This move took guts, not brains

November 18, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

It doesn't matter that the price was too high, or that Chris Webber whined his way out of Golden State, or that Webber and Juwan Howard play the same position.

It doesn't matter that the trade could backfire horribly if Webber is allowed to leave after the only year on his Bullets contract.

It doesn't matter that the Bullets have basically mortgaged their lives into the next century on their ability to keep a 21-year-old mega-millionaire happy.

They had to do this.

When you have been as dreadful and cheap and boring and flat-out bad as they have been for more than a decade, and a chance to give yourself a stunning makeover with a franchise player arises, you have to go for it. You have to take the chance.

If you have an opportunity to end the cycle of mediocrity that has dragged your franchise to the bottom of the league, and you don't take it, you're gutless. You're a loser. You're cynical. You're just stealing your fans' money.

The Bullets had the chance in front of them, and they took it. It's nothing short of incredible, a 180-degree character reversal, not unlike Donald Fehr going to work for the owners: the moribund, ultra-lifeless Bullets taking an outrageous, wild risk, an unimaginably bold stroke. How about a round of applause, people? Let's hear it for the return of pro basketball to the USAir Arena.

Before yesterday, the Bullets were just a collection of bodies taking up space in the NBA. They were dead. One of the worst, least interesting teams in pro sports. Their fast start this season was a fluke. They were going nowhere again. They were not worth the price of a ticket. But now, with Webber and Howard, they're turning into the pro version of Michigan's Fab Five, only the hottest, toughest, most remarkable college team of the past decade. They have a chance to become something special.

They had to do it.

The NBA, more than any other league, is driven by players more than coaches and systems. Without a franchise player, which Webber surely is, you're limited in what you can accomplish. If you've got a bunch of overachievers and your opponent has studs, you lose.

Without a Webber, the Bullets had no chance of becoming a champion. Improve? Maybe. Become a playoff team? Maybe. But a champion? No way, not without Webber or another player of his ilk. The NBA just doesn't work that way. You can look it up.

Now, with Webber, the Bullets have a chance.

In the wake of yesterday's trade with the Warriors, there are all sorts of questions about how they're going to configure the rest of their team and pay all these salaries, but in the NBA the right thing to do is act boldly now and answer those questions later. Get your centerpiece in uniform, regardless of the cost. Because you don't get many chances to add a centerpiece.

For the Bullets, it was a freakish opportunity. They were lucky, it turned out, to wind up with the fifth pick in the last draft instead of the fourth or sixth, giving them Howard instead of Donyell Marshall or Sharone Wright. Webber wouldn't be a Bullet today if Howard weren't also.

And Webber certainly wouldn't be a Bullet today if not for his disgust with his lot in Golden State. The Bullets were lucky, it turned out, that the Orlando Magic was stupid enough to trade him to the Warriors after drafting him No. 1, giving away a Shaq-Webber frontcourt that would have dominated the league for years.

Fate, fate, fate. But give the Bullets credit: When the chance landed in their lap, pretty much out of nowhere, they made the most of it.

Sure, it's troubling that Webber wanted out of Golden State basically because coach Don Nelson yelled at him occasionally and played him at center. Get a life, Chris.

And sure, if Jimmy Lynam yells at him and he gets mad again and decides to force the Bullets to let him leave after one season, this is the worst trade in NBA history. The Bullets will have given up three first-round picks and Tom Gugliotta for one year of Chris Webber. Ouch.

But don't look for that to happen. Howard's presence here makes it far more likely that Webber will stick around. As a matter of fact, the Bullets should go all the way with this thing and trade for Jalen Rose, the Fab Five point guard, now a rookie with the Nuggets. Why not? How amazing would it be to put those three together and let them grow as pros?

No matter what the Bullets do from now on, though, they have made the move that matters. They have traded for one of the best young players in the league, a player around whom they can build a contender. They have transformed their numbingly boring franchise into a must-watch sensation. Not bad for one day's work.

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