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Monday, September 27, 2021

‘I’m here to talk’: Hall of Fame inductee Chris Webber discusses his career and complex basketball legacy

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7:09 AM ET

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    Myron MedcalfESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covers college basketball
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

IN HIS 30 YEARS in the spotlight, Chris Webber has rarely allowed anyone outside his circle to know exactly who the real Chris Webber is.

It’s not surprising. Despite a decorated career — first as a high school All-American, then as a member of the Fab Five at Michigan, a five-time NBA All-Star with 10 total playoff appearances, including a Western Conference finals march with the Sacramento Kings — and his stature as one of the game’s great power forwards, the 2021 Hall of Fame inductee has largely been defined, by others, according to his most difficult moments.

Webber arrived at Michigan in 1991 as the reigning Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, joining Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard to create the Fab Five. They were college basketball’s rock stars and took the Wolverines to the national championship game in 1992 and 1993. In the 1993 final against North Carolina, Webber infamously called a timeout that Michigan didn’t have, allowing the Tar Heels to win.

He decided to turn pro after that devastating loss, and was the No. 1 pick in the 1993 NBA draft. He was also named NBA Rookie of the Year that season.

— ESPN (@espn) April 5, 2021

Then, after nearly a decade playing for the Golden State Warriors, the Washington Bullets/Wizards and the Kings, Webber’s past returned to haunt him. In 2002, he was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury about taking money from former Michigan booster Ed Martin. He eventually pled guilty to a charge of criminal contempt.

As a result, the school stripped Webber’s stats and achievements from its record books and vacated its Final Four appearances in 1992 and 1993. The NCAA also forced Michigan to disassociate itself from Webber, banning him for 10 years until May 2013.

During that chapter of his life, Webber distanced himself from the school and his collegiate career, rarely mentioning either in interviews. He also refused to participate in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary about the Fab Five. Although there are indications he and the other members of the Fab Five remain close, Webber said a true reunion won’t happen until he and Rose — the former NBA standout, ESPN personality and popular curator of the Fab Five’s history — settle their differences privately.

But with his pending Hall of Fame induction after an eight-year wait (he was first eligible in 2013), Webber says he’s at peace and ready to set the record straight about his career — the highs and the lows, the Fab Five and life after basketball.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


ESPN: What was it like to find out you were going to be in the Hall of Fame, and how difficult was the eight-year wait?

Webber: I always thought that I would be blessed enough, lucky enough, to be a Hall of Famer. I thought the résumé showed that, but no one is entitled to that. So every year [I didn’t get in] it would hurt, and the main focus that I focused on was [to not] focus on who went in the Hall of Fame that year. For a while, it was keeping blinders on. Don’t think about it, stay into work.

But a lot of Hall of Famers called and supported me, and a lot of teammates said, ‘Wait, you know, we support you, we can’t believe this happened,’ so it was tough. Actually, the first time I got the call [four years ago], I’d been trying eight years to have a child. And you get that ‘No’ and [now] I had a little newborn baby with me, so really it was like, ‘God, I can’t be upset. And I thank you for your blessings. I’d been praying for this but at the same time, c’mon, you know I was killing dudes out there.’ That’s how I looked at it.

But when I got the call [this year], man, it was funny. It was just surreal. I called my Pops and he enjoyed the moment for me because I was still in a daze. I didn’t know what it meant. He just talked for like 20 minutes. I don’t even know what he said. And he’s like, ‘Boy, you happy? What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong?’ I was like, ‘It hasn’t settled in yet.’ And so it was just a good moment to share with family, share with my wife, my mom, my brothers, they were happy, so it’s exciting. My father is like, ‘You not showing it in your face.’ I don’t even know how to show it yet. And I’m worried it’ll come out, all out that night, but it’s a hell of a feeling, man. I thank God for that blessing.

ESPN: If I had told an eight- or nine-year-old Chris Webber that he would be in the Hall of Fame one day, what would he have said?

Webber: I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy, because I’m going to be Drew Pearson and Lynn Swann.’ I used to catch touchdowns on the block and do that. I mean, football was my first love, my first sport, you know, play football in the street, tackle on the side.

