ATLANTA -- The phone never stopped ringing. Not during breakfast. Not during lunch. Not during a quiet evening at home, because there were no quiet evenings at home. There was always noise, always doorbells, always mailmen with stacks of recruiting letters that went immediately into a big cardboard box and lay there, unopened. Visitors came with films and promises. Reporters. TV crews. Coaches. Friends of coaches. At times, the kid couldn't even sleep at home, there was no peace there, everyone wanting to know the answer to The Question, so he would take off, stay at a friend's house, even on school nights, wake up with another family, eat a bowl of cereal with another family. This was his life.
It was one year ago this weekend that Chris Webber finally broke the suspense, announced he had chosen Michigan -- and you could almost hear the sports world exhale. Call off the dogs, douse the fire, the most highly recruited high school basketball player in the United States since the last most highly recruited basketball player in the United States had made up his mind. Did you hear? It was front-page news in Detroit. WEBBER PICKS WOLVERINES!
How long ago it seems. Twelve months. Now, standing after practice, in a blue coat and loose cotton sweat pants, on the eve of his first NCAA tournament, Chris Webber, college freshman, looks back at the madness that was his high school experience, and comes up with one word:
4 You don't need college to reach that conclusion.
"I felt really old in high school," Webber admits. "By the time I was a sophomore, I felt like a senior. I felt like everyone was always looking at me. Now, when I walk around campus, I feel young. Real young. I can even act silly if I want to, and just blame it on the fact that I'm a freshman."
He smiles when he says this, as if discovering a treasure under his bed. But, you realize, when was Webber allowed to be a kid? When has he been anything but a prize? From as early as eighth grade, he was the target of recruiters, back slappers, alumni pushers, phone jabbers, special offers, oily promises, anything to get him, this tall, smooth, scoring machine, to commit to a college. You thought life would end for every school Webber spurned.
It didn't, of course. This spring, they're all chasing some other kid. Some other prize. Webber has completed the regular part of his freshman season, and he laughs at the times the Wolverines played against schools that once tried to recruit him, coaches who wrote him the most gushing letters, acted as if Webber were their son -- and now, suddenly, they barely spoke to him. "When they do that it's like, OK, so that's how it is, huh?" Webber says. "I'm glad I didn't go there."
Every year, some kid is put through this hypocrisy, the "nation's top recruit." He feels the fate of the free world hangs in the balance of his college selection. And when he finally gets there, it is more relief than anything else. Most kids see college as a frightening new village where they are suddenly nobody special; for recruits like Webber, that's the whole fun of it. Finally, some anonymity!
Oh, he is hardly invisible at 6 feet 9, 240 pounds. But there are other big athletes on the Michigan campus. Some, like Desmond Howard, are more famous than Webber. Even on the court Webber has, shall we say, come back to the pack.
"In high school I was always the No. 1 option," he says. "There were players you weren't supposed to go to in the last five minutes, guys who weren't that good, and then there was me. But here, everyone is good, they could all be a No. 1 option.
"I don't feel as dominant as I used to. But that's why I came here. I'm just part of the picture."
Today, Webber's phone rings only when friends want to hang out, or his parents call from home. His campus mailbox is stuffed only with student activities flyers and offers to join CD clubs. When he goes home on weekends, the house is fairly peaceful. He used to keep a yellow pad by the phone with names of coaches he would talk to, and coaches he wouldn't talk to, in case his brothers or sister answered the phone. "That's gone now," he says, laughing. "And my mother hasn't screened a call in a year."
Meanwhile, Webber The Wolverine has been a force, albeit an erratic one. He has made young mistakes. But his biggest games come against the biggest opponents -- season-high scoring, 28 points, against Duke; season-high rebounding, 18, against Indiana -- and that could bode well for this tournament. He is, after all, used to the big time, even if he is happy to avoid it.
The only time he feels especially noticed these days is when he is late for class, and he slips in the back, and all eyes turn because he's so tall and well-known, and pretty soon the professor's eyes follow the students' eyes and uh-oh -- there he is, caught in the act. "I thought about crawling in on the floor," he says, "but I guess that wouldn't work, either."
Of course, he could try getting to class on time. But then he wouldn't be a kid. And because he's finally getting that opportunity, to be a kid, maybe, for now, it's not so terrible.