NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- People who know no basketball now will know Chris Webber.
This was once his ambition. Today it is his curse.
Richard Nixon could remind him how long it took America to forget his Last Press Conference; Jackie Smith, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, still gets calls about a Super Bowl pass that he dropped in the end zone, 14 years ago.
Chris Webber will make tens of millions of dollars playing this game. He will be able to buy anything he wants. Except immunity.
He will always be the young man who called a timeout when Michigan had none, 11 seconds left in a train wreck of an NCAA championship game. The Wolverines had a chance to win when he formed a "T" with his enormous hands, but after that they did not. North Carolina cashed the technical foul for four points, and made Michigan runners-up for the second straight year, 77-71.
Since we are not a society any more but a jury, it became imperative last night to find a culprit.
Was it Webber, who had just grabbed the rebound from Pat Sullivan's missed foul shot, appeared to travel, heard the rasping complaint of Dean Smith, and fled into the frontcourt?
Was it Michigan coach Steve Fisher, whose primary responsibility with 46 seconds left was to tell the Fab Five that no more timeouts remained?
Was it deep voodoo? On the same end of the same floor against the same team, 11 years ago, Georgetown's Fred Brown idly handed the ball, and a title, to Carolina's James Worthy.
"I remember that," said James Voskuil, a Michigan reserve, looking as if he had nothing to grasp but the irony.
He grinned. "I'm not superstitious," he said, "but this is New Orleans."
Only this was known: Michigan trailed 73-71 when Webber rebounded the ball at the :20 mark. Michigan had trailed 72-67, 38 seconds before.
"I saw him come down and I said, 'we're going to win,' " Jalen Rose said.
Webber careened into the corner, the place where Carolina's defense grows teeth. Derrick Phelps and George Lynch double-teamed Webber. The Tar Heels had shielded Rose from Webber all the way downcourt, but Webber didn't see Rose anyway, didn't see anything. He was on automatic pilot. Habits that had been formed years ago were now in charge. You look at the clock, and you call timeout.
"I don't remember what happened," Webber said in a news conference, his eyes stony but dry. "That probably cost us the game. If I knew we didn't have any timeouts left, I wouldn't have called one. Truthfully I don't think I saw anybody open. If I had, I would have passed it."
Rose, in the locker room, cringed when he saw it. But he understood.
"I saw him call the timeout and I said, 'Oh, no, " Rose said. "I was hoping the referees didn't see it."
A well-placed hope. They didn't see much. But Webber's hands are hard to miss.
"A great player, in a situation like that, goes on his instincts," Rose said. "I'm not surprised he brought the ball up himself. He's done that plenty of times. There were 64,000 people there. It was loud. You rely on your instincts instead of making the play that you'd normally make. But it takes 40 minutes to lose a basketball game. That wasn't why we lost."
The Tar Heels, with more satisfaction than seemed necessary, said Michigan's coaches told Webber to call timeout. Smith practically glowed when he saw it. "Our coaching staff," Lynch said, "would never let that happen."
But Voskuil, who was there, said Michigan's coaches and subs indeed knew the deal.
"Everybody was yelling, 'No timeout, no timeout,' " Voskuil said. "And I'm sure Chris heard the 'timeout' and not the 'no.' I know that's what happened. A 260-pound guy dribbling upcourt and stopping -- you look for your point guard and when you don't see him, you call time. There can't be any blame to place on anybody. It was an absolute fluke, that's all."
Why did history pick this moment to lay an Eric Montross-sized albatross on Webber? He had played a frenzied second half, shooting 7-for-10, getting eight rebounds, frustrating Montross, winding up with 23 points and 11 boards.
Maybe Someone Up There heard Webber say the 1992 title loss to Duke was "the worst night in my life" and decided to introduce Webber to real life. Or maybe it's true that big men are chosen to carry big weights.
"Chris Webber is the heart of our team," Fisher said. "Maybe when you've had good times and you run into something like this, it makes you more determined. You have only seen the tip of the iceberg from him."
Last year Webber screamed epithets at the press after Duke blasted Michigan by 20. Last year the Michigan freshmen were an emotional disaster area. This year they were stunned, but accepting. For the first time, maybe they were forced to perceive a higher power.
But Webber will learn that age does not shield the pain.
Steve Fisher is 48 and looked not a day over 148 when he studied the locker room wall and said, "Sometimes in the heat of battle things happen that you say just can't happen. But they happen."