The Curious Hall of Fame Drought for Chris Webber

Once again, the NBA Hall of Fame finalists have been announced and once again Chris Webber has heard his name.  There are the obvious first balloters. Jason Kidd. Steve Nash. Ray Allen. Grant Hill, primarily for what he did in college and his first four NBA seasons. And then there is Chris Webber who has been waiting for awhile. Webber retired a decade ago. For five years, he has been overlooked.

Weber was a quiet scorer, exceptional in perimeter skill but without much arrogance or fiery willfulness. He is continually downgraded as an elite player. He lacks a NBA title to lord over his critics. His Hall of Fame rejection is a constant thing, like Sisyphus and the rock. Despite Webber being the transcendent member of the iconic Fab Five basketball team, and despite it being the Basketball Hall of Fame, not the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Chris Webber still finds himself on the outside.

In Webber’s case, art does not imitate life. The Hall of Fame was to be his grand moment, his thank you letter from the sport. It was to be the circle closing the way circles close, for good, addressing careers and then putting them to bed.  But Webber keeps being denied in a curious case. The poster child for a University of Michigan freshman cult, a cultural phenomenon that was unique as a collective unit of extraordinary talent, Webber finds himself, so many years later, excluded.

Many consider the Fab Five the best recruited class in the history of college basketball. Webber was the best player in the country. Juwan Howard was ranked 3rd. Jalen Rose, 5th. Jimmy King was 9th. Only Ray Jackson was not in the top 20, ranked 84th. They came in with a flourish and were confident, lacked humility, had an attitude and mad game. Webber was the headliner, the most likely to be a NBA Hall of Famer.

It’s the function of innocence to think talent presumes greatness. Or that greatness automatically means titles. Or, that titles are the holy grail.

Chris Webber was first eligible for the Hall in 2013. Five years later, he is still waiting.  Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, Mitch Richmond, Dikembe Mutombo have been inducted. When Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal were inducted, you understood why.

Webber never guided his team to a NBA Finals appearance. He wasn’t a superstar but neither were Mourning, Richmond or Mutombo. He was never a league MVP. His highest showing was fourth in 2000-01 when Iverson was the MVP. He finished in the top ten of MVP voting four times. He was All-NBA only once but he was Rookie of the Year. He was an All-Star five times but his playoff numbers were less than his regular season numbers. Unlike Payton, Mourning, Richmond and Mutombo,  Webber was saddled with the label of underachiever. All that talent and nothing to show for it was the reflective thinking.  It is one thing to be the best player on every team you were a member of, as was the Webber profile. It is another thing to only reach the conference finals once in your career when you are 6-10, have an offensive repertoire, can rebound, score, defend and are a nightmare matchup.

Webber, throughout his professional career, was recognized for his talent but he was ostracized for his inability to carry a team and dominate when the game was on the line. His career narrative is similar to Tracy McGrady in that he never cracked the 20,000 points club. But from 1994-2003 he averaged 22.7 points. He had five years (1998-2003) averaging 11.0 rebounds. He has a career defensive rating of 101, with five years, from 1998-2003 of 97.4. He had 10 seasons with a PER above 20.0 with his high 24.7 in 2000-01.

But his career offensive rating was 104 with only two seasons above 110, his rookie year and his third year, which was confusing for a 6-10 player of his talent. Webber was a stretch four before that name was even coined which saddled him with the label of not being tough, not wanting to punish players inside. A third of the shots he took were long twos which depressed his overall productivity, a 6-10 forward shooting 47%, similar numbers to a guard four inches shorter. Webber, at times, could be exasperating in terms of shot selection. He wasn’t a post up player.

His best years were with the Sacramento Kings and the moment that will be remembered was the 2002 playoffs, the Western Conference Finals which was Webber’s to dominate. He did in the first six games and then came game 7.

In game one against the Lakers, he had 28 points and 14 rebounds. In game two, he had 21 points and 13 rebounds. In game three, he had 26 points and 9 rebounds. In game four, he had 20 points and 5 rebounds. It was an almost King win but Robert Horry’s three tied the series. In game five, he had 29 points and 13 rebounds. In game six, he had 26 and 8.

Then there was game 7.

