That focus earned Webber praise when, three years ago, he broke with Nike because he felt its high sneaker prices exploited at-risk kids. Few athletes are better qualified than Webber to bridge the chasm between the streets and the corporate boardroom: While at Country Day he raised money for books on African-American subjects, pushed the administration for a course in African-American history that it has since added to the curriculum and spoke out about the value of diversity.
At Country Day, Webber made noise about someday becoming mayor of Detroit, rebuilding the city's shattered neighborhoods block by block, and he still says, "It isn't just talk." He has also been building a private collection of African-American historical documents and hopes to build a museum to house them. But since appearing subdued and defensive on a nationally televised panel on race and sports in 1997, Webber has been quiet on social issues, though he still gives generously to charity.
"For those of us who know his complexity and intelligence, it's like, O.K., Chris, when are you going to do it? When?" Keener says. "We're kind of impatient. When this trade came, I thought it might not be bad: It's like he's gone off to Siberia, and that can be a cleansing experience. And when Chris comes out of the wilderness, he may finally be the thing we all want him to be."
I'm frustrated, but...never jaded
Even though I'm on the road with Sacramento
I'll never let none of this-change my mento!
I got to give it all I got!
Give me my props!
—C. WEBB, All I Got
Over the summer Webber hid in his Detroit apartment, pouring himself into twice-daily workouts, into reading, into thinking. He told his family he wouldn't be talking to them for a few months. At midnight Webber would go to some theater and watch a movie. It became increasingly clear that Sacramento had no intention of trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers, for whom Webber most wanted to play, 01 anyone else. He made no secret of his desire to move on but figured that his time with the Kings would force him to learn something he'd never known before: patience. He worked through the fall, getting into the best shape of his pro career as he waited out the lockout He felt numb. "It's like I put breathing on hold," Webber says, "waiting for my time to shine."
His time came. He shone. Despite refusing to allow Sacramento to stage the customary post-trade press conference and missing the first day of training camp, Webber has almost persuaded wary Kings fans that maybe, just maybe, he likes their sleepy town. Since announcing himself with 25 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists, nine blocks and three steals in his home debut against the Vancouver Grizzlies, Webber has led the NBA in double doubles, racked up a revenge triple double in Washington and showcased himself against the Lakers in Los Angeles with a game-winning, one-handed rebound-and-toss-in with .4 of a second left. "I didn't realize how talented he is, how well he sees the floor," says Kings coach Rick Adelman. "And I tell you: He doesn't care if he scores 12 or 26. He wants to win. He's definitely someone you can build around."
Webber can still disappear more easily than a man his size should be able to in front of thousands of eyes. Through Sunday he was shooting a career-low 47.4% from the free throw line and had imposed his will in the fourth quarter far less than he could. "What makes me mad about Chris is when he goes on court and doesn't give his best," Mayce says. "It just kills me."
Webber sits on a couch in his living room, exhausted. His eyes are slits. It's not so much the 29-point, 11-rebound, six-assist, five-steal performance he turned in the night before in Houston as much as losing a night's sleep because the Kings' plane had mechanical trouble on the way home. He works a rubber band between his fingers. He keeps saying the right things: how the play of rookie point guard Jason Williams has fueled his enthusiasm, how he loves Adelman, how he could see himself recruiting top players to Sacramento and staying to build a champion. He is ready, he says, to take the best pieces of himself and funnel them finally toward the only goal that matters.
"I'm not at peace with my career," Webber says. "I need a stretch of just worrying about basketball. I want the next 10 years to go smooth. I want the game to embrace me. I don't mean the media, I don't mean the people within the NBA structure. I want the game. It embraced me in high school, it embraced me in college. I want that same feeling. I want the pressure of being the best."
It sounds wonderful, as lyrical and irresistible as a well-crafted song. Maybe this is indeed it, the time Webber will finally unify his life and heed his father's words. Maybe he'll let his light blaze and the game grab him, and become who he should be. But even the best song is nothing but a song. And sooner or later, it gets old.