SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When Chris Webber was traded to the Sacramento Kings nearly 11 years ago, the former No. 1 draft pick initially had no intention of ever playing for that scruffy franchise out in some remote part of California.
The ex-NBA rookie of the year certainly never imagined the best times of his life would occur in drafty old Arco Arena with a patchwork collection of teammates who somehow played sublime basketball together. The mere idea of seeing his No. 4 jersey in Arco's rafters some day would have been the most improbable thought of all.
Yet that's exactly where Webber ended up Friday night when the Kings retired their former power forward's number in recognition of his pivotal role in this long-struggling franchise's greatest years.
"I'm just happy, humbled, excited -- having every emotion you can think of, including a stomach that's tied up in knots," said Webber, who didn't betray any of those nerves in his gray three-button suit and bright-red tie with matching pocket square. "This was a really unexpected honor, one that I never expected to receive."
Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, Scot Pollard and Mateen Cleaves were among the former teammates who returned to Sacramento for Webber's ceremony. Gary Payton, Webber's partner in the former stars' promising new careers as television analysts, and Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson also were in attendance.
"Those memories of mine, the best moments that I've had in my life, they were here," said Webber, who made four All-Star teams and led the Kings to within an overtime Game 7 loss of the NBA finals in 2002.
Webber got a two-minute standing ovation and raucous chants of "C-Webb! C-Webb!" when he stepped to center court under a spotlight at halftime. The current Kings, including former Webber teammates Brad Miller and Bobby Jackson, sneaked onto the court to watch the ceremony during the 23-minute halftime, with Kevin Martin lounging across the scorers' table.
"When I came here at the beginning, I really didn't know what to expect," Webber told the crowd. "It was because of you guys that this worked. ... I'm thankful that God brought me to Sacramento and let me be a King. You guys stood by me when the world left me for dead. I will always remember that."
After Kings owner Gavin Maloof asked Webber to represent the woeful Kings at the draft lottery in three months, Webber hugged and rubbed the banner bearing his jersey's likeness before it was raised to the rafters.
"You made me a better player," said Divac, whose No. 21 will be hung alongside Webber's jersey next month. "You made all of us a better player. I played basketball for 20-plus years. My six years with the Kings and with you were the best."
Guard Mitch Richmond, who was traded to Washington in that 1998 deal for Webber, is the only other player from the franchise's Sacramento era whose jersey hangs alongside the numbers of Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald and four others in a club history that dates back to the Rochester Royals, one of the NBA's original teams.
With his versatile offensive game, exceptional passing and charismatic leadership, Webber was at the center of the franchise's longest sustained run of success during his 6½ seasons. Sacramento had eight straight winning seasons overall, including a club-record 61 victories in 2001-02 and back-to-back Pacific Division championships -- still the only title banners hanging across from those retired numbers in the Arco Arena rafters.
"Now, I'm officially a part of the family forever," Webber said. "If there's anything I'm proud of, I'm glad that I helped put Sacramento on the map."
Webber's initial reluctance to join the Kings was erased by a talk with his father, who also attended Friday's ceremony along with almost every member of Webber's extended family. Webber still wasn't sure about Sacramento until his first practice, when point guard Jason Williams whipped a sublime behind-the-back pass to him for a dunk.
Once Webber realized the possibilities of playing for coach Rick Adelman with a roster of young talent assembled by executive Geoff Petrie, he quickly grew to appreciate the chance he'd been handed early in an NBA career that wasn't really going anywhere.
Although the Kings traded Webber in 2005 to get out from under the onerous contract he signed four years earlier, Webber is long past the "hurt and pain" of Petrie's decision -- particularly given the $123 million he made from the deal.
"The day we traded Chris, I said that the memories remain the property of the Sacramento Kings," said Petrie, the executive who built and dismantled the Kings' best teams. "That's especially true today."
Although he's just 35, an age when many NBA stars are still going strong, his perpetually unsound right knee finished off his career last year after a halfhearted comeback attempt with the Golden State Warriors. Webber still has a residence and a popular restaurant in Sacramento, and he visits the central Valley regularly.
Although Webber seems happy with his new career as a provocative television analyst, he acknowledges he'll never be fully satisfied with his playing exploits, even with his name hanging forever in Arco's rafters.
When asked to rank the importance of his jersey retirement, Webber said: "I wish I could say second to a championship. It's definitely the biggest honor that I've received in my basketball career. ... I can't lie and say [not winning a championship] isn't something that I think about. It's something that I always will want, and I'm disappointed we couldn't give it to the people."