In March 1993, a young Chris Webber sat on the set of Detroit Black Journal for an interview with Cliff Russell (video), then an analyst/commentator for Michigan Wolverines basketball.
At that point, Webber was still just a sophomore untainted by the infamous timeout and later controversy that led to Michigan having to forfeit all of the Fab Five's wins. As he would say often in later interviews, he was still just enjoying life as a college kid and doing things that many of us would find familiar from our own college days; in the midst of "the best time of his life", Webber wasn't committed to making the leap to the NBA just yet, citing the difference between being a student athlete and professional athlete as a primary reason around the 17:00 minute mark of the DBJ video.
Not to be deterred by Webber's somewhat evasive answer about going pro, Russell asked about what would factor into his decision and noted the looming possibility of a NBA rookie salary cap, a point that was hardly lost on Webber - he was clearly aware of the value of his budding superstar brand, if not due to his experience with how the University of Michigan had made money off his success then simply because he was an "articulate, bright young man" - as Russell put it - in contrast to the brash bad guy reputation that he had gained from his on-court demeanor.
Or maybe it was just a matter of simple math, as Webber succinctly described with his trademark smile.
It's a big difference between 100 dollars and 2 dollars. I don't want to make the minimum in the league so that will definitely come into effect.
Of course, the rookie salary cap that Russell mentioned eventually came to fruition: by the time Webber would have graduated, the NBA established a rookie salary cap after fellow Big Ten alumnus Glenn Robinson signed a 10-year, $68 million rookie contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1994. While Robinson's contract was the most lucrative rookie contract ever on a yearly basis, Webber's 1993 contract with the Golden State Warriors was longer and included a clause that gave him far more power as a superstar rookie: an opt-out clause after his first season.
Jalen Rose Interviews Chris Webber Part on the Best Damn Sports Show Period (via JalenTV)
- - -
Russell's interview was less about basketball than the role of the black athlete in society, for which Webber was at once a glaring example of NCAA hypocrisy as a member of the Fab Five, the media's tendency to cast black athletes in a rather limited light, a signifier of the street ball game coming face-to-face with the "purity" of Indiana basketball and the tension of being young, black, gifted and middle class in a society that was still trying to understand its own decadent history of race relations. And of course, he was a superstar - as big a college superstar as there had ever been at that time on a team that had quickly attained superstar status, which even the most talented championship teams in subsequent years have failed to achieve.
We sometimes forget that although we're quick to put college athletes on superstar pedestals, they're still college kids. Webber, whether by choice or force of consciousness from the social dynamics of the world around him after a prep school education, carried the additional burden of shouldering the weight of all the pressures Russell was teasing out in his interview that were also described at further length in ESPN's Fab Five documentary just last year.
The tension for Webber was that although he accepted that responsibility, it was never clear that he was fully comfortable with it or at least still trying to digest it at the time of his 1993 interview.
Truthfully, I want to say I'm definitely not leaving but nothing's ever concrete. So as of now, no I'm not leaving - I enjoy college, you know I would love the money, but if God's protected me this long I'm not scared of injury for another year. And plus I'm just enjoying myself - I really don't want a lot of responsibility on me now. I want to be able to go to parties and hang out, not have to worry, not have to play 82 games in a couple of months like that, not get burned out. So I'm enjoying myself. I definitely do- I am thinking about it, but for now I'm staying. My parents just let me make whatever decision I want to make.
Jason Whitlock, who was then covering Webber at Michigan for the Ann Arbor News, wrote that, "Chris Webber was never comfortable being Chris Webber." And regardless of whether you buy that from what you know of C-Webb, it's a theme that comes out repeatedly from that 1993 interview to his own descriptions of that infamous timeout against North Carolina to that interview years later on the Best Damn Sports Show Period with Jalen Rose, who Whitlock wrote that Webber idolized. It seemed that Webber wanted to be one of the guys - and he quite literally was in choosing to go to Michigan with a long-time friend and another guy, Juwon Howard, who he was familiar with - but circumstances, whether bad decisions, bad timing, or just bad luck - seemed to repeatedly place him at the center of a storm.
- - -
Bill Simmons once wrote that, "Of all the potentially great careers that were squandered or affected in the '90s because young players were given too much money and power too soon...Webber remains the biggest casualty."
As Simmons describes, it's not as if Webber was a bad player, but that ultimately his legacy is that he never seized the opportunities that could have defined his legacy. And you could easily argue, as Simmons did, that it all began with his decision to leave Golden State Warriors, the resulting casualty of the biggest casualty of young players being given too much power too soon.
As much as Webber might have "idolized" guys like Jalen Rose, Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas - both for his work in black communities and his performance on the court - or even fellow Michigan native Magic Johnson, it also seemed like there was a longing to play with one of those guys more than basking in his own superstar spotlight alone.