And then if you’d have told 12-year-old Chris, [who] really loved basketball, I wouldn’t even have known what the Hall of Fame was. I would have wanted to know more like, you know, ‘Is Bill Laimbeer there? Isiah Thomas? What are they doing?’ Because that was the home team. And so it’s so funny, like, you always dream to be the best, win a championship. I’ve never dreamed about being in the Hall of Fame. You want to put the work in every night, know you’re killing dudes and you’re getting it, but I never thought, or said, I want to be in the Hall of Fame.

So I think that is, in itself, something that I’m trying to, you know, just register. It’s also the finality of it all. I mean, I retire, then [I] should be done, but this really lets you go back. It makes a lot of things make sense for me in a lot of ways. If you would have told me, I would’ve been like, I’m either going to be Lynn Swann or Big Daddy Kane. To be in the Hall of Fame is something special.

ESPN: Why have we heard so much about you throughout your career, but not actually from you?

Webber: I guess I’m lucky enough that people talk about me. That’s cool. But at the same time, I’ve just never been the type [to straighten] out rumors or word on the street or urban legends, things like that. I learned at a young age, probably around 14, that if I was going to worry about that, I would be dead a long time ago. So I try to concentrate on today, tomorrow. I try to concentrate on being a good father, husband, friend, boss.

I mean, I’m here to talk. You asked me to speak. I’m here. So I think a lot of times maybe it’s because people don’t think I’ll talk or, I really don’t know what it is. But it’s funny to sit back and listen and hear some of the things that are said about you and what people think you’re doing.

I’ve just always been an introvert and like hanging out with people [I’m cool with]. So yeah, I’m usually at the house, usually chilling, relaxing. Business and everything else has me on the go [so much] that I just like peace of mind and … quiet.

ESPN: What role do you think you have played in influencing that next generation of the versatile big man on court, players who can shoot, dribble, be playmakers?

Webber: I think when you talk about big men who were versatile, it was Magic Johnson. That first came to me. Of course, Connie Hawkins. Of course, Mr. Finger Roll, Mr. Ice [George Gervin]. But when you looked at like a 6-9 guy … When I was in high school, they wouldn’t let the big guy be in the middle for 3-on-2 drills. And I remember fighting and asking, you know, could I be in 3-on-2 drills or playing with the guards, playing 21 where I had to shoot outside and the guards had to shoot inside. Once I saw Steve Smith and Derrick Coleman — in my opinion, Steve, with the [hesitation move], and him being seven foot, Derrick, being probably [in the] top four most versatile powerful forwards to this day. I just studied the game, man. I just wanted to be [one of] the greats.

And so I think when it came to my time, I did my thing. And that’s why, you know, I’m happy with where I am. And I’m definitely happy that I’m in the Hall of Fame. But I was happy a long time ago with my game because I studied the game then. I stole moves from Grant Hill and other guards that could play. And I know some shooting coaches out here to show some tape. Shout out to the shooting coaches. So I just think I played my role in the evolution.

I wish we would have had the freedom they have today, but we didn’t. And we made the most of that. So yeah, I love being a point forward. I think Don Nelson, he saw that when he drafted me back then, and the game was just different. You have to check centers and other things. But I love the role that I played, and that was trying to make players better and show that the power forward can facilitate the offense if he could shoot, if he could score and if he could pass.

ESPN: Speaking of innovation, we had never seen a group like the Fab Five before you all came onto the scene. Do you understand the impact that the Fab Five had? What was it like to live through that?

Webber: I don’t know if any of us understands the impact. We’ve seen it, but there’s so many stories that we didn’t hear. But the thing that makes me most proud is, I was at a meeting for 100 Black Men the other day and then I was at a meeting for one of my friends who’s part of a Jewish business coalition. And both people said the same thing, how they were in the dorms hyped, how we gave them confidence, how it led to them in the classroom, or to hanging out or with friends and things like that.

