Still not fully recovered from off-season left-knee surgery, Chris Webber had just finished limping through a 127-117 loss at Dallas last Thursday when he was approached by a couple of Mavericks fans. Webber was tired and upset, but as he slowly walked toward the Sacramento Kings' bus, he turned on the 500-kilowatt charm. "You're wearing a Dirk Nowitzki jersey, and you want to take your picture with me?" he said with a smile as the fans' friend clicked away.
"Hey, Chris, look at this," said another fan, handing him a snapshot of Webber from his Michigan days. Webber grinned as he studied it. "I got my little high-top, part in my hair, no mustache," he said. "Man, I look so young."
The 31-year-old Webber wouldn't mind turning back the clock—and not just because of his balky knee. The Teflon coating that has long protected [his image has eroded; even the absurdly loyal fans at Arco Arena have booed Webber recently. Last July he pleaded guilty to criminal contempt charges, admitting that he'd lied to a Detroit grand jury about repaying $38,200 to a Michigan booster. (The Wolverines forfeited 112 wins as a result of this and other players' NCAA violations.) Then, after missing the first 50 games of this season because of his knee, Webber had to serve an NBA-imposed eight-game suspension: three for lying to the grand jury and five for violating the league's drug policy.
Still, the old no-stick Webber could have counted on winning back the faithful with his smile and a few double doubles. What no one could have figured was this: After his March 2 return the Kings would play like the Queens—as Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal is wont to call them. They may have begun to regain their swagger with a 99-94 victory over the Rockets at Houston on Sunday, a much-needed boost that kept Sacramento (53-23) atop the Pacific Division at week's end, percentage points ahead of the rampaging Lakers (54-24), who had won 11 of 12. But it's difficult for the Kings to forget that they're only 10-8 since Webber's return, and that just five weeks ago their lead over L.A. was six games.
Granted, injuries to all-purpose guard Bobby Jackson (out for 23 games, through Sunday, with a strained abdominal muscle) and 7-foot Brad Miller (out three games and counting with bursitis in his right elbow, which followed hard upon his missing seven games with a sprained right foot) have turned Sacramento into what coach Rick Adelman calls "a mix-and-match team." But the Kings shouldn't be playing this badly, particularly since Webber's production (18.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists) has been solid.
"I keep saying that it's not about Chris Webber," says Chris Webber, practiced in the art of third-person discourse. "It's not about one guy coming back and changing a team one way or the other." His teammates, always loyal, echo that sentiment, and his station among them remains elevated despite his troubles. Co-captain Vlade Divac gathers the Kings for encouraging words during games. But it is co-captain Webber who skewers them behind closed doors, as he did after a 107-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on March 31.
Webber has always been the artful dodger, a charismatic star who could charm a mongrel dog out of a meat wagon. Since his Fab Five days at Ann Arbor, he has come across as the thinking man's jock, possessed of street cred and brains. Yet as he was wowing eggheads in panel discussions on sports and society, he was paying a $500 fine for possession of marijuana (in '98, during a promotional tour for Fila USA overseas) and repeatedly denying the improper payments from the booster, Ed Martin. Last week he called former college teammate Juwan Howard, a man for whom being booed is a way of life, and asked him how to deal with the fans' treatment. Howard, now with the Orlando Magic, told him to focus on the positive. To that end Webber deflected SI's requests for an extended interview last week "because I know it will be about the negative past, and I don't want that dredged up."
But the Kings were built to win a championship, and if they fail, most of the fans will blame Webber. "Logic says we'd be better with our best player coming back, but sometimes logic doesn't prevail," says assistant coach Pete Carril. "That's why World War I broke out." Carril usually follows up such observations with trenchant analysis; this time he has none to offer. "Everybody seems to have hit a wall and a dull spot at the same time," says Adelman, "and I don't know why."
"It's not one big thing," says Webber. "It's a bunch of little things." Looking more closely at why his return hasn't improved the team may help decode what general manager Geoff Petrie calls "a matrix."
?Webber is struggling physically. The decision to activate him was made mutually by Webber, the training staff and Adelman, all of whom felt that bringing him back any later would have given Sacramento insufficient time to readjust before the playoffs. Yet Webber limps noticeably, comes down gingerly on his left foot after a jump shot and, instead of just pivoting and jetting upcourt, turns carefully and steadies himself before taking off. "That's always how it is when you come back," says Divac. "You are always thinking too much until one day—boom!—you do everything without thinking about it." Webber better hear the boom soon because the Kings thrive at an up-tempo pace.