He had secluded himself in a guarded room off the Michigan locker room, ducking the reporters who were waiting impatiently for him, and now, about an hour after the NCAA championship game, Chris Webber slid out a side door, a guard in front of him and a team manager behind, to begin the longest walk of his 20-year-old life.
Ordinarily one of the most charming and eloquent of the Wolverines, Webber just didn't want to talk anymore about the timeout he called—a timeout that his team didn't have. Hadn't he appeared at the postgame press conference and taken the blame? What else was there to say except that it hurt so bad?
Until he made that mistake Webber had been his usual magnificent self, fiercely battling Eric Montross and North Carolina's other inside players to score a team-high 23 points and grab a game-high 11 rebounds. Maybe he just didn't listen closely enough during that last timeout, with 46 seconds remaining, when Michigan coach Steve Fisher reminded his players that they had no timeouts left. Or maybe, as Wolverine forward Ray Jackson said, "It was the heat of the moment, man. Everybody's yelling. You get nervous. He's a 20-year-old kid."
North Carolina led 73-71 with 20 seconds left when Webber snatched the rebound of a missed free throw by the Tar Heels' Pat Sullivan. Webber dribbled furiously up the court, determined to take the game by the throat and wring victory out of it. But then he called timeout.
For Webber the nightmare had begun. The free throws by North Carolina's Donald Williams. The final buzzer sounding. Players and fans charging onto the court while Webber walked off it in a daze. "I don't remember," he said after the game. "Just called a timeout, and we didn't have a timeout. And I cost our team the game."
Now, walking down a corridor in the Superdome, Webber moved with a heaviness so different from the grace and elegance with which he patrols the court. Head bowed, shoulders stooped, he plodded on, stopping only to sign an autograph for a kid. "Keep back!" barked his guardians over and again to the three or four journalists who followed.
He lumbered on with a slight limp, a can of Coke in his left hand, his equipment bag slung over his right shoulder, a baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. Then, just after passing some fans who yelled, "That's all right, Chris!" and "Hang in there, Chris," he felt himself wrapped in the familiar arms of his father, Mayce, and one of his brothers.
And there Chris stopped. He dropped his bag, bent over and began sobbing, his shoulders heaving. His family rubbed his back and whispered to him. For a minute they barely moved, a tableau of sorrow and love and pain.