For two years, Chris Webber has suffered. He's suffered through two dislocated shoulders. Through surgery. And through months of strenuous rehabilitation. So it's surprising when he's shown an article in a basketball preview magazine entitled "12 Guys To Watch," at the obvious pain he feels when he reads these words next to his picture:
"Once considered the next 'Best Forward in the NBA,' not even the best player on his team Best pal Juwan Howard is Washington's main man now, leaving Webber, injured most of the last season, in a supporting role. Can he adjust, or will he demand another trade?"
Gently laying the magazine down, Webber's eyes are fixed on the words. For nearly a minute he re-reads the words, and it's clear his suffering is beyond physical.
"That hurts," Webber said softly. "But it's the reason why I'm going to keep going. It's the reason why I'm not going to get tired in games. Something good has to come out of what I've been through. I've gone through too much the last two years to not reap the rewards of hard work."
For Webber, the journey begins tomorrow when the Washington Bullets open the 1996-97 season in Orlando, Fla., against the Magic. Webber is back, and healthy. In Rod Strickland, the Bullets have one of the best point guards in basketball. And Juwan Howard is back, after a brief marriage with the Miami Heat.
This Bullets team is loaded. Fifty wins is a possibility. The playoffs is a probability. But for the Bullets to make the major impact that is expected, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Webber -- who has played in just 69 games over the past two seasons -- is the guy who will have to raise his game to get them there.
Webber knows the spotlight shines brightly on him. Yet he feels he has nothing to prove.
"Just something to prove to myself, not to anyone else," Webber said. "For two years I've been sitting home, hearing whispers, hearing people talk about me and not being able to respond. I can understand people talking about my injury. But don't talk about my game, my play has never been in question."
What has been in question is what Webber has had to say.
Had Webber been up early yesterday watching "SportsCenter" he would have heard the latest cheap shot -- the announcement that Rony Seikaly is the winner of "The Annual Chris Webber Award" for his holdout with the Warriors this season. Webber held out with the Warriors after his rookie season, forcing the trade to Washington.
"I think maybe it's because I speak my mind," said Webber, one of the most candid players in the league, of the criticism. "I'm not afraid to air my views politically. About the government. About how the CIA is supplying crack to the ghetto. I can't let something go by me, and not have an opinion."
So he does what few athletes do -- he publicly says what's on his mind. He did it at Golden State, airing his unhappiness with then coach Don Nelson. And Webber was criticized. He expressed his displeasure with Bullets doctors, after hurting his shoulder for the second time. And he expressed an opinion last season on the team's direction, at times clashing with John Nash, then general manager.
"I have insight and, whether people like it or not, I'm going to let you know," Webber said. "I don't like the fact that there are guys in this league who have an opinion and don't say anything because they don't want to be judged."
Look at Webber's feet. Converse. He wore Nikes in the 15 games he played last year, and even had his own shoe.
"One problem I had was that they were selling shoes to kids for $130 and [kids] in the neighborhood were robbing each other and stealing shoes," Webber said. "So I had a problem with that, and I had to voice it."
(A spokesman for Nike said yesterday that while Webber voiced concerns about the price of the shoe "over the course of negotiations, the decision to continue the relationship has not been precipitated by the price point of the shoe.")
Webber said he will continue to voice his concerns.
"I'm sure I won't have a few deals because of my attitude," he said. "And people don't really know the sacrifices, how many deals I've lost. People think I'm brash and young, but I think everything out. Some of the things I knew the repercussions."
Many feel one of the repercussions of Howard's emerging as an all-star last season is Webber not being able to accept a secondary role. Coach Jim Lynam doesn't feel he has one go-to guy in the low post. He loves the fact that he has many options.
"I wouldn't trade this front line for any front line in basketball," Lynam said.
Webber thinks it's absurd for anyone to feel he can't play alongside Howard.
"It's total opinion, when people say I can't play with Juwan or would demand a trade," Webber said. "When I heard he was going to Miami I went to his house and there was a lot of crying you would have thought somebody had died over there that day.
"Listen, on this team, all we have is each other," Webber added. "I feel like I've been done a disservice by some people. Juwan feels like he has to prove he's worth more than the contract that he got. So if I don't help Juwan prove that, nobody's going to help me. I think all of our individual goals will help us come together collectively."
Said Calbert Cheaney: "You could tell right off the bat that he's hungry. He's got that fire. He's playing like he's got something to prove."
That's because when you look back at the 1993 NBA draft, when Webber was the No. 1 pick, only Anfernee Hardaway and Vin Baker have become all-stars.
"I definitely think, without my injuries, I could have had some great things happen to me -- especially the way I played last year," Webber said. "If I have a great year, maybe the fact I've been forgotten about will start a new buzz. For two years I've been hearing talk about me, and I haven't been able to straighten the story out."
Starting tomorrow night, Webber begins his journey to do just that.
Hurtin' for certain
Chris Webber's injuries over his three years in the NBA:
Missed six games, sprained ankle
Missed 21 games, one for eye injury, 19 for dislocated shoulder, one for sprained ankle
Missed 65 games, 64 for sore/dislocated shoulder, one for sprained ankle
Pub Date: 10/31/96