The Warriors, as Simmons suggested in his article, actually offered a near perfect balance of a platform waiting for a superstar of Webber's stature yet not stranding that superstar alone on his pedestal. And while Webber seemed almost singularly focused on the thought of playing with a local hero, Russell - who began his college basketball career at UTEP playing for Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins - also saw the fit in playing for the Warriors.
CW: I don't want to go to Dallas...I'll tell you, one thing for me - I can say this now because maybe I don't have any money - I think when you're at that level, as long as you're making great money like that, I think the next important thing is winning. Definitely the teams I want to play for, maybe a young team or I would love to play for a great point guard like Isiah Thomas or an Isiah Thomas or...
CR: I could just imagine Zeke or Tim Hardaway or someone tricking everybody and then gettin' you the ball on the break.
CW: Oh definitely. Definitely. I would definitely love that. Or just to play with some great marquee players.
Russell's vision came true on draft day, with the Warriors trading Penny Hardaway, the third pick in the 1993 draft, and three draft picks (1996, 1998, and 2000) to the Orlando Magic for the rights for #1 pick Chris Webber.
Hardaway, Webber, and coach Don Nelson, seemed like a brilliant fit albeit one that made Webber-the-reluctant-superstar a centerpiece for a franchise that had been looking for a big man since the disastrous trade of Robert Parrish and the pick that became Kevin McHale for a first pick squandered on Joe Barry Carroll.
Webber seemed to complete a roster that might fall short of contending in the short term but was young, talented, and seemed to embody everything that a guy like Nelson would want. With Hardaway injured for the entirety of Webber's rookie season, the Warriors still had a roster that included budding All-Star Latrell Sprewell and future Hall of Famer Chris Mullin. Tyrone Hill, Sarunas Marciulonis and Billy Owens, the protaganist in another disappointing Warriors move, were role players that would fill out a roster that looked even better on draft day than it had looked during the Run TMC years.
The promise of ending that search for a big man and becoming a perennial playoff team in the Western Conference was what made Webber's presence so significant for fans; the conflict of a seemingly reluctant superstar who was headstrong enough not to be pushed around and being the prototypical Nellieball big man that Billy Owens wasn't for a coach whose style was borrowed from Red Auerbach is what ultimately ruined it.
Warriors fans are generally aware of what happened next, but since the details often get lost in the emotions of the situation, a brief recap:
- Ric Bucher of ESPN described how even before signing Webber, Nelson informed him he'd be playing center instead of around the perimeter. "He wanted to be Magic Johnson," recalls Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, another Nelson assistant at the time. "We wanted him to be more like Karl Malone."
- Steve Kettman of Slam Online told the story of how Webber eventually gained sway in the Warriors' locker room and the tension came to a head during a game on February 9, 1994 against the Charlotte Hornets when Nelson pulled Webber after a flashy pass. Webber eventually asked out, threatening to use his opt-out clause.
- Marc Stein of ESPN has reported that after recognizing that he was losing this battle, Nelson wanted out to take a position with former assistant Gregg Poppovich who became the GM of the San Antonio Spurs on May 31, 1994. Owner Jim Fitzgerald wouldn't let Nelson out of his contract because incoming owner Chris Cohan wanted him to be the coach moving forward. Cohan's insistence on keeping Nelson led to the trade of Webber.
- Nelson, of course, left the Warriors during that same 1994-95 season after a 14-31 start.
Kettman describes those events as leaving, "...the dreams of a Warrior ascendancy...in wreckage, and the careers of both Nelson and Webber took major hit."
After the Webber fiasco, the Warriors didn't make the playoffs again until Don Nelson and another dynamic point guard, Baron Davis, catalyzed the We Believe run. Although some might typically attribute the nice guy movement to the Sprewell incident, it could be traced just as much to Webber - the Warriors drafted Joe Smith first overall in the 1995 NBA draft, who was the anti-C-Webb both in attitude and style of play.
Adding insult to injury, the Warriors would trade Webber to the Washington Bullets for Tom Gugliotta and the rights to draft picks in the same three years that they lost from the original Webber trade. Gugliotta had the worst year of his career with the Warriors before being traded straight up for Donyell Marshall. Unable to ever find a star who could even match Webber's superstar status as a collegiate player, the Warriors hit rock bottom at the turn of the century, failing to win more than 21 games in a season from 1997-2002.
Ultimately, Webber did define whatever Warriors "legacy" you might say he has by his decision to force his departure: up until 2007, long-time Warriors fans either looked back upon the dream of that 1993-94 team fondly or saw it as the last time the team was any good at all. Even now, we can probably say that the moments before Nelson informed Webber that he'd be playing him as a center were probably the last time that the Warriors were poised for any sort of sustainable success in the last 20 years since Nelson broke up Run TMC for the possibilities that Owens seemed to offer.
