SI Vault
Ralph Wiley
February 02, 1987
Golden State viewed rookie Chris Washburn as a diamond in the rough, but his season has been a lot rougher so far than anyone anticipated
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February 02, 1987

Will The Sleeping Giant Ever Awake?

Golden State viewed rookie Chris Washburn as a diamond in the rough, but his season has been a lot rougher so far than anyone anticipated

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Savannah Washburn was in her 40's and in the 15th year of her marriage to Dwight Washburn when she delivered her first child, on May 13, 1965. By then, she had a stepdaughter who was already in her teens. Mrs. Washburn considered this late pregnancy to be more miracle than accident. She knew her firstborn would be special, a gift from God. All the child had to do was show up healthy. She would take care of the rest.

When Chris Washburn was 15 years old, he stood 6'10" in his stocking feet. He weighed 275 pounds. And he could play basketball. "I was always coordinated," says Washburn. "I could always dribble. I could shoot with my left hand. I could run. I never lifted weights." So, it was not surprising to hear many prep school and college recruiters agreeing that Chris's mother was right. He was a gift from God. Any fool could see it. Some even added (out of the sides of their mouths) that he might be above certain rules. Things might be arranged. All he had to do was show up healthy. They would take care of the rest.

Washburn finally settled on North Carolina State, primarily because the Wolfpack was reigning NCAA champion and because the school was only 135 miles from his home in Hickory, N.C. In his two years there, he set no records, took a stereo that didn't belong to him and then declared himself eligible for the NBA draft last April.

Washburn was drafted by the woebegone Golden State Warriors, at the time rumored to be in the Pacific Division of the NBA. He was the third pick overall in the draft. The Warriors hoped he would be one of the elements in the resurrection of a franchise that had not made the playoffs in nine long years. The team's new coach, George Karl, had spent hours the night before the draft studying film of Washburn and others. "We looked at Ron Harper, we looked at the rest," says Karl. "We saw this 6'11" guy with talent. We had to take him. And I think he'll be a good player, maybe, in three years. If he works. If he changes. But sometimes I wonder if we drafted the kind of player who will always break your heart."

The Warriors reportedly have fined Washburn at least nine times for such transgressions as being late for a team bus or missing it completely or being late for practice or just "brain locking," as Karl calls it, in games. Almost in spite of Washburn, it seems, the Warriors have been resurrected. They could even find themselves in the playoffs this year, if they all keep playing up to the limits of their talent. Meanwhile, Washburn has spent most of the season on the bench (he is currently out of action with a kidney ailment). He won't be in the running for NBA Rookie of the Year.

Washburn has laid out so much money in fines that the team, with Karl's approval, decided to buy a dressing room stereo with some of the proceeds. It represents Washburn's greatest contribution to the Warriors so far and perhaps his first lesson in real life: What goes around comes around. Washburn has many more lessons to learn before the Warriors can become championship contenders, and Karl can get his blood pressure under control.

"I don't see what being five minutes late has to do with anything," Washburn says. He is standing outside his town house high in the Oakland hills. He is not wearing a shirt. A woman backs her car out of the driveway next door, feigning nonchalance, looking the other way while attempting to get a better glimpse of this colossus. She backs into the car parked across the street. Washburn hears the crash and shrugs. He continues explaining the difficulties of his rookie year. Finally, he shakes his head. "It's not just opponents; it's your coaches, your teammates. They all test you in your rookie year."

So here, then, is Chris Washburn—not the legendary Washburn of almost no measurable SAT score, not the Washburn who made college recruiters compromise principles and not the Washburn of the Warriors' dreams, either. This is the real Chris Washburn, as seen through the eyes of his teammates, his coach and his toughest opponent.

Teammates: Your name is Larry Smith and you are a rebounding machine. Clocks can be set by your rebounds. You average one board every 2.8 minutes on the floor—a better rate even than Buck Williams'. If Golden State is playing, you're getting your 11. You have played power forward for the Warriors for the last six years and led them in rebounding every season. Last year you led the team in rebounds in 50 games. You have had 30-rebound games twice in your career, and once, on a defensive mission, you helped hold Larry Bird scoreless for 37 minutes. In seven years, you have been fined once. Fifty dollars. You wish you had those back. You made $65,000 as a rookie in 1980-81. Yet the Warriors have not made the playoffs since you've been with them. So you have been part of the problem. You are only 6'7" in an era of Twin Towers. And you have no shot to speak of. The Warriors drafted Washburn and gave him a four-year, three-million-dollar contract to take your job. He was a gift from God. All he had to do was show up healthy. And beat you out.

"George called me in this past summer," says Smith. "He told me he preferred to go with bigger people." Smith is dressed in a business suit and cramped in the coach section of a jet winging toward the Bay Area. On a recent road trip, the fingers on his right hand were hyperextended so badly that he couldn't make a fist. He averaged 13 boards per game anyway. Washburn had the flu and was usually a DNP-CD—did not play, coach's decision.

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