As he waited in a hunched stance, looking like a leopard ready to pounce, Chris Webber had one of those "let's get ready to rumble" looks on his face. And once the opponent entered the lane, Webber sprang into action, grabbing, clawing, shoving, elbowing, pushing with his 87-inch wingspan -- anything to gain an upper hand.
Watching all of this unfold, an observer may wonder: Why would Webber go that hard, that fierce in practice against good friend Juwan Howard, one of the main reasons Webber's a member of the Washington Bullets in the first place?
Ask Webber and he shrugs.
"One day in practice you might see him punch me in the face, or you might see me try to slam him," Webber said, adding the two did just that while teammates at the University of Michigan. "But afterward, you can guarantee that we're going out to dinner.
"That's a healthy environment -- when practices are that competitive, you know in games that you are going to defend each other. In a game, if anybody would try anything with me, he would be the first to my defense. We're loyal to our team, and that's most important."
Leaving Michigan after his sophomore season, Webber went into draft day 1993 hoping for a chance to demonstrate that type of loyalty to Shaquille O'Neal. Indeed, he was selected with the first pick by the Orlando Magic, but a short time later the Magic traded Webber and three first-round picks to the Golden State Warriors for guard Anfernee Hardaway.
Webber signed a 15-year, $74 million contract with the Warriors, and it seemed he'd spend most of his career in the Bay area. But a feud with Golden State coach Don Nelson led Webber to exercise an out clause of his contract, and forced the Warriors to deal their prized pick.
Now last season's Rookie of the Year is a Bullet, and he's playing alongside Washington's first-round pick, Howard -- something Webber never thought he'd have the opportunity to do again. After a strained rookie season, Webber looks forward to once again having fun on the basketball court.
"When I came here I didn't know if it was going to be a situation where they didn't like me, because [Tom] Gugliotta was a great player and friends to all of them," Webber said. "But when I played my first game, and Rex [Chapman] came to talk to me about 10 minutes, he made me feel so comfortable. And from that moment on I knew I would be happy here."
And what did the two talk about?
"He was very close to Gugliotta, and hated to see him go," Webber said. "Then he said 'I'm glad you're here, let's try to win now.' And that's all I needed to hear."
'Betting on myself'
You think Webber takes winning seriously? Just take a glance at his quote in the Warriors' media guide.
"I'll say this, I don't care who I'm playing against," the quote goes. "I'm betting on myself."
He's not a bad guy to bet on. Television crews followed him around as early as the eighth grade, when he once scored 64 points in a game, with 15 of his baskets coming on dunks. The explosiveness, the huge hands -- they were all there at an early age.
"He has been under the microscope since he was 13," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said.
At Country Day High School, he was named Mr. Basketball for the state of Michigan during his senior year -- 1990-91, leading his team to the second of two straight state championships.
Then came two years with one of the most talked about college teams in history, a Michigan squad that made it to the national championship game with five freshmen -- Webber, Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson -- as starters.
"The best years of my life," Webber said of Michigan. "It was fun, I was 18, I didn't have a car, I didn't have an apartment, I didn't have to pay bills. I just had to eat pizza, go to class and have fun."
In basketball, Webber continued his success. He became the first player in NCAA history to make the NCAA tournament team as a freshman and sophomore. Kids began copying the Fab Five's style: the long, baggy shorts, the black socks, the shaved heads, the on-court trash talking. Michigan suddenly became one of the most popular basketball teams on any level.
The scrutiny had Webber leaning toward leaving by the end of his sophomore season.
"We would have commentators say, 'Look at those thugs, those long shorts, the black socks,' " Webber said. "My mother was crying every game, she had to turn the volume down just to watch.
"Everything we did was like a rock concert. We had threats, we had to have police escorts. It was overwhelming. It wasn't becoming fun anymore, and if I'm not enjoying something, then I move on."
In the national championship game his sophomore season against North Carolina, Michigan trailed by two with 11 seconds left. Webber, standing in front of his bench, called timeout -- Michigan had no more timeouts left, and the technical foul and loss of possession sewed up the loss. Webber left the arena that night in tears, and thought seriously about coming back to Michigan the following season.
"The next day I was going to stay -- it hurt," Webber said. "I wanted to be like Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, to win a high school, college and pro championship.