He shot 42%. The previous four games (3-6) he shot 55%. He had 8 rebounds but 11 assists. He had the fourth highest usage rate on the team, their best player. Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic had the ball in their hands more which reaffirmed the Chris Webber story. He disappears in big moments.

In the last five minutes of regulation, Webber took one shot. He had 0 rebounds. In overtime, he took the first shot, a 20 footer and made it. He then missed two shots because of Shaq blocks. He missed a 20-footer and a three. And his best chance to get to the NBA Finals withered in the hot Arco Arena air.

Webber followed that (2002) season with a 23.0 and 10.5 season but in the playoffs against Dallas tragedy struck, a devastating knee injury. He would need microfracture surgery. He had some good moments when he returned. In the playoffs against the Wolves, in game 4, he had 28 points and 8 rebounds, a win. But in game 7 in Minnesota he was no match for Kevin Garnett who poured in 32 points and 21 rebounds and 5 blocks. The series ended the way it usually ended for Webber, who if nothing else, was always unlucky. His series winning shot went in and out and Webber was defeated again. He was traded and spent time in Philly, Detroit and a second stint in Golden State before retiring.

If Chris Webber is remembered for one particularly thing outside of the Fab Five brilliance it is calling a timeout in the title game when his team was out of timeouts. All that swag didn’t matter in the biggest moment of his collegiate basketball life. The Wolverines were down by two with 11 seconds left when Webber made the faux pas. North Carolina was awarded two technical free throws which iced the game and for Webber it attached to him a narrative he never was able to shake in the NBA. Post-game, he looked dazed, lost and very confused at what had just happened and there was a lot of sympathy. He was a 20 year old kid. But over the years, that game was used against Webber as a justification and normalization of his weakness.

Chris Webber was drafted by the Orlando Magic and traded to the Golden State Warriors in 1993. The Warriors drafted Penny Hardaway and sent him to Florida. Webber was Rookie of the Year for the Warriors, 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds. He played in the playoffs his first year in the league but lost in the first round to the Suns. It went awry in Oakland because coach Don Nelson had a vision for Webber that Webber wasn’t comfortable with. Suprisingly, the offensive guru Nelson, wanted Webber to be a traditional post player and Webber balked. He left Oakland for Washington who traded him to Sacramento. Webber protested at first. And then he settled in.

Are we to settle in to this Chris Webber retirement narrative, never making it into the Hall of Fame? Is Webber being punished for his brain freeze as a 20 year old? Or, for his friction with Don Nelson who is universally revered? Or, is he continually remembered as the disappearing Chris Webber when the season was on the line? Or is it something else, something about the scandal at the University of Michigan of which Webber was partly accountable?

Accused of taking money from booster Ed Martin, Webber was investigated for lying to a grand jury about Ed Martin, a local fixture on the Detroit youth basketball scene who died before he could make it to trial. Webber pleaded guilty to one count of criminal contempt. Michigan forfeited its Final Four win in 1992, the entire season in 1992-93 and deleted Webber’s records from the history books. Webber could have nothing to do with Michigan until 2013.

The NBA suspended Webber eight games, three for lying to the grand jury. Webber refused to particpate in the ESPN documentary of which his former teammate Jalen Rose produced, The Fab Five. Webber was the only one of the Fab Five that wouldn’t participate and rightly or wrongly it gave the impression that Webber refused to be accountable.

Did Chris Webber dominate his position in his era? He wasn’t the best power forward, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were. But a 20.7 career average means you did some special things. ESPN’s 2016 ranking of top power forwards in NBA history omitted Chris Webber from the top 10. Fox Sports omitted Chris Webber from the top 10 as well.

He was a versatile player. He was a big man who could move the ball, who could score from the perimeter, who embraced the team game and the optics say he is being penalized for what many felt should have been a Chris Webber league domination.

2018 and Chris Webber’s name is on the ballot, next to Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Voters have to ask and answer: Chris Webber was a good player but was he great? Was he best ever?

There is no argument about his versatility. He was a big man who played the team game but whose name is attached to scandal. He wasn’t the kind of player who wanted to humiliate his opponent. He wanted to move the ball, get the best shot, score, rebound, win the game, celebrate with his teammates. The NBA didn’t define his life so a title that eluded him didn’t break him. But that didn’t make him unique. It only made him Chris Webber.

photo via llananba

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