Hundreds of times, Chris Webber has been asked whether he'll return to the Washington Bullets next season, and most of the time his response has been the same: definitely. But that same question brought a less-convincing response last week.
"I definitely like D.C.; that's where I want to be," Webber said before Thursday's game against the New York Knicks. "But I don't think everything's guaranteed, especially what I've learned life. I'd love to be back, but I don't know what's going to happen."
What was going to happen this season when Webber arrived in && a trade with the Golden State Warriors in November was this: The Bullets were going to make the playoffs for the first time in six years and the "Fab Two" of Webber and former Michigan teammate Juwan Howard were going to save a struggling franchise and lay the foundation for a bright future.
With Webber and Howard in uniform, that foundation is there. But when the playoffs start in two weeks, the Bullets will be spectators, in all likelihood finishing with the league's second-worst record. Their loss in New York on Thursday was their 13th straight, tying a franchise record. They ended the streak with a 114-110 win over Milwaukee last night.
Webber called the Knicks defeat "embarrassing" and "the toughest loss of the year." He's so upset with losing that Webber even told his agent that he planned to call team owner Abe Pollin to apologize.
"There has been a change in his thinking, not so much [that] he is saying 'No, I'm not coming [back] to Washington,' " said Fallasha Erwin, Webber's Detroit-based agent. "He's expecting some things. I don't think Chris wants to be in a position where he can earn a lot of money, and have people say he's just in it for the money. One thing that Pollin said after the trade was that he wanted a championship, and Chris wants to help him get it."
The Bullets traded Tom Gugliotta and three first-round draft picks to Golden State for Webber, a franchise player who signed a one-year, $2.1 million contract. After this season Webber will be a restricted free agent and in position to command a deal surpassing the nine-year, $70 million contract signed by Orlando Magic guard Anfernee Hardaway at the start of the season.
Washington can match any qualifying offer, thus retaining Webber's rights. But if Webber is unhappy, he can ask to be moved elsewhere, or sign a two-year deal and become an unrestricted free agent after the 1996-97 season (players need four years' experience to become unrestricted free agents).
Throughout the season Nash has said that re-signing Webber, who has helped the Bullets sell out a record 28 games this season, will be a top priority.
"I think our priority is to get Chris signed, sealed and delivered, for the immediate and long-term future of this franchise," Nash said yesterday. "You need two parties to agree. The perception is that he wants to be in Washington."
Webber's potential has other teams salivating at the prospect of signing him.
"There are teams that have an interest in Chris Webber," Erwin said. "Those teams know there's a moratorium. But they say 'If you guys don't get the offer you like from the Bullets, we'd like to talk to you.' "
Webber makes it clear that the place he wants to be is Washington, an area that he has found socially rewarding.
"There's nothing better to me than to see a city predominantly black, where it's not predominantly ghetto like Detroit and other cities I've been to," Webber said. "You see black doctors and black lawyers; it's a place with a positive influence on young blacks. It's a very attractive city in that aspect."
It's also a city that has embraced Webber, who has given fans reason to purchase -- and wear -- Washington Bullets attire.
"I couldn't ask for more, the way I've been treated," Webber said. "I think they've accepted me with open arms. I'll get jokes a couple of times about losing and things like that. But most of it is encouragement with guys wanting us to do well. And we want to give them a team that we can be proud of. Right now, they can't be proud of us."
Webber has kept that disdain for losing away from the fans. Publicly he has remained accommodating, signing autographs, greeting fans warmly and posing for photographs.
During the losing streaks earlier in the season Webber remained upbeat, saying that a turnaround would occur soon. But that failed to materialize, and the Bullets are 19-59.
"It's not like you have to learn to be a loser or anything like that," Webber said. "But you have to learn to deal with it on a regular basis.
"I've never lost in my life, and it's hard reprogramming yourself to look at positive things in losing," he added. "At Michigan, any loss that we had, I could just throw it away and not try to grab any positive out of it because I knew we would win the next time."
When Erwin saw Webber's frustration surface, he issued a challenge.
"I told him, 'You seem to be more concerned about the other people on the team than about what you're doing,' " Erwin said. "I told him, 'Why don't you do it by example? Play at a higher level, and see who comes to play with you.' "
Since March 19, Webber has played at that higher level, leading the Bullets in scoring nine times and in rebounds 11 of the 15 games since. He also recorded his second career triple-double during that stretch (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists against Charlotte on April 7), and fell one assist shy of another triple-double the next game.
But teammates have instead been beset by injuries. And that has forced Webber and Howard -- both at the age of 22 -- to assume leadership of the team.
"Chris doesn't like losing, but he comes in night in and night out and plays his best," Howard said. "It's about your spirit. About your attitude. Chris pushes me and I push him. We're not going to give up at all."
A season to erase
Webber describes the season as a learning experience.
"I learned patience," he said. "You can't have everything when you want it. In my last year in college when we were down eight with four minutes to go, I knew we were going to win. Now, that whole confidence -- you have to rebuild your whole confidence. Hopefully, we'll be able to erase this season, and come back and have a great season next year."
Asked to put a finger on what has gone wrong this season, Webber declined to get into specifics. "I think we have our problems; I think we'll get better," he said. "I think I'll have to start by pointing the finger at myself. Juwan has to point the finger at himself. And everybody down the line."
When the season ends, Webber plans to take a month off, then start an off-season regimen that may include sessions with Magic Johnson.
"I'll just try to work on every aspect of my game," Webber said. "I'm not a guy that says I want to work on one weakness, because I have a lot of weaknesses. . . . I want to be a great player."
And the indications are that Webber would like to do that in a Washington uniform, although his tone isn't as decisive as it was before.
"At times he asks, 'Is it worth it?' And every time he has always felt he made the right decision," Erwin said. "My feeling is that they want to put a championship team on the court, and that's all Chris Webber wants to do -- win.
"I think Chris is going to be there," Erwin said. "I thought, too, that he would be at Golden State and he's not there. If it's left up to him, I think he'll stay."