There have been approximately a quadrillion articles devoted to the Fab Five of Michigan – interviews, reviews, praises, critiques, “should haves,” complaints, and memoirs – so I would rather devote my time to a cause I find far more interesting: Chris Webber’s case for inclusion in The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Basketball Hall of Fame is just what it says it is: a basketball hall of fame. It is not a collegiate or pro hall of fame. It is not the NBA hall of fame. The entire sport has only one hall of fame, meaning a player’s entire body of work – Nerf, high school, college, Euroleague, playground, NBA – is considered for inclusion. For Webber, that means Detroit Country Day School, the University of Michigan, and five NBA teams.
In high school, Webber won three state championships and averaged 29 points and 13 boards per game his senior year when he was named the National High School Player of the Year and the top recruit in America. Very impressive, but certainly not Hall-worthy. It wasn’t until he moved to Ann Arbor that Webber’s candidacy for Springfield truly began.
Webber was not only a member of the greatest freshman class in college basketball history, he was the MVP. Jalen Rose was the leader and catalyst, but Webber was undoubtedly the best player on the squad. In 1992, a team starting five freshmen making it to the NCAA Championship game was unprecedented and the fact that they did it again as sophomores, behind Webber, is nothing short of remarkable. In two years as a Wolverine, Webber averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game and was a finalist for virtually every player of the year award as a sophomore. When his performance is combined with he and his teammates’ impact and influence on the game (evidenced by the fact that “The Fab Five” was ESPN’s highest-rated documentary ever), an argument could be made for Webber’s inclusion into the Hall based on his college career alone. At the very least, the Fab Five as a team deserves to be inducted, just as the 1992 Dream Team is enshrined.
Of course, Webber’s college legacy will always be remembered for two things: calling a time-out that his team didn’t have in the final seconds of the 1993 title game and being indicted for lying to a grand jury regarding payments he received while he was a student. First, the time-out. It was an egregious mistake, but let’s clear one thing up: when that happened, Michigan was already down by two and time was running out. The odds that Michigan scored to either tie or take the lead and also stopped UNC from scoring were not in their favor. Carolina had led by 6 at the half, so it’s not as if Michigan dominated the game until Webber called that T.O. Chris Webber did not lose the championship for Michigan, no matter how the public may view it. Regarding the indictment, it’s clear that he accepted money from Ed Martin, regardless of what Webber claims or what Mitch Albom remembers. If you believe that personal character should be a factor in voting a player into the Hall of Fame, then you should probably stop reading because I’m not going to convince you.
Despite the time-out and the embarrassment, Webber’s career did not end on April 5, 1993. Far from it.
After two stellar years of college ball, Webber was chosen first overall in the 1993 NBA Draft and, following a draft day trade for Anfernee Hardaway, landed with Golden State. In his first season, he averaged 17.5 points, 9 rebounds and over three-and-a-half assists per game and was, at the time, the youngest player to ever win the Rookie of the Year award while simultaneously helping the Warriors return the playoffs.
Many criticized Webber for what they perceived to be his forcing a trade due to disagreements with his coach, Don Nelson. In reality, Webber exercised a one-year escape clause, which he was fully entitled to do and, as a result, Golden State chose to trade him to Washington. It may be a matter of semantics, but in the interest of fairly assessing his career, it is important.
Webber’s time with the Bullets/Wizards is a main reference point for those making the case against his enshrinement, claiming he dramatically underachieved. Even when I think back to those years, I associate it with him wasting a few years before moving on to Sacramento. In retrospect, however, that is not necessarily true.
He averaged a strong 20/9.6/4.7 his first season before being sidelined with a shoulder injury that would linger into the following season. Finally healthy for the 1996 – ‘97 season, Webber averaged 20 & 10 (along with 4.6 assists and 1.9 blocks), was selected for his first All-Star team and led Washington to the playoffs. Webber’s averages remained fairly constant the following season, but the Wizards missed the playoffs.
Admittedly, Webber’s on-court performance in Washington is largely forgotten most likely due to the distractions he created off the court, most notably his affinity for weed and authorities’ talent for spotting it. He was caught twice for possession – once in D.C. and once in Puerto Rico.
Ultimately, the only fallout from those incidents were a couple of fines and Fila dropping Webber as a spokesman. I applauded the effort, not because I agreed with Fila, but because those kicks were puke. Gross. Still, the Wizards had had enough and dealt him to the Sacramento Kings. At the time, Webber was viewed as a problem and was actually written off by many observers as a disappointment. Instead, Sacramento was the perfect team for Webber at the perfect time.
