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In ESPN The Magazine's February 19 cover story, Chris Webber critiques the Kings and ponders his next move. Here's Part 2 of our exclusive excerpt, along with CWebb's preliminary shopping list of possible new teams. Click here for Part 1.
Asking Chris Webber if he plans to leave Sacramento is the wrong approach. In his mind, you can't leave a place you never intended to occupy in the first place. Even after all the positive results, Webber still considers Sacramento the place to which he was sent. If he is a King next season, it will be because he looked at the entire landscape and decided no better place existed.
He hasn't made a formal list yet, but playing in New York with his best friend, Latrell Sprewell, is enticing. Orlando, Phoenix and Houston also intrigue him. Where Sacramento sits on his scale changes from day to day, game to game, but it does not sit at the top. That spot stays empty for now.
Webber's father, Mayce, threatened to fly down from his Detroit home and have a knockdown drag-out if Chris refused to report to Sacramento after Washington traded him in '98. Mayce, who grew up picking cotton in Mississippi before working for General Motors, reminded his son that the paycheck he received every two weeks was more than the Webber family made in their entire Mississippi lives. His point: Be grateful that you get paid like this to play basketball -- anywhere.
Mayce feels vindicated, since the move to Sacramento has been so beneficial. But he won't insist that Chris stay. "He has to make his own decision," Mayce says. "I'm not 100% sure where he's going, but if I were the owners, I wouldn't get too nervous. He considers the Sacramento players his second family."
Everyone on the Kings apparently feels that way. "We're like 12 brothers who could go home after a game and live in the same house," says JWill, who, like all his teammates, looks to Webber in every possible way -- on and off the court.
It's about 90 minutes before a recent game in Dallas, and Webber sits at his locker facing the room. Williams and Vlade Divac are joking about a 12-year-old kid in a suit who's just appeared on the locker room TV. The kid bears a striking resemblance to backup guard Darrick Martin, who hears this sort of thing often. The three bring it before Webber, who will pass judgment on where the blame falls so Martin can return the jab.
Williams: "Vlade said, 'Who's that look like?'"
Divac: "Okay, but you were thinking it too."
All three look to CWebb for his verdict. With a smile and a glance he lets Martin know that both are guilty of capping on Martin.
This is why Divac says the Kings are the "Comedy Channel." In several languages. Lawrence Funderburke is a Bible thumper. JWill is constantly cracking wise in his West Virginia drawl while wearing a cloth bracelet in games that says, "I Hate You." Euro imports Peja Stojakovic and Hidayet Turkoglu look like the NBA's version of SNL's old wild and crazy guys. Their presence has made broken English a second language, thrown around the way playground slang is elsewhere. "All time, shoot more!" says Divac, in purposely fractured English, after Webber buries a couple of jumpers against the Mavericks.
No star has more fun bolstering his teammates' confidence than Webber. When he sets a pick for Peja to launch a three, and the defenders don't react quickly enough, he'll yell "too late!" as the ball leaves Peja's hand. CWebb answered Scot Pollard's complaint that he wasn't being demonstrative enough by throwing down one dunk against the Mavs and high-stepping through the paint like a drum major, then throwing down a second and flexing like Hulk Hogan.
His confidence is also contagious. In a home game against the Celtics, CWebb went to the bench with foul trouble and a six-point lead. By the end of the period, the Kings were behind by two. Vlade, JWill, Stojakovic, Pollard and Turkoglu hung their heads as they returned to the bench, but CWebb flashed a confident smile and gave dap to each of them. The Kings recovered for a 111-106 win. "Personality that magnetic is hard to find," says Kings guard Doug Christie. "You can replace talent, but you can't find a guy who leads in more ways than one."
Never was that more evident than after their Jan. 20 road win over the Blazers on national TV. It was the biggest regular-season victory in Kings history, putting them atop the Pacific Division and offering evidence they have the grit to roll with the Lakers, Blazers and Spurs. When Peja knocked down a crucial late-game jumper while being fouled by Steve Smith, CWebb shouted, "That's why you're The Roller! The European Roller!" And when CWebb iced the game by putting back a missed free throw by Turkoglu, he credited Divac for charging into the lane and distracting Rasheed Wallace from boxing him out. "Vlade let me know in half-English, half-Serbian, what he was going to do," Webber says.
Nick Anderson, averaging all of eight minutes a game this season, prides himself on giving CWebb a double pound before every game and telling him, "There's no one in this building who can check you." CWebb's pregame embrace with Funderburke is so routine that even when Funderburke wasn't with the team in Houston, CWebb hugged the air where Funderburke would have stood. "What's amazing is he brings it every night, puts up the numbers he does and doesn't have a selfish bone in his body," says Martin.
