. We might not know it then, but after a few years, we can see the parallels between this basketball program and the Miami football program (you know, the one they call The U) that slowly took shape in the 1980’s.
At the center of it all though is one extremely gifted prospect; a player that comes perhaps once in a generation: Chris Webber.
Although some people might not want to admit it because of their attitudes and vastly different backgrounds, Chris Webber and Bill Walton share a lot of similarities on the basketball court.
Indeed, Webber was a talented big man that could dominate just about any collegiate frontline with his scoring, passing, shot blocking and superior post play. Have a look at the star’s college production:
Needless to say, once Webber made it known that he would be part of the 1993 NBA Draft, general managers started salivating at the idea of possibly drafting the star power forward that could also play center every now and then.
He was a great college player, but playing in the NBA where zones were outlawed and teams pushed the pace, he would become not only a star, but a player around whom you built your team.
Chris Webber would challenge the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp for years to come. Indeed, his combination of ball handling skills, great hands, quickness, strength, footwork, athleticism and the reckless abandon with which he attacked the rim would make him one of the NBA’s greats.
The Orlando Magic were fortunate enough to win the draft lottery (they had won it the year prior as well and drafted Shaquille O’Neal) and thus had the first overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft. They drafted Chris Webber out of Michigan first overall and then decided to get creative. Instead of building a team with perhaps the best frontcourt in the league, the Magic chose to address a need and traded Webber for Anfernee Hardaway (who was selected third overall by the Golden State Warriors in the same draft) and multiple draft picks.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that Orlando should have held on to Webber given the damage that both he and O’Neal would have done on opposing teams. And yet, keeping him also made tons of sense from another perspective.
Chris Webber was a basketball star that people tuned in to watch in college because of his vast talent but also because of the highlights and new trends that his team brought along. The Wolverines wore the baggy shorts, the black sox and were in a way associated to hip hop music.
Hence, having Webber play alongside Shaquille O’Neal would have been a huge publicity stunt that would have gotten fans to follow the Magic. This would almost have been like Tupac and Snoop Dogg in the mid 1990’s joining the Los Angeles Lakers. Indeed, both individuals represented the west coast and were bridges to a new cultural era in both sports and music.
Webber in Orlando would not only have made sense from a basketball standpoint, but it would have made sense for his brand. Picture him and the Diesel collaborating with Fu-Shnickens and also both starring in movies. With Michael Jordan retiring later that year, that Magic team could have possibly been major players in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, Webber was gift wrapped to the Golden State Warriors who saw the gem that he was as a player. The Dubs gave him a $1.6 million contract and hoped that he would bring the team back to its glory days.
C-Webb’s numbers in his rookie season:
Solid numbers across the board, but they fail to capture one key component of Webber’s game: he was a showstopper.
Prior to Chris Webber, few people had ever seen a big man catch the ball in the paint and go up for a reverse two-handed dunk in traffic. He was fearless with the ball in his hands; throwing behind the back passes in congested areas, taking off from too far away from the basket with big men waiting for him at the rim, challenging the attempts of dunkers coming at him full steam and dribbling the ball between his legs to set up moves on his defenders.
Consequently, putting a talent like Webber on the same team as Latrell Sprewell and Chris Mullin meant that fans in the Bay area would get a lot of highlights, a lot of points (107.9 points per game that season, second best in the league) and a good basketball team.
The 1993-94 Golden State Warriors went 50-32 and made the playoffs; where they were swept in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. Despite the elimination, the team showed promise and the former Michigan Wolverine more than held his own in postseason play as evidenced by his 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game on 55 percent field goal shooting.
This Warriors team was going to be a problem for years to come for its Western Conference foes, but then the other shoe dropped (in chick flicks, this would be the part where the “nice good looking guy” gets kicked to the curb and rain starts to pour on him as he tries to figure out where things went wrong).
Chris Webber was not a fan of head coach Don Nelson. And that’s putting it lightly.
Therefore he threatened to opt out of his contract. Yes, a rookie had an opt out clause in his first ever NBA contract and somehow David Kahn wasn’t involved. By the way, hearing Webber interrupt Kahn as he compares Darko Milicic to both him and Vlade Divac is still classic television (go to 2:40 mark of video and enjoy).
With the franchise feeling the pressure of losing their star forward for nothing, they traded him to the Washington Bullets.
Fast forward to today, some would argue that Webber underachieved during his professional basketball career, but he was still at one point one of the best power forwards in a league that was home to Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace.
His all around play helped him make five straights All-NBA teams (first team once, second team three times and third team once) from 1998 to 2003 and also pushed the back-to-back defending champions to seven games, when they faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
For all of his talents though, the biggest knock on the former Warrior was that he could carry his teams for 44 minutes, but then faded down the stretch of games. On a Dubs team that featured a feared rim attacker like Latrell Sprewell and a long range sniper in Chris Mullin, maybe, just maybe Golden State could have figured out how to maximize his talents.
Granted, the team would have needed to add other talented players to make the team a great one, but the core was there to start with.
The irony of it all was that Chris Webber was probably the big man that Don Nelson had always coveted: he dribbled, passed, ran the floor and played in both the high and low post, and did it well.
Clearly the man had his reasons for leaving, nonetheless, it’s only natural for Warriors fans to feel a little cheated.
Typically, only great players give fans those feelings, and Webber was one of them.