Fit for the Throne
Finally committed to the Kings, Chris Webber has them shooting for a crown
Sacramento's fans are known as the best in the league, but they expressed mixed feelings for Chris Webber when the Kings jumped to a surprising 15-5 start while he recovered from a sprained left ankle suffered in preseason. "I could hear a few boos and murmurs that the team was maybe better off without me," says Webber. "I remember saying to myself, My ankle is hurting at this exact moment that you're booing me."
It's hard to imagine how the Kings could be better without the unselfish Webber, who at week's end was leading his team with 24.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, while averaging 5.1 assists and 1.7 steals. It's no coincidence that the Kings went on an 11-game winning streak when his ankle felt strong enough for him to play under the basket without fear. "I talked to Chris earlier this season about how expectations were so unrealistic that there was nothing he could ever do to meet them," says team president Geoff Petrie. "But I look at our record [a league-best 30-9] and the way he's been playing, and he may be exceeding them."
Still, it's hard for some fans to forget Webber's threat to leave Sacramento as a free agent be-fore he agreed last summer to a seven-year, $122.7 million contract (second in total dollars only to Kevin Garnett's six-year, $126 million deal). Webber, 28, acknowledges he came close to moving to Indiana or San Antonio—the latter in an intriguing deal that would have paired him with Tim Duncan. Webber was convinced that San Antonio wanted him to replace free-agent center David Robinson. When Webber didn't respond to the Spurs' calls, they re-signed the 36-year-old Robinson for $20 million over two years. "Coach [Gregg] Popovich kept calling, saying 'Just tell me yes,' " Webber says. "I love Tim Duncan's game. I would not have minded playing in a situation like that, even though people would have said, 'Chris had to go there to win a championship.' "
Indiana was attractive to Webber because it's close to his home in Detroit and he relished playing for Isiah Thomas. Even more appealing, however, was that he and center Jermaine O'Neal could have combined on a front line that would have ruled the Eastern Conference. Speculation at the time was that the Pacers would have to trade O'Neal to Sacramento to acquire Webber. Indiana had other plans, says Webber: "They were looking to sign [free-agent] Antonio Davis and then do a sign-and-trade for me." Ultimately Webber realized he could sign a rich contract and contend for the league tide with Sacramento, which has progressed each year since he arrived by trade before the 1998-99 lockout season.
Much of the Kings' improvement tins season is attributable to the arrival of point guard Mike Bibby in a draft-night trade for Jason Williams and swingman Nick Anderson, which signaled a new focus for the franchise. Beginning in his 1998-99 rookie season, Williams helped turn the eternally passive Kings into a bold, exciting playoff team. Sacramento, however, tired of his tendency to hoist quick three-pointers and make clever, dangerous passes when simple ones would do. The 23-year-old Bibby's balanced approach has helped seven Kings average in double figures, as opposed to four last season, and Sacramento is no longer the kind of topsy-turvy club that falls behind by 15 points before fighting back.
"Now it's time to get serious about trying to beat the Lakers or San Antonio," says Joe Maloof, who owns the Kings with his brother Gavin. "We'll know if [the trade] was a good decision at the end of the year. If we get to the Western Conference finals, we'll know we're making strides. If we get knocked out in the first round, then we have to reevaluate."
Webber believes no such reevaluation will be necessary. He and center Vlade Divac preside over a locker room that is not obsessed with individual statistics. Webber is averaging 2.7 fewer points than last year, but the scoring ability of his teammates—led by fourth-year pro Peja Stojakovic, who is having an All-Star caliber year—and Webber's knack for passing out of the double team often force opponents to play single coverage against him. As a result he gets as many open looks at the basket as any superstar in the league.
With a big smile Webber recalls how he "hated" Petrie after the lockout, when he says the Kings refused to trade Webber to the Lakers for Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones. How many championships could he have won with Shaq? "I didn't want to be here," Webber says. "But I can honestly say I'm glad I'm not a Laker. I believe we're going to win a championship, maybe not this year, but sometime. If I'm right, it will mean we did it together, as a team, without having to ride anyone's back."
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