Hall of Fame: Class of 2021
Chris Webber's road to Springfield ran through Sacramento
In his 7 seasons with the Kings, the talented and versatile forward flourished while taking the franchise to another level.
Chris Webber is going to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame mainly because his route to Springfield, Mass., went through Sacramento — a detour he wasn’t thrilled about taking at the time.
Webber previously spent his basketball career in such high profile hot-spots as the University of Michigan, followed by the Bay Area and then Washington, D.C., all with a degree of success.
Next stop, Sacramento? In his prime? For a Kings franchise that was a speck on the map and even smaller in the championship big picture before he arrived?
To say Webber was miffed when he packed his bags would be underselling his emotions. He actually tried to sabotage the trade from Washington in the summer of 1998 by threatening not to report to the Kings in the fall.
“I was mad,” he said.
Sacramento was good for Webber and vice versa, because in the unsung capital of California, a groundbreaking and exciting team was born and a star was realized and celebrated. Throughout a 15-year NBA career bookended by unfulfilled promise and injury, Webber’s seven blissful seasons in Sacramento were his finest and punched his ticket to the Hall.
In no specific order with the Kings, he was a leader, the face of the franchise, a premier player at the power forward position — he was an All-NBA selection five of those seasons — and helped awaken if not create the basketball appetite in a town that became much larger and louder than it appeared on the outside. Not many players of his generation can claim this.
So what does Webber say today, in retrospect?
“Sac is part of me. I love Sacramento.”
Webber’s basketball career is one of multiple parts. He was the nation’s top high school player who joined college basketball’s first “super team” as a member of the Fab Five at Michigan. He was involved in a Draft-day trade between the Orlando Magic and Golden State Warriors and won top rookie honors with Golden State. A falling out with coach Don Nelson resulted in a swift trade to Washington in 1994, where a reunion with college teammate Juwan Howard raised expectations that weren’t met.
And then … the Kings. It might seem odd nowadays, with the Kings in a playoff drought that’s a decade-and-a-half long, but Webber made the Kings a premier and fun squad in the 2000s. His skill set was the core of the Kings and Webber was an adept passer for a 6-foot-10 man. He could shoot from mid-range at the elbow with ease, was relentless rebounder and a respectable defender.
In his time with the Kings, Webber averaged 23.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game and yet those numbers don’t explain the entire story. Webber was a playmaker as well, either starting them or finishing them. He was unselfish when needed, take-charge when necessary.
Jerry Reynolds, who worked in the franchise longer than anyone in Sacramento as coach, GM and broadcaster, said it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Webber is the franchise’s best player since the relocation from Kansas City. That says plenty about Webber (and maybe a bit about the Kings, too).
“A few years earlier I traded for Mitch Richmond, and he wasn’t happy coming here, either,” Reynolds said. “But after he retired, I told Mitch that if he was never a King, he wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer, he’d be a second or third guy with Golden State forever because they had Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway. We eventually traded Mitch for Chris. Therefore, Mitch gave us our first star coming and then gave us a bigger star going.”
Webber was purposefully late arriving to Sacramento and didn’t hide his displeasure, but all that disappeared quickly. Geoff Petrie, then the new GM, told Webber that in order to get paid, he had to play. Petrie had also traded for Vlade Divac and drafted Jason Williams, two players who complimented Webber well. Webber had an abrupt change-of-heart after the very first practice once he saw what Divac, Williams and Peja Stojakovic could do.
“One practice,” he said. “I looked around and said this is going to be nice. Because we’re playing like nobody else was playing. You could see it that first practice what (we) wanted to do. And it felt like home, man.”
The Kings played textbook basketball. Players cut, moved without the ball, broke open for jumpers, shot 3-pointers, mid-range shots and ran the floor. All this was mainly made possible because Webber bought in, so everyone else bought in.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said former Kings guard and current Kings broadcaster Doug Christie, who arrived in 2000-01. “I do know I had reverence for him, watching him at Michigan, playing against him in the league.
“I knew he was extremely talented but I didn’t know him as a person. When I found out, I loved him even more. You know, you can play with superstars who can take up the whole room. C-Webb could’ve dominated the ball and averaged 35 and 17, but he chose to get everybody involved and set a tone that allowed everybody to breathe and eat. It was the right thing, not only for our team, but for him as well. It showcased him in a light that was beautiful. He was the architect of some of the most beautiful basketball we’ve ever seen. A lot of that was what Webb was able to do. That’s why as a person and teammate I hold him as high regard.”
Webber’s first season in Sacramento was the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, but he ended Dennis Rodman’s seven-year hold on the rebounding title by grabbing a career-high 13 a game. The next season is when Webber and the Kings established themselves as a contender. In 2000-01, Webber finished fourth in MVP voting with a career-best season (27.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and he scored 51 in a game, too.
The good times rolled for the Kings. Until then, Sacramento had only made the playoffs twice since relocating from Kansas City in 1985. They never went beyond the first round and struggled to find and keep star players. Suddenly, the Kings were a main-stage act in the NBA, almost overnight. Home games sold out constantly, and the old ARCO Arena — filled with noisy fans who clanged cowbells — transformed into a tough place for visiting teams. Christie saw the effect it had on Webber.
“The purity of the game came back for him in Sacramento,” Christie said. “He was around players he respected and liked. We were brothers, had fun, played hard. It was basketball nirvana.”
Then, after winning a league-and franchise-best 61 games, came the controversial 2002 Western Conference finals against the rival Los Angeles Lakers. The series went seven games, but there were some questionable calls that didn’t go Sacramento’s way, and the Kings lost in heartbreaking fashion. It would be the closest Webber would get to a title.
In 2002-03, the Kings were considered a strong favorite for the championship and won 59 games when everything changed for them and Webber. His non-contact knee injury in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks was costly for the Kings and career-threatening for Webber. He underwent microfracture surgery, which stole his movement. At the trade deadline in 2004-05, he was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers with Matt Barnes and Michael Bradley for Brian Skinner, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson.
At least Webber was able to lean on his bread-and-butter mid-range shot, launched from the left and right of the key, which bought him extra time in the league. He developed the elbow jumper not long after arriving in Sacramento, on the advice of Pete Carril, the longtime Princeton coach who was a Kings assistant under Rick Adelman.
“Coach Carril convinced Chris he would get ridiculed because most people wanted him in the post,” Christie said. “Coach Carril said, ‘Never mind that, we’re going to do something different.’ Chris gets to the elbow and when that happened, his game exploded. With those big hands of his and all the cutting and passing, we thrived.
“I’m cutting to the basket and suddenly the ball is in my lap, so now I’m cutting with a purpose and veracity. Then Chris’ defender backed off from him to guard against the pass, and so Webb had an open shot. If Webb can’t knock that elbow shot down, then the lane is clogged and passing and cutting means nothing. Chris is pulling up from 17, 18 feet and it took his game and our game to another level.”
Webber spent 1 1/2 seasons with the 76ers, a season with his hometown Detroit Pistons (2006-07) and a second turn with the Warriors (2007-08), where he was often a supporting player at best on those teams. He remained faithful and grateful to Sacramento, the place in the NBA where he loved basketball the most while initially expecting the least.
“A lot of times in life we get what we need and not what we want,” Christie said. “He wanted something different than Sacramento. But what he needed was exactly where he was at, and man, he made the best of it.”
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