Bullets bank NBA future on Webber


LANDOVER -- Six years. Is that a long enough commitment? Chris Webber isn't going to Detroit, isn't going to Toronto, isn't going anywhere. He's staying with the Washington Bullets, just like he said he would, through the year 2000.

Maybe now people will stop comparing him to Derrick Coleman, J. R. Rider and the rest of the NBA's Generation X misfits. The truth is, Webber is about as close to a role model as a 22-year-old could be.

He grew emotional yesterday recalling the sacrifices made by his parents, Mayce and Doris. And he spoke reverentially of Bullets owner Abe Pollin after signing the richest contract in team history for a reported $59 million.

"I want to retire here," Webber said. "I told Mr. Pollin that. I want to be his second Wes Unseld. I don't know if I can ever be that type of player, and I don't mean it that way. I just admire the relationship they have."

Be like Wes. Is that an impressive enough desire? Yes, so many athletes are on power trips. Yes, so many are spoiled brats. And yes, Webber appeared just another one of the pampered masses when he engineered his trade from Golden State to Washington last November.

What was it Sports Illustrated said? "Unhappy Chris Webber decamped for D.C. -- but that may not be his last power move." Webber was about to become a restricted free agent. His critics suspected he would bolt Washington the same way he bolted Golden State.

It didn't happen -- even though the Bullets went 21-61, even though the playoffs still may be a distant goal with point guard Mark Price already injured. Webber said all along that he wanted only to be happy. Former Warriors coach Don Nelson should be " ashamed for alienating him so badly.

Indeed, Nelson may pay for it every time he faces Washington with his new team, the New York Knicks.

Webber was overjoyed yesterday, and so were the Bullets. Team president Susan O'Malley kissed him on the cheek. Pollin called it one of the most exciting days in his 31 years as Bullets owner.

How exciting? Pollin recalled his first meeting with Webber, looking into his eyes and sensing this was the player to bring Washington an NBA championship. How exciting? Pollin pinched Webber's cheek, and hugged him so hard he almost knocked off the player's Bullets cap.

Employees carried in a huge banner that said "Webber 4 Ever," noting Webber's switch from No. 2 to his old No. 4. "Thanks a lot," he told the employees after the news conference was over. "Can I keep that?"

That Webber, so manipulative. The image simply does not fit. Here's a guy who walked away from a $74 million contract to sign a one-year, $2.08 million deal last season. Money wasn't his sole concern, then or now. Webber said other teams offered more than the Bullets.

"A lot of people second-guessed his motives," said his agent, Bill Strickland. "Now you see the proof is in the pudding. He's here. He's committed. It's a substantial commitment from the Bullets to him. And it's a substantial commitment from him to the Bullets."

And so ends what Webber called "the worst two years of my life." It began happily enough, with a Rookie of the Year season with Golden State. But then came his feud with Nelson, his frustrating, injury-marred season in Washington, and more criticism than he ever imagined.

"In the midst of all that, when you're going through that turmoil, you hear bad things," Webber said yesterday. "You don't believe them, but maybe in your mind you forget who you are."

So, who is he? A kid from the Detroit ghetto. His father is an auto worker. His mother raised five children (Chris is the oldest) and occasionally worked five jobs at a time. Some weeks, Webber said, the family ate only corn bread and beans.

Who is he? The former Michigan star who called the infamous timeout in the 1993 NCAA final when his team had no timeouts left. People forget, but Webber handled the resulting furor with humor, style and grace.

Who is he? A third-year NBA player who worked all summer to correct the deficiencies in his game -- post play, outside and foul shooting. Who told Price it would be "an honor" to be his teammate. Who said he was willing to play center, if that's what the Bullets asked.

"I'm just tired of losing -- I'll be a cheerleader if they want," Webber said.

"You'd be the ugliest cheerleader we've ever had," O'Malley replied.

Who is he? A millionaire who played this summer in the Urban Coalition League in Washington, to become part of the $l community, to show the inner-city kids "I'm not a God. I'm not an icon. I'm just a guy who made it."

"This is my chance to start over," Webber said. "You have to understand that. I have something to prove. People forgot about me individually, disrespected the Bullets as a team. We'd hear jokes from referees, from fans. It's time for us to prove a point."

Who is he?

Exactly what he promised.

A Washington Bullet, for the next six years.

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