Webber doesn't want to 'mess up' flow

Updated: March 3, 2004, 3:31 AM ET
Associated Press

SACRAMENTO -- For the rest of the season, Chris Webber will be striving for two things he's never owned: a championship ring and a low profile.

Webber returned to the Sacramento Kings' lineup Tuesday night after knee surgery, nine months of rehabilitation and an eight-game suspension. He replaced All-Star Brad Miller in the starting lineup against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Webber hoped to slip back into the Kings' rotation quietly to avoid disturbing the team chemistry -- but he couldn't avoid attention in his season debut.

The Sacramento crowd roared during a brief video tribute to Webber before pregame introductions. When the public-address announcer began to introduce Webber, he was drowned out by cheers from the sellout crowd -- and when Webber took the court for the opening tip, the fans went crazy again.

Webber wasted no time, scoring on the Kings' first possession with a short jump-hook over two defenders. Moments later, he drove aggressively to the hole and barely missed a one-handed dunk while being fouled by Chris Kaman.

Webber wore large braces on both knees, but seemed comfortable running and jumping.

"I think it'll be a tough adjustment period," Webber said earlier. "This is the longest in my life since playing basketball that I've gone without playing -- approximately 10 months. I think one of my biggest things is to not let the crowd get me so tight that I try to dunk from half court.

"I want to use that energy to the good, not energy that you can't control."

The five-time All-Star hadn't played since last summer's playoffs, when he was injured against Dallas. He has been practicing with the Kings for nearly two months, but was suspended when the Kings activated him from the injured list after the All-Star break.

Webber led the Kings in points, rebounds and assists last season, but realizes his return could be a disruption to Sacramento's superb season. The Kings, who lead the NBA in scoring and winning percentage, seem headed for their third straight Pacific Division title -- and Webber just wants to fit in.

"I think it'll just be a good thing," Miller said. "He's a great player, and I've never played with him yet. I'm looking forward to it."

Coach Rick Adelman also must perform a delicate operation during Sacramento's final 24 regular-season games: working Webber back into the rotation without disrupting the Kings' impressive chemistry. He will monitor Webber's playing time closely.

"You don't want to get him hurt again, but you also want to get the process started where he can be as strong and as resilient as he ever was," Adelman said. "You've got to play to get to that point, and I think he'll be there before too long."

Miller, Vlade Divac, Darius Songaila and Tony Massenburg all seem likely to play fewer minutes with Webber back, while All-Star Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby almost certainly will get fewer shots. But none of the players in Sacramento's close-knit locker room would dream of complaining -- particularly because Webber is well-liked by all the Kings.

From his seat behind the bench over the past four months, Webber has seen his teammates' growing cohesion.

"I've had a chance to watch our team, and I don't want to mess up our flow," Webber said. "My main thing is for us to continue winning, not for me to come back and try to average a million points, but to stay within myself."

Webber has been mostly tightlipped on the particulars of his suspension of five games for violating the league's drug policy, and three for pleading guilty to lying to a grand jury investigating the scandal at the University of Michigan.

Michigan booster Ed Martin, who died last year, said he gave Webber and his family $280,000 over a six-year period. Webber was sentenced to community service last summer after pleading guilty to criminal contempt.

The drug ban was particularly disquieting to Kings fans who have stood behind Webber as his college troubles unraveled over the past three years. Webber only has termed the ban "disappointing" -- and he hopes his return to the court will obscure his troubles for now.

"I'm excited, but I haven't had the goosebumps, because this atmosphere is so light here, with the team making fun and making jokes," Webber said. "Butterflies are good, though, because they make you push. I know they're going to come. I just don't know when."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press