"But I looked at the overall picture -- I lived in the projects and it was time to get my mother out of there. I had to reach my dream, because it was burning inside me. If I didn't reach my dream, I just knew I was going to get into a car accident, that I was going to die the next day. I don't regret anything."
Even with those accomplishments, Webber still feels the hurt of losing those national championship games, of calling that timeout.
"Because that happened, there's never going to be a time on the court that I don't have a fire inside of me," Webber said. "I'm playing in pain every time I'm on the court, I swear I'm in pain every time out there. Because I don't have a championship ring, and that's what I need."
The big feud
But the feud with Nelson was too much for Webber to endure. So the player the Warriors planned to build their future around instead exercised a one-year out in his long-term contract and forced Golden State to trade him.
"Nellie wanted him to be a power player in this league, and Chris fancies himself a finesse player," said a source familiar with the Golden State situation. "That's at the crux of the issue."
Webber won't go into details.
"I don't want to slam the coach, but I think the truth is coming
out how [Nelson] treated people," said Webber, talking about comments from Golden State teammates and Dream Team II members about Nelson's hard style. "It has nothing to do with basketball. It's the way you respect people and treat people, no matter how much you make and how little you make. That was the problem."
Fisher said he doesn't see where a coach would have a problem with Webber.
"The Chris Webber I know is a gentleman who will do anything he is asked to to help a team win," Fisher said. "The Chris Webber I know is a sensitive and respectful young man. You've (( got two sides to every story."
Listen to Webber and his friendly, straightforward demeanor, and it's hard to believe he could be involved in a feud with anyone.
"I've competed against Chris since I was 13 and he's a great guy," Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill said. "He's spent some time with me and my family when I was in high school, and I consider him a friend. He's also a great player."
At ease in Washington
Almost immediately, Webber has felt at ease in Washington. This is a part of the country he enjoys, a part where he has spent a lot of time in the past.
"I'm not going to lie to you, this is a black community, which I didn't have in Oakland," Webber said. "I've spent a lot of time at Howard and Hampton universities, so I know the area a bit. I'm only 21 and this would be my senior year in college. I know a lot of people that go to college in this area, and hopefully when I get acclimated here I'll get to see a whole lot more of them."
And hopefully, for the sake of the Bullets, Webber can help turn the tide of five straight seasons with 50-plus losses. He brings with him a star talent that few in this league possess.
"The guys I put in that category of special talents, I have a very, very high opinion of," Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "That doesn't say they're perfect, that doesn't say they won't have a bad game. But over a long haul, they're going to do a lot of damage."
And that's what's being placed on the shoulders of Webber, to do a lot of damage. More importantly to create a winner with the Bullets. It's quite a bit to put on someone who's just 21 years old.
"It's not the pressure of the fans that worries me, it's not the pressure from the media -- it's the pressure I put on myself," Webber said. "If the fans want us to get to the playoffs, I want us to win the championship. This year. And if it can't be done, so what? That's my goal.
"Every game I go on the court, I try to win. The difference between me and the next guy is that someone's going to be a little luckier at the end. Because no one's going to out-work me, no one's going to out-think me."
A breakdown of Chris Webber's collegiate and pro career:
Yr. ... ... ... Team ... ... Pts. ... ... Reb. ... ... Blk.
'91-92 .. .. .. Mich. .. ... 15.5 ... ... 10.0 ... ... 2.5
'92-93 .. .. .. Mich. .. ... 19.2 ... ... 10.1 ... ... 2.5
'93-94 .. .. .. G.S. ... ... 17.5 ... ... 9.1 .. .. .. 2.2
Opponent: Cleveland Cavaliers
Site: Baltimore Arena
TV/Radio: HTS/WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The Cavaliers (5-5) look to end a three-game road losing streak. Cleveland lost in Miami, 100-87, on Wednesday. G Mark Price leads the Cavaliers in scoring (17.8 ppg), and had a team-high 17 against the Heat -- marking the fourth straight game where Cleveland has not had a player score more than 17 points. Injuries to C Brad Daugherty (back), G John Battle (knee) and G Gerald Wilkins (ruptured Achilles') have left Cleveland short-handed. With six days off, the Bullets have had some time to fit F Chris Webber and F Juwan Howard into their game plane. C Gheorghe Muresan (sprained left knee) is day-to-day.