Used to be, the two months between the Super Bowl and baseball’s opening day was the worst time of year. The Warriors were always dead and buried by February, so we in the Bay Area were forced to sit and wait for 60 days until the A’s and Giants returned and restored hope to our lives. The Warriors are the only good team in the neighborhood now, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to inject some life into these two months anyway.Chris Webber, the man who breathed new life into this franchise, only to quickly take that breath away (the opposite of Primatene Mist, as Young Dro would say), is back. This isn’t just history. It’s bitter, bitter, ancient history (did I mention bitter?). This is like Harry Truman retiring to Japan.
And with all due respect to Tom Brady, his supermodel girlfriend, his ailing foot, his 18-0 record, his shirtless cologne ads, and his “I’m gonna pretend to be coaching little kids so people will think I’m a fantastic guy” ad campaign that seems so natural and un-forced and worked so well for Kobe Bryant… Friday night’s game at The Oracle is now the biggest event of the weekend for Bay Area residents. A regular-season game against the Charlotte Bobcats now doubles as the biggest circus to hit town since Dallas limped away last April. The return of J-Rich and C-Webb on the same night? Ticket prices should be doubled for that game.
I’ll be there Friday night, and assuming Webber plays, I still don’t know whether to cheer him or boo him. I just know that it figures to be the strangest, most circus-like atmosphere of any Warriors game I’ve ever attended. Chris Webber is the only player the Warriors could have signed who could serve as a show-stopper. All of a sudden, it’s no longer about Baron’s beard or Jack’s 3’s or the rocket booster strapped to Monta’s back. Once Chris Webber steps onto the floor in Oakland, it’s all about him, his history with this franchise, and the blood feud he once waged against his new coach. There’s a similarly stubborn power struggle going on with Oakland’s football team right now, which looks like an appetizer compared to the havoc Webber and Don Nelson created in their last go-round.
This almost feels more like a science experiment than a free agent signing. How can things get any more ridiculous than what we’ve gone through in just the past year and a half? It was only 16 months ago that the Warriors were winning 30-plus games a season, with Mike Montgomery coaching J-Rich, Dunleavy, Murphy, Foyle, and Fisher. Now we have Don Nelson coaching Chris Webber, and there’s a very real chance the Warriors will win 50 games. I don’t know who our GM is or what he’s done with the real Chris Mullin, but these aren’t our Warriors. These are the Warriors we thought we remembered, the Warriors we were starting to think we’d made up in our heads as a way to cope with all the losing. Nelson and Webber are walking proof that there actually was good basketball played in Oakland once upon a time, and we really were around to see it.
In fact, Chris Webber is the reason I even started watching basketball in the first place. At 12 years old, I wasn’t a huge hoops fan, but at school I’d heard so much about the Warriors’ new rookie that I figured I’d check out what all the fuss was about. It didn’