Webber tries to find fun in being Fab Underachiever label has taken joy from Michigan's success

April 01, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

He was standing at center court, smiling and doing a little dance -- nothing flashy -- when they wheeled out the ladder for the net-cutting ceremony. Suddenly, Chris Webber started running toward the Kingdome locker room, and for a while it seemed he would miss this moment.

But within minutes he was back, camcorder in hand and a wide grin on his face as he recorded the mo- ment. For the first time in a long time, basketball was fun again for Webber and the Fab Five.

"After the game someone told me, 'It looks like you're having fun now,' " Webber said, after Michigan had defeated Temple, 77-72, to win the West Regional final. "Everyone is making a concentrated effort -- not a fake effort -- to have fun."

To have fun. Just like Donald Williams at North Carolina, Andre Riddick of Kentucky and Greg Ostertag at Kansas. All sophomores, and all basking in their team's run to the Final Four.

But it's been different for Webber. It was fun last year, playing on the first NCAA tournament team with five freshman starters. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon as the Fab Five made it to the NCAA title game, where they lost to a more experienced Duke team.

This year the team's been more impressive, going 30-4 (with two losses to Indiana, one to Duke and one to Iowa) and riding an 11-game winning streak. For their effort, the five sophomore starters have been labeled as trash-talking underachievers. Most papers they pick up and the majority of the sports television shows they watch often offer criticism of the group that -- despite its critics -- has tied a school record for wins in a season.

"I'm just 20 years old," Webber tried to explain to his critics during an interview last week. "I'm playing basketball for fun -- I don't get paid. I'm tired of being criticized, even though we're winning. It all comes down to respect, and I don't think we're getting what we deserve."

His point made, Webber sat back and listened as the critical questions continued to flow. And then he erupted.

"When I see someone write that we're the most underachieving team ever," Webber said, slowly, so that his point was heard, "you're not just writing about Chris Webber, the basketball player. You're writing about Chris Webber, the person.

"You have to keep business, business and personal things, personal," he added. "When you talk about Chris Webber and the Fab Five, make sure you talk about them either as players, or as people."

Strong person, player

As a person, Webber's a thoughtful, well-spoken and outspoken psychology major who, if not for basketball, would like nothing better than to become an English teacher.

As a basketball player, Webber's destined for the NBA.

Perhaps it's his sheer strength that makes people forget he's just 20. An agile 6-foot-9, 245-pounder who possesses massive hands and has the ability to get up and down the court like a sprinter, Webber made an immediate impact last year when he averaged 15.5 points and 10 rebounds and led the Big Ten in steals. He won several national Freshman of the Year awards and was named an honorable mention All-American.

"There's no one that has better hands than Chris Webber," said East Tennessee State coach Alan LeForce, who watched helplessly in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament as Webber scored 30 points and grabbed nine rebounds in Michigan's 102-90 win. "You can't stop him when he gets it inside, you have to foul him. He's like a bull in a china closet, but with finesse. We had a 6-foot-11, 203-pound kid against him who bounced off [Webber] like a rubber ball."

A native of Detroit, Webber came to Michigan with solid credentials. A consensus pick as the nation's top high school player, Webber averaged 28 points and 13 rebounds as a senior. He led Country Day High School to three state titles, and ended his career as the state's third all-time leading scorer with 2,628 points. As a senior he was named Michigan's Mr. Basketball.

And that came after Webber, as an eighth grader, once scored 64 points -- including 15 dunks. After a bad experience playing AAU basketball that year, he decided to quit the sport.

"[Michigan teammate] Jalen [Rose] and I hated each other. His friends would try to dog me," Webber said about their AAU team, when Rose would criticize Webber's somewhat limited skills. "So I quit. My father made me go back. He said, 'Instead of running away from something, you have to conquer everything you ever get into.' "

He returned and he and Rose became best friends, making a pact to attend the same high school in Detroit. Webber's parents intervened, however, and he wound up at Country Day, a private school.

A decision to stay near home

It was, in part, his ability to conquer while at Country Day High School that led Webber to Michigan. Michigan, Duke, Syracuse and Minnesota were among the schools in the running for his services.

Part of his decision to play in Ann Arbor was a desire not to be too far from his family. Another was a wish to play on a team where he could be anonymous.

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