Chris Webber never won an NBA championship or NCAA title or even had an Olympic gold medal draped around his neck during the height of American basketball dominance.
His entrance into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame can’t be measured by accomplishments, even though there are plenty. Webber’s game had to be fully appreciated in person, armed with a transcendent set of gifts that hadn’t been seen before or possibly since.
Isiah Thomas walked into a suburban Detroit gym to see a high school prodigy he’d known about and later mentored. But there’s a difference between seeing a ballplayer at Detroit Country Day beat up on teenagers and doing it against men in their 30s, champions.
Enter Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer on a court in Ann Arbor when Webber was a freshman at the University of Michigan, before the Fab Five became famous.
“We’re riding back and Laimbeer goes, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Thomas told Yahoo Sports with his trademark laugh. “ ‘That f***ing Chris Webber. He’s strong, I couldn’t do anything with him. And I was really f***ing trying.’ ”
Thomas calls Webber “No. 44” — Webber’s number in high school. Thomas often took his teammates to games during off nights, and since he was well-connected in the city, he was well aware of Webber.
“Snatching it off the glass, bringing it up the court, no-look passes and dunking on people,” Thomas said. “OK, Magic [Johnson] was doing it at 6-foot-9 in the pros. Everybody was trying to do it like Magic. But Chris Webber was doing it in high school and then college.”
Thomas and Johnson each ran summer camps that brought out all the best high school talent, which the likes of Webber, Jalen Rose, Derrick Coleman and Steve Smith — among others, attended.
But Thomas is clear about who the best homegrown talent is, out of a talent-rich city.
“He’s the crown jewel out of Detroit,” he said of Webber, without hesitation.
Plenty of guys can claim to be the best of their respective hometown, and many have flights of fancy, tales of playing like Magic Johnson in their heyday. But Webber was the prototype for a position in a changing league, belonging to the future, as much as the past, as much as the present.
“You have to remember, I’m a Bad Boys baby. The Bad Boys won in ’89, I was in high school,” Webber said Friday at the Hall of Fame news conference. “The reason why I would go out to different arenas and walk in the middle of the court and go like that (waving his arms to incite the crowd) on the road is because of Bill Laimbeer. Kevin McHale, him and would battle so much, I would take their strength.”
He wore a scowl on the floor, but could flash a charismatic smile off it. He was the face of a so-called scandal that resulted in Michigan removing the banners from Webber’s time and instituting a 10-year ban — giving Webber’s detractors ammunition and perhaps, the reason for his eight-year wait before enshrinement.
“This is how they have treated Detroit, not just us as players who represented the city, but the city itself and still today,” Thomas said. “When they say Detroit vs. Everybody. That’s some real [stuff]. We’ll just say it’s not fair.”
He’s one of the few who played against Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Larry Bird (Bird, in a famous Dream Team scrimmage, raved about Webber), while also competing against the LeBron James era of today.
Webber was old-school Motown and Big Sean, with hands like mitts, exceptional court vision and creativity, a refined post game and could play light on his feet like a swingman. It sounds like he’s Paul Bunyan, something that can’t be believed — especially when Tim Duncan is widely considered the greatest power forward of all time and Kevin Garnett seems to fit Webber’s description better than Webber.
“Chris Webber will go down as one of the guys who really helped change that position. He and Garnett,” Thomas said. “The way they played the power forward position was so different and so unique. You know, their skill, their passing ability, Chris Webber’s passing ability was off the charts.”
But Webber’s journey to the Hall of Fame wasn’t as linear as his two contemporaries and is a story of perseverance, one that easily could’ve fallen into “what could’ve been” as opposed to “what is.”
He was the centerpiece of Michigan’s Fab Five, the freshmen and sophomores who went to two straight title games in 1992 and 1993, captivating the world with their basketball excellence, swagger before the term was introduced into the lexicon and culture-changing exploits.
“I know we say the Fab Five. But ain’t no Fab Five if Chris Webber ain’t there,” Thomas said. “Everything a superstar is supposed to be, he was. I love Chris Webber, as you can see, I’m a huge fan.
“It went from the Bad Boys to the Fab Five.”
From 1993 to 2003, Webber averaged 22.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals. Those numbers spanned across three franchises, each of which he took to the playoffs — the Golden State Warriors, Washington (then) Bullets and Sacramento Kings.
The Warriors have become a flagship franchise in recent years but were anything but when Webber arrived as the No. 1 pick in the 1993 draft. Washington and Sacramento’s best days in recent memory occurred when Webber carried those clubs to the playoffs — or in Sacramento’s case, the doorstep of a championship in 2002.
“Think about what I’m saying, Sacramento had the Los Angeles Lakers, Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. The Lakers had Shaq and Kobe, in prime,” Thomas said. “Look at some of the free throws the Lakers shot in those games. He had to overcome a lot.”
That series was classic and controversial. Webber’s Kings were revolutionary, years before Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns’ seven seconds or less squad took the league by storm. Webber was aided by the likes of Jason Williams then Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, but he was the sun everything revolved around.
If not for a Robert Horry triple in Game 4 and some truly fuzzy officiating in Game 6 when the Kings could’ve closed out the Lakers, they would’ve likely become champions and Webber would’ve been the poster child for versatility at his position and determination.
He recovered from an early shoulder injury his second season and a pretty severe ankle injury early in the 2001-02 season — and let’s not forget his infamous timeout Michigan didn’t have in the 1993 national championship game against North Carolina, a moment that could’ve defined his career.
But it didn’t, and his Hall of Fame career should’ve been cemented before his knee injury in the 2003 playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks, where the Kings could’ve very well gotten over the hump. Webber underwent microfracture surgery before it became known as a career killer, and he was never his full athletic self after.
It always seemed Webber’s career wasn’t fully filled because of the fits and starts, but he accomplished so much in between — routinely brought up as the toughest matchup among his contemporaries, taking moribund franchises to the postseason.
And now he receives the validation, the flowers he didn’t always get when he was playing, from those who truly matter. Thomas will accompany Webber at the Hall, and will be onstage as Webber makes his speech.
“To get here, period, the basketball gods have acknowledged your work and are welcoming you in as part of the special family,” Thomas said. “None of us when we pick up a basketball say we’re going to be in the Hall of Fame. That is beyond your imagination. It’s too sacred of a thought. So when you get in, it’s truly basketball heaven.”