Webber's return to Warriors holds fair share of intrigue
OAKLAND, Calif. -- He still looks terrific in a suit. Say that for Chris Webber. The man who took over the interview room at the Oracle Arena on Friday evening could have walked right out of a GQ ad. Instead, Webber walked, nicely coiffed, into a fair mass of uncertainty.
It was uncertain, for example, exactly what prompted the soon-to-be 35-year-old into a delayed reunion with Warriors coach Don Nelson. Webber doesn't need the money; he has plenty of other business and personal interests; and the Warriors, with or without Webber, do not constitute the deepest threat in the Western Conference in this NBA season. No ring in sight, now that we mention it.
Or, as Nelson himself said when asked about the Lakers' pickup of Pau Gasol earlier in the day, "That's a big-time move there, huh? I don't think we're gonna top that one."
Chris Webber won't do it, but let's not confuse that for a transaction that went absent buzz. Far from it: Webber's return to Nelson and the Warriors, nearly a decade and a half after the coach and his temperamental rookie star engaged in a bitter public feud that many believe ripped the Golden State franchise apart, is nothing if not infused with a little edgy energy.
Nelson and Webber have played nice recently, and they did so again in separate interviews Friday. The reasons are obvious enough: Nelson covets Webber's ability to make the right pass at the right time from the high post, and Webber isn't looking for a fight at the far edge of his career.
"I know his style of play," Webber said of Nelson. "I know his philosophy, and I like that kind of philosophy where everybody touches the ball and you have cutters, people moving ... I just thought it would be a perfect fit."
And as for his return?
"I just love the game," he said. "And I think people say, 'Well, your knee is hurt, and if you can't play at this level, you shouldn't play.' But I love the game. That's the only reason I'm back. I just love to play."
Still, there is nothing about either Webber or Nelson that suggests a long-term complacence. Either man is a handful by himself: Nelson spent the offseason haggling with Warriors ownership over an upgrade to his contract; Webber, after being shaken by the funeral last summer of longtime friend Mateen Cleaves' mother, believed he was done with pro basketball forever, only to find by January that his need to play had returned full force.
And Webber didn't even make it to Friday's starting line unscathed. Detroit, the team for which he played last season, essentially declined to find a way to include Webber this season. Then, even as Webber, Nelson and Warriors GM Chris Mullin began the dance that led to Webber's signing for the rest of the season, former Philadelphia and current Indiana coach Jim O'Brien unloaded on Webber for his behavior in the 2004-05 season with the Sixers.
O'Brien told reporters two weeks ago that Webber refused to play the role the Sixers were trying to fill when they traded for him in February of 2005, saying that Webber told him, "Coach, I don't do the low-post thing anymore." O'Brien, who was fired after that season, also said Webber essentially wasn't interested in practicing or running the coach's system, adding, "It became very apparent he wasn't going to give the 76ers everything we had hoped for."
I just love the game. And I think people say, 'Well, your knee is hurt, and if you can't play at this level, you shouldn't play.' But I love the game. That's the only reason I'm back. I just love to play.
--Chris Webber, on returning to the Warriors
On Friday, Webber, who had undergone microfracture surgery on his left knee after injuring it in the 2003 playoffs with Sacramento, considered those words as he sat in an empty room just off the Warriors' locker area. Finally, he shook his head.
"You know, he hasn't been in the league as long as I have, and a lot of players called, and we talked about what the truth was," Webber said. "That language is not even mine. I don't even speak like, 'That's not my thing.' Nobody says that.
"That next year [after O'Brien was fired], Allen Iverson and I were the No. 1 scoring duo in the league -- and that was coming off of surgery. So when he talks about practice, maybe it was because my knee was the size of a ball, you know what I mean? He can say whatever he wants. People can think whatever they want. But that is a 100 percent lie."
Webber delivered the words with a smile, the same smile that graces most of his photographs and makes him look so sharp in his suits. But he also is savvy enough to know that the doubts about his ability to go along and get along will accompany him through the rest of this season with the Warriors, and that's just for starters.
The doubts were there on Friday, even as the Warriors did their best to give Webber a solid greeting upon his official return to the arena where he began his career. Rather than introduce Webber by himself, the team included his return as part of a split-screen, mirror-ball highlight package on the video board that featured Charlotte's Jason Richardson, the longtime former Warriors player whose presence at this game prompted a huge standing ovation.
Still, when Webber was introduced at the far end of that ovation, a smattering of boos could be clearly heard from the Oracle crowd -- not a majority, not particularly overwhelming, but evident all the same. Webber, standing just off the court, wearing his suit, smiled that smile that indicated he had heard both the applause and the catcalls. Back in Oakland, back with Don Nelson -- situation normal. Or as normal as it's going to get.
Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Six Good Innings", about one American town's ability to consistently produce Little League champions, will be released in July 2008. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he can be reached at email@example.com.