Past follows Webber, but he's a happy star Despite late selection, Bullet sees it as sign of how far he's come

February 09, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- If Chris Webber was upset at being named a late replacement for this year's NBA All-Star Game, any bitter feelings had disappeared by the time he arrived here and found himself in the same room with many of the game's superstars.

"Me and Kevin Garnett were stargazing, just glad to see all these guys," Webber said. "Just to be in one room with these guys, you get goose bumps. It's a dream come true, and I'm just so happy to be here."

Tonight, Webber gets an opportunity to shine in the NBA's biggest showcase of talent as a member of the Eastern Conference squad. This should be a chance for Webber to bask in the glow of the biggest spotlight he's ever played in as a professional, but it's also a weekend when he has had to revisit a past that has not always been pleasant.

Most of the players here are asked questions about their accomplishments, but Webber has had to answer questions about forced trades, fired coaches and an underachieving team. At times, the onslaught of questions has become overwhelming.

"I didn't know it was going to be like this," Webber said at one point during a one-hour media session. "I think it's always going to taint my career. As long as other people know who I am, I really don't care."

He was the top pick in the 1993 draft, taken by the Orlando Magic. He had dreams of playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal, only to be traded minutes later to the Golden State Warriors. He then signed a long-term deal with Golden State, only to hold out after the first season following a feud with coach Don Nelson.

Webber then forced a trade to the Washington Bullets, only to be sidelined for much of two seasons with a shoulder injury that required surgery more than a year ago.

"It seems like I've been in the NBA for 30 years with all the situations I've been involved in," Webber said. "And then to top all of that, last year I had the surgery. To make this transition in a year is something I thank God for."

And the All-Star selection was no gift. Many thought Webber should have been named among the seven original reserves after averaging 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds.

He assumed that was enough to silence the critics, to show that he is, indeed, a legitimate player. But the tone of questioning he has faced since arriving here suggests otherwise.

"I think what's been most detrimental to my career -- besides the injury -- is the question of my character. I think more so than my play on the court, people wanted to know how I was off the court."

More specifically, most people wanted to know whether he was childish and mean-spirited, which is how he was perceived in the Nelson squabble at Golden State. Webber acknowledges that, being a bit more mature, he might not have gone to the media with his complaints. But he does not back away from his beliefs that Nelson was disrespectful.

"It's something I used to sit at home and think about. It's something I really can't fix," Webber said. "At the time I was only 19, 20 years old. I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes in my life. But if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change anything."

Webber will have many people to share this moment with. His hometown is Detroit, not far from Cleveland, so his parents and a lot of friends and family will attend the weekend's festivities.

With both Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning missing the game with injuries, Webber should see a lot of minutes as a backup center to Dikembe Mutombo.

He doesn't like to be classified as a center on a day-to-day basis, but he said he doesn't mind doing it for a night.

"I'm a power forward. I play better facing the basket, and chaining me to the hole box is a mistake," Webber said. "But I'll play center if I have to. And doing it here is no problem."

As Webber spoke, across the room sat Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill, fielding questions about being the savior of the game.

Webber was asked whether he would like to be perceived like Hill -- wholesome, nice.

"I don't want a choirboy image," Webber said. "I'm a regular person. I'm being myself.

"I think we've all made mistakes," Webber added. "But I don't think my mistakes got me in this position. I've never missed a practice, I've never been kicked out of a game. You can fault me for a lot of things, but anything I do is because I want to win."

To Webber, being named an All-Star -- regardless of how it was accomplished -- is one of his biggest wins.

"Today's a sweet day to sit back and take a breath," Webber said, "And to say I made it for a second. It's an experience I'll never forget."

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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