With the Kings, Webber became the player that fans had wanted and critics had expected. While his first few years in Golden State and Washington were certainly respectable, it was not until he arrived in Sacramento that he finally reached his full potential. In his lockout-shortened first season with the Kings, he once again averaged 20 ppg and 4 apg, but he also grabbed a career-high 13 boards per contest, winning the league’s rebounding title as well as being named to the All-NBA Second Team. The next few seasons only saw him rise even higher.
For the four seasons from 1999 – ‘00 through 2002 – ’03, Webber made both the All-Star team and the All-NBA Team (1 First Team, 2 Second Teams, 1 Third Team) every year. He continued to score in the mid-20’s, grab at least 10 rebounds and dish out 4+ assists every game. Furthermore, he played the power forward position in a new and unique way. On nearly every possession, the Kings’ offense often started with a pass to Webber at the high post and ran through him. He was not a point forward, but more of a power guard. Only after he caught the ball did the offense begin to run as it should. On virtually every basketball team, the play starts when the guard has the ball at the top of the key. On the Kings, the play did not start until Webber had the ball at the foul line extended. Very, very few players of his size would have been able to do what Webber did on a nightly basis.
Much like his Michigan team, the Kings squad of the early 2000’s will always be remembered for not winning. Their best chance, in 2002, was heartbreaking. In Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento attempted 18 fewer free throws than the Lakers in the fourth quarter on their home court. Ralph Nader sent a letter to David Stern on behalf of fans. Plus, this happened. Much like the 1993 NCAA Final, I have yet to get over this game.
The following season, Webber continued his spectacular play, even averaging nearly five-and-a-half assists per contest, a career high. Heading into the postseason, the Kings looked poised to avenge their loss the previous year, even if San Antonio did boast of a better regular season record. However, in Game 2 of their playoff series against Dallas, Webber’s left knee buckled under him, tearing the lateral meniscus, and the player from Country Day and Michigan was lost forever.
After that, he was never the same. He rehabbed and returned but the explosiveness was long gone. Sacramento traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers in early 2005. On the day it happened, many friends called or emailed me, asking how I felt about my favorite current player suiting up for my favorite team. I told them that it actually made me sad because of how much athleticism he had lost. He continued to put up respectable numbers – peaking with his 20.2/9.9/3.4 performance for Philly in ’05 – ’06 – and could still pass better than most power forwards, but he largely stood stationary in the high post, settling for foul line jumpers that looked like set shots while simultaneously being a face-in-your-palm liability on defense.
It was over. When you watched him play, you knew he didn’t have it anymore and by the way he played, it appeared as if he knew he didn’t have it anymore. He looked bored and disinterested. I was crushed. As was the case in both Golden State and Washington, he wore out his welcome in Philly, eventually agreeing to a buyout in early 2007. Webber joined a legit contender in Detroit, once again appearing in the Conference Finals, this time in the East, but he was a marginal role player and he did very little to help stop LeBron and the Cavaliers. In 2008, Webber returned to Golden State (and returned to playing for Don Nelson) but it was just sad and after nine painful-to-watch games, C-Webb finally hung up with Don Dadas.
The question remains: Is Chris Webber worthy of the Hall of Fame?
Here is the résumé:
- 1991 National High School Player of the Year
- 2 NCAA Final Four (Championship Game) appearances
- National College Player of the Year finalist
- Two-year NCAA averages of 17.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.4 apg
- 1994 Rookie of the Year
- 1999 Rebound Champion
- Five-time NBA All-Star
- 5-time All-NBA (1 First Team, 3 Second Teams, 1 Third Team)
- NBA career averages of 20.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg
According to the DatabaseBasketball.com Hall of Fame Monitor, the answer is yes. Using a formula based on six components, a likely player needs a score of 135 or better to be considered a “likely Hall of Famer.” Webber’s Hall of Fame Monitor score is 139. And that’s just based on his NBA career. If you combine his 139 with his performance in college, his score would be even higher. When his numbers are added to the cultural impact and changes that he helped to implement while at Michigan along with the way he transformed the power forward position in Sacramento, the case against his induction to the Hall of Fame becomes shaky at best.
Since I first became aware of him as a high school player in 1990, I’ve heard many people call Chris Webber many things. I know that they still call him those things to this day. They call him star-crossed. They call him cursed. They call him a criminal. They call him stupid (again, the time-out). They call him a choker.
All of that is understandable, if not entirely fair.
Call him what you will, but alongside all of those descriptions, there should be one more: Hall of Famer.
This originally appeared on http://www.IHateJJRedick.com on March 17, 2011
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.