It means so much to me because I swear to you, all it was, was playing for Mama on TV. These people don’t like us. They talking about us. We from Detroit. You from Chicago, Juwan. You have nothing. They hate you.

You know, it was that type of embracing the pain. It was like walking up to your fear and going, I’m still scared, but we gotta do something today. What are we going to do? And once we embraced that fear, that brotherhood, I mean, the Fab Five was special. It’s more special every day that we get older. Oh yeah.

I know what I think the influence was, but I’m humbled and honored every day because I hear a new story and I’m like, ‘Come on dog, your 80-year-old grandma got some black socks talking about Fab Five?’ I mean, that’s true and they’re on FaceTime [showing me]. I love the love, man. And I respect it and I honor that love.

ESPN: Did you all go into that thinking that you might play four years together, or were you thinking about the NBA right away?

Webber: People have to remember the context, because … no, we weren’t thinking about going to the pros. I went pro as a sophomore in 1993. Before that, the last sophomore to go No. 1 was Magic Johnson in ’79. And I remember — Magic is one of my favorite players — hearing that, you don’t want to follow in those footsteps off of a whim. And then back then you would hear different things. You know, it’s so funny how the narrative has changed. I love too how reporting and people switched up, and hearing quotes now and remembering what they said then. ‘College players, college! What is wrong with you? College, I’d give my right arm to go to college!’

Now people are like, ‘Wait a minute, no I wouldn’t because I’m gonna come out with loans. I’m going to come out with this.’ And so I love the fact, the evolution of the game, I loved that we were part of it. You know, I remember when we started playing the Fab Five, and it was like, Indiana couldn’t have the name on the back of the jerseys and they probably still don’t and that’s tradition. I get it. But we were supposedly the bad reason. We shaved our head bald and that was … The world hated us. You know what I mean? Because we look menacing, but I think that told a bigger story.

And that’s why when Allen Iverson came along and got braids, and I know I’m going off on tangents, but I see what the Fab Five did. And I see who came next. I see that if it wasn’t us, that it wouldn’t have been AI to be able to change things that he did. I see if it wasn’t us, the players coming to me all the time, talking about the freedom or how we inspired them. And so, no, we didn’t think about going pro.

After I called the timeout, I definitely was coming back for one more year and I was encouraged by my boys not to. Like, ‘What are you doing? Get out of your head. You’re cool. We’ve accomplished that.’ The pros were not like that at that time. Then, you at least thought you had to be a junior. Shaq went out the year before me as a junior and he was No. 1. So I really never thought about going like that.

ESPN: Obviously, you all did so much across basketball. I also wonder if you understand what it was like when there was a sense that the Fab Five wasn’t together. You didn’t say a whole lot then [in 2013]. What were you thinking as people were trying to figure out where you were?

Webber: I really just thought it was terrible reporting because you would know that I was banned from the school for 10 years. Yeah.

ESPN: How did you feel when the other members of the Fab Five were at the 2013 Final Four to cheer on Michigan and you weren’t with them?

Webber: Oh, I didn’t mind watching them get honored. I was on the phone with Ray [Jackson] and Jimmy [King] at the game so that wasn’t a thing. The thing was that … I couldn’t come to the game and sit with them because I was banned and it was not 10 years yet.

No. 2, it was like people [were] always looking for something with me instead of looking at the story. And so if people would have just looked and said, ‘What year was this? Oh, he can’t come,’ it would have been that simple.

But the toughest thing is … we’ve [he and his wife, Erika] been trying to have kids for eight years and two days before that [game], we were as disappointed as you could be after a [failed] pregnancy. And so that really turned me to being pissed. Here we had lost the baby the day before the Final Four. One of my teammates goes on [TV] and says, ‘Hey, come to the game,’ as if he doesn’t know there’s this. And then I have to walk into the game with my wife, with her supporting me.

So … life is big, man. You know what I’m saying? I’ve known Tim Hardaway [Jr.] since he probably started walking, so I wanted to be at the games. I wanted to help them. But I was sitting in a suite with pain in my stomach, enjoying the game. And so that’s that.