All this comes with a price. Webber is more than the 27 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists he puts up each night. He's not only the cornerstone, he's also the mortar. So when CWebb leaves a franchise, it's as if the life force has been sucked out of it. The Warriors are still reeling from dealing him to the Wizards, just as the Wizards have been dead men walking since shipping him to Sacto.
Oddly enough, it is the Kings' closeness, the lack of friction between the players, that may push Webber away from this team, too. "This is a team I would love to play against -- and I don't like that," Webber says. "I don't like the playfulness, the softness about us. We don't have that swagger. I feel like we're a prep school, and everybody else is a public school."
He made that clear to Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof before the season started, warning them that some players would return out of shape, satisfied with having pushed the Lakers to five games in the first round last year. Webb prefers being the good cop, encouraging teammates and leaving it to the coach to crack the whip.
But coach Rick Adelman isn't a taskmaster, and no one else on the team has the power or personality to pull it off. Webber, reluctantly, has taken up the role. The Kings were practicing the day after a home loss to the 76ers when Pollard checked in for Divac during an intrasquad game. Webber noticed that Divac wasn't looking to get back into the scrimmage and let him have it. Losses eat at CWebb; he believes they should so affect everyone.
"When you're having so much fun, you may not pay as much attention to detail as other teams," he says. "If I retire and lose, I know the first thing I'll think of is, 'Man, I was having too much fun.' And I can have fun after practice."***
Geoff Petrie, the Kings' VP of basketball operations, gambled when he sent Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe to Washington to acquire Webber, who immediately asked to be moved elsewhere and then promised he wouldn't stay a second longer than his contract required. Petrie won the first part of his gamble -- getting Webber to be productive -- by making him the main attraction of an up-tempo team that features passing flair, shooting prowess and personalities that appeal to all levels. They're an international conglomerate with Turkey's Turkoglu and Yugoslavs Stojakovic and Divac. They're consummate showmen, with JWill's rule-bending, defense-shredding passes, Peja's dead eye from long range and CWebb's one-hand reverse dunks and deft finger-roll finishes.
Petrie figures that because of the franchise's face-lift, the deal will have been worth it even if CWebb leaves. But he knows what he'd be missing. Webber will thread bounce passes through such tight spaces that the ball will sometimes bounce off the hands of a teammate, stunned by its arrival. He's the only King who is routinely doubled in the low post, creating space for all those talented shooters. And he's the team's only true shotblocker.
"It's like dominoes leaning on each other," says Divac. "Pull him out and the rest fall."
People no longer dwell on what Webber doesn't do, especially since that list is so much shorter now. Don Nelson and Wizards GM Wes Unseld, accomplished NBA toughs, saw the sculpted 245 pounds on that 6'10" frame, the 7'6" wingspan, and wanted him to punish people. What they didn't understand is that Webber envisioned himself more as Magic than Moses.
Webber's offensive game has also grown dramatically. He can still recall telling himself as a Warriors rookie, "You have no offensive skills whatsoever," and seeing a Phoenix scouting report that read: "Dunks, makes layups, give him the jumper, might make a jump hook." Webber will post up hard now when it's absolutely necessary (against the Blazers) or particularly enjoyable (torturing insolent Dookie Christian Laettner), but he prefers operating from the high post, where he can utilize his passing skills, improved midrange jumper and face-up moves off the dribble. He's still not a defensive banger, but he works hard on D, and uses his long reach to deflect passes and block shots.
"When people have talent, we always want something more than they are doing," Adelman says. "We've just tried to let him do what he does." That's been enough to turn the Kings into a playoff team the past two seasons. They have a nice blend of talent that should finally get them past the first round, but don't expect a ring this season -- the art of winning a seven-game series usually takes several tries to master. Then again, no team is better stocked with young talent. Yes, the question remains whether JWill can evolve into a championship-caliber point guard. And Peja or Turkoglu has to become a perimeter go-to guy. But only Divac in the eight-man rotation is past his prime. If Webber is looking for a team with a shot at the title, he could do a lot worse.
Webber won't take a wait-and-see approach, as Tim Duncan is doing in San Antonio. Having yet to meld his identity with a particular franchise, he wants to sign the maximum seven-year deal and make the next stop his last. "I've given my all, but I don't know if I've given that extra mile because I always knew my time was going to be up," Webber says. "I want my name to be up there among the best players. Michael Jordan said I was in an interview once, but the world doesn't know it. I want that ... that ... "
"That's the word."
This article appears in the February 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine, along with CWebb's preliminary shopping list of potential new teams. To return to Part 1, click here.