Snapshot: Chris Webber
From preps to pros, Palace played a big role in Webber’s career
He won the last two of his three Michigan high school state championships there. As a sophomore in 1989, he led Detroit Country Day to the Class C title at Michigan’s Crisler Arena, where he would play his college basketball. For the next four seasons, though, the MHSAA held its four boys state title games at The Palace. Country Day voluntarily moved up to Class B for stiffer competition and won in both 1990 and ’91.
That ’91 title was the beginning of a memorable day, not just for Webber, but for Jalen Rose, for Steve Fisher and Michigan basketball, and for The Palace.
The Class B game started the day, so Webber had the net around his neck by early afternoon. The MHSAA was less than thrilled that Webber chose that day to announce his college choice – and several notches below “less than thrilled” that he chose to do so at a riverfront Detroit restaurant. A significant chunk of the media in town from all over the state to cover the state finals trailed Webber down Interstate 75 to report on his announcement – it was a Michigan-Michigan State battle all the way and, almost beyond challenge, the most hyped recruiting battle ever between the rivals – thus missing the Class C-D doubleheader that afternoon.
Later that night, Rose, Voshon Lenard and Howard Eisley – future NBA players, all – led Perry Watson’s Detroit Southwestern team to the Class A state title. It was well known that Webber and Rose were tight. It was all but conceded that Watson was headed to Fisher’s staff at Michigan – U-M assistant Mike Boyd had left the previous fall to take a late opening at Cleveland State and Fisher, conveniently, had left the spot open all year. So it would have been a shock had Rose wound up anywhere but Michigan. When the game was over, at the MHSAA’s postgame press conference, a reporter asked Rose if he was ready to follow Webber’s footsteps. Rose took that opportunity to announce he, too, would sign with Michigan.
Rose was the finishing touch, of course, to the Fab Five class. Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson had made it official for Michigan by signing months earlier during the November signing period. All winter, Webber and Rose were poked and prodded as to their intentions. The Fab Five was born at The Palace with Rose’s announcement – and let the record show they also played their first game open to the public at The Palace.
It was an exhibition game against Athletes in Action, the longstanding amateur team that travels the world and is made up of very talented former college players. The best player on the team for that November 1991 game at The Palace against the Fab Five was Lorenzo Romar, now the head coach at Washington.
Sixteen months later, Romar was an assistant coach for Jim Harrick at UCLA and he would have to help devise a game plan to combat the Fab Five. Both teams were assigned to the West Region for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games at the University of Arizona. UCLA beat Iowa State – coached at the time by former Michigan coach Johnny Orr – and Michigan beat Coastal Carolina in the first round, setting up their second-round match.
Remembering that Palace meeting, I tracked down Romar very late on a Friday night in Tucscon after the No. 1-seeded Wolverines had coasted in the nationally televised nightcap to ask him what he might have learned from playing against them that could help the heavy underdog Bruins on Sunday afternoon. We talked for about 15 minutes. Romar gushed about Michigan’s talent, but I left thinking he believed UCLA had a real shot at the upset.
He left the McKale Center two days later muttering about what might have been. UCLA went ahead by 19 points and Michigan needed a controversial King tip-in at the overtime buzzer to escape. A few weeks later, of course, Webber would call the infamous timeout Michigan didn’t have in losing to North Carolina in the national title game, a moment that would hang over him throughout a career that always seemed to come with an asterisk. He was as gifted as any power forward in the NBA’s gilded age of power forwards, but he never won a title or took his team to the NBA Finals.
As a rookie, drafted No. 1 – by Orlando, where he would have teamed with a young Shaquille O’Neal in a mind-blowingly overwhelming frontcourt had the Magic not swapped him to Golden State for the No. 3 pick (Penny Hardaway) and three future No. 1 picks – Webber’s NBA debut at The Palace was wrecked in the early minutes when he crumpled in a heap under the basket with a severely sprained ankle. I was there that night, too, as was my inconsolable son, a huge Webber fan.
Webber came close to having his NBA career end at The Palace, too. When he came to the Pistons midway through the 2006-07 season, the knee injury Webber had suffered with Sacramento had sapped the springs from his legs and he was nearing the end. In fact, all he had left was a nine-game stint the following season with Golden State. High school, college, pros ... for a guy who had nothing but a cameo with the Pistons, you can’t paint a full portrait of Chris Webber without The Palace in his background.