I couldn’t go to the game and everybody knew it and Michigan knew it and they should’ve said, ‘Chris can’t come to the game, guys. That’s why he’s not sitting there.’ So it’s not a big deal. It’s just, people didn’t explain what it was. … Nobody wanted, nobody looked deep enough to report it. I mean, it should have started with, ‘Why isn’t Chris here? When did he get banned? OK. How long was it from? Hmm, that’s interesting.’

But if you don’t think I’m a human, and you say, ‘Oh, Chris probably didn’t want to come,’ maybe you don’t think of it that way. So I can’t judge anybody, man. I just remember that moment. Those are the moments that I’ve saved and reserved for my son, [to show him] how to get through them. But that was tough.

ESPN: Do you feel like someone has to say, ‘Hey man, we didn’t handle this the way that we could have? We owe you an apology’?

Webber: That’s what happened. I was told [that] by the University of Michigan. I was told by the athletic director at the University of Michigan [Warde Manuel], that he was sorry. And he wasn’t even there at the time [I was playing]. He told me that he did his research and that he needs to apologize. His exact words [were], he needs ‘to apologize to the 18-year-old Chris Webber because we didn’t protect him.’

I was the lowest-hanging fruit. I had the biggest name. I knew that then, so hopefully some of the things in [my upcoming book] will reveal what happened, how things happened and hopefully just life can go [on] or it can just get back to normal in that way. Hopefully, once we address all this good stuff, we’ll get back to it.

ESPN: In May, you and Jalen talked on ESPN after you were selected for the Hall of Fame. What did that moment mean to you?

Webber: ESPN didn’t tell me [Jalen] was going to interview me. So they kept saying, ‘Here comes [host Maria Taylor], Maria … 5, 4, 3 …’ and then I hear, ‘What up?’ And it was [Jalen]. So it was a cool moment. I mean, I talk to his family, his sister, you know, all the time. Him and I still have to talk. Like, things don’t get repaired without talking. So that’s not the way to do it, to interview me on camera and not go into a room.

I’m a man, man. You know what I’m saying? My father raised me. So my father would not be happy with me talking to you right now in front of everybody without going into a room first. And we didn’t do that. And we will do that because hopefully he’ll come to the thing and we’re gonna get together. But I’m sorry to keep busting the world’s bubble, we haven’t spoken yet. And when we do, it’ll probably be all good. But that moment for me, it was an honor that my boy is on TV doing this thing. It was an honor to be there.

Maria, ESPN — they’re great, but you know, for me it was just trying to figure out what was going on.

ESPN: What do you think it would take to heal your rift with Jalen Rose and bring the Fab Five back together?

Webber: We already back. We already texting and hanging. We want the world to know we’re already back. I have three brothers and one sister for real. And in that family, you can be upset at someone and love them just as much as you ever did, but it has to be a conversation. And that’s just the way it is. That’s just the way it is.

And I want to give this good news to the world. I want to. … But I’m going to see Michigan practice. Me and Juwan [have been] on the phone. … But there has been that rift because Jalen has decided to talk and I’ve said we should handle everything behind the scenes. It was just, it’s an honor system. It’s a code. And he knows what that is because that’s what we built the Fab Five on and he did not adhere to that code multiple times. His family told him multiple times and that is what happened. And I still love him. That’s my boy. … All it takes is a 30-second conversation.

ESPN: What’s the biggest thing that you’ve had to deal with that people have said about you that you feel you have to correct?

Webber: You know, if there’s ever any game that I want anybody to watch that I play, it would be the timeout game. Someone asked me about my son, ‘If your son could watch any basketball games you played in …’ I said ‘The timeout game.’ He said ‘Why?’ I said because he knows Daddy was cold to get up after that game and to continue doing what he does. So in other words, we know you’re going to be good. We know you’re going to do this, but what do you do after that moment? And that’s what I’m so proud of.

The fact that, you know, after I called that, I needed to come home. I needed to rest. I needed to cry. I needed to get right. Needed mom’s cooking. Mama’s love. Mama taking care of me. And she came into the house one day and she had — my mother is really quiet, stoic — and she had a license plate and it says, ‘timeout.’ And she was like, ‘Baby, what the devil meant for bad, God meant for good.’

I started a foundation. So by the time it hit me, it was like ‘OK, we’re going to help people with this.’ From speaking, all the things I’ve done, I can show you so much feedback that I have from inspiring people from the timeout. I want people to know that the timeout didn’t crush me. It crushed me as much as it could crush you and is supposed to crush you. But I was really blessed to have family. I was blessed that the [NBA draft] was three months away, two months away in my hometown. I was the No. 1 pick.

So the whole thing for me was after you rest, after you cry, we are going to get up and never look back. And that was my motivation. And it’s almost like when the worst thing that happens, happens, and you get through it, you almost saw yourself a little bit more like, OK, I can make it. Let’s be fearless.

And so I think that for so long, it was one story, the timeout. And then, about four years ago, when other people started talking, it turned into, ‘Chris shies away because of the timeout.’ No, that’s just you. I talk to everyone else.

So how inspiring that timeout was for me to help other people, because I have more money or I have more of this. … I can say no I’ve been as hurt as you and I’m telling you that you can make it through. You can get through it. Don’t, don’t … do not not stay focused right now. Don’t do something stupid. Don’t get lazy mentally right now and get off track.

And so to me, that’s where the people in my life, family, friends, especially young men — I’ve been able to hold them accountable through that story. I thank God for that part of my life. And I need people to understand it because it gives me a substance that I don’t know if I would have had without it.

ESPN: Let’s go back to that game, which obviously impacted who you are. What was that moment like, and how did you bounce back from that?

Webber: Everything that you see, happened. I got the rebound with about 20 seconds left. [I] tried to get it to my man [Jalen Rose]. I saw someone there. [I’m thinking], ‘If I throw it, will they steal it?’ … I dribble down the court. I know I could score, do whatever. I know anybody on our team, whoever is on the floor, can shoot and can make it. [But] I called a timeout and it was all on me. I did it.

Did the bench say [call a timeout]? Yeah. They said it. Everybody saw it in the documentary. Did I hear it? I don’t know. And if I did, that’s a fake excuse. I was the man on the team. That was my team, man. You know what I mean? That was my team. The best player is supposed to take responsibility. … One of the proudest moments is being on that podium and not blaming anyone.

We were the first reality stars. This is not scripted, and so to be 20 [years old], to come from the city of Detroit, to want your city to have some pride in all they’re doing and what you’re doing and [to] want them to know that we take our hard hat from you guys. … I let all of them down.

Now of course we wouldn’t have been there without me, and dah, dah, dah. I know all that. But I let everybody down. You know what I mean? Because I wasn’t supposed to call that. Would we have made the shot? I don’t know. We were down two points. Yeah, I was the highest scorer and the highest rebounder, but that don’t mean nothing. That’s just the truth you’ve got to live with, man.

But that’s what I’ve always said: That sports is the most fair platform ever because it’s unfair to everybody. Everybody gets your licks, you know? And I got my licks that day, man. It was straight despair. I know if my father wasn’t in the back with me, I don’t even know if I could have walked. So what you have to do in life is face it. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to be crazy. You don’t know what you have to go through. But I had to face it.

ESPN: What level of validation does the Hall of Fame give you?

Webber: So I gotta be honest and say if … and I’m not talking about the Kevin Durants that are great. But if you win a championship and you were great at one time and you go sit on somebody’s bench and sneak one in, that does not count to me.

Isiah Thomas has a saying that there are bus drivers and people that ride the bus in the league. I was a bus driver. Didn’t do a great job and didn’t win a championship. Or I did a great job, but I didn’t win a championship. And I’d rather have my role as a bus driver than to have gone and teamed up with Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever, to win one. I’d rather be sitting here right now than to have one with him.

Because at the end of the day, my son could say, ‘How was it with you and Tim?’ We could look at stats. I could say he was cold. But he’d go, ‘Dad, he beat you.’ I’d go, ‘Yep’.

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