- - -
Webber might end up being among the best players* discussed on SB Nation's Disappointment Day - most of the others are players who would be widely considered busts or players that never reached their potential (including Warriors draftee Anthony Randolph). And the Warriors franchise has been a revolving door of busts over the last 30 years, no matter how you define that.
Yet regardless of the extent to which Webber was an underachiever, he is arguably the most disappointing figure in Warriors history because his arrival simultaneously brought extraordinarily high expectations for a fanbase that was looking for a jolt even then and set off a whirlwind chain of events over the course of a year that crippled the franchise long after both he and Nelson departed.
The downturn unquestionably began with the Warriors mortgaging their future for a college superstar who admittedly and understandably was reluctant to trade in the freedom of campus life for the responsibility of a professional star, but was well aware of the respect that a lucrative pro contract would grant him and demanded every bit of it.
Yet the Cohan era that dawned as Webber's Warriors career gradually came to an end brought years of ineptitude; for a time, they were more somnambulant than on the treadmill of mediocrity, if they were capable of walking at all. Compounding that was that Warriors fans witnessed the fragments of that Warriors dream land elsewhere to the benefits of others while their franchise hit bottom - coincidentally, Hardaway, Nelson, and Webber all defined their legacies as the Warriors found themselves lost in an abyss of futility.
Nelson - whose Hall of Fame induction ceremony is coincidentally tomorrow - found success again with the Dallas Mavericks, teaming young stars Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki in what Tom Ziller has called, "...a resurrection of of his old Golden State philosophy." Nelson eventually found redemption with the We Believe Warriors, bringing the Golden State philosophy back to where it was spawned. Tim Hardaway's glory years, though never quite as spectacular as they might have been prior to the injuries that robbed him of the "UTEP two-step", came with the Miami Heat as he played a key role as a more mature player in the iconic Heat-Knicks rivalry of the late-90's.
Webber, of course, found his home with the Sacramento Kings. He became a perennial All-Star with an organization that figured out how to productively utilize his skillset in an offense predicated on movement, speed, and Webber dominating from the high post of Pete Carrill's Princeton offense.
Hardaway and Nelson eventually managed to define their legacies on the court, even if the road there was bumpy. Webber will always be seen as "a great, but tainted player" to NBA fans, as Dr. L.I.C. described in Free Darko's Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. The Kings never actually won a title despite coming close in 2002. But Webber said in his 1993 interview, on just his 20th birthday, that nobody "...deserves as much credit or criticism as the media gives them" and those words could probably end up being the mantra for his career or at least a pre-emptive defense of what was to come.
The timeout against North Carolina was the signature moment of his collegiate career, almost eclipsing the Fab Five's success before NCAA sanctions did, yet not the sole reason they never won a championship. How much blame should be attributed to Cohan, Nelson, or Webber himself is still not entirely clear to anyone but those involved in those conversations, though Webber's career with the Warriors was short-circuited as a result and the consequence of that led to exponentially worse disappointment. Webber has always taken criticism for not being the superstar that could take the Kings to the top, though the entire team - except Mike Bibby - seemed to fold in crunch time.
But what's most disappointing about Webber as a figure in Warriors history is that his personal legacy - even if the legacy itself is his inability to truly cement his own legacy - has little to do with the franchise while the franchise's extended futility was essentially defined, or at least catalyzed, by his departure. He was a bigger star leaving college than most of his Warriors teammates, even the point guard who fellow UTEP alum Russell thought would make a great fit, and the franchise crumbled in the vacuum he left. What's worse is that we never got to see what he, Hardaway, and Nelson could've done together though we had a brief preview of how good that could've been; Webber and his personality would've the centerpiece of a group of stars, seemingly perfect for him, had things worked out.
It's a Warriors legacy that, perhaps moreso than his career, is painfully incomplete.
Webber loves basketball. You hear it in his voice as an analyst now. You even heard it in his voice during his brief stint as a WNBA commentator for the Sacramento Monarchs. You hear it on his 20th birthday when he recounted the story of Lloyd Daniels in response to a caller who was hoping to resurrect his dreams of following Webber's footsteps to Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, that passion to just play ball with his guys was complicated by some combination of having more responsibility than he wanted too soon, his clashes with Don Nelson, and his inability to come up big in big moments.
But as much as Webber was never comfortable being Webber, that he never got comfortable with the Warriors is one of the most disappointing things in franchise history.
* Fear the Sword understandably chose LeBron James. So we don't even win the title of having the most talented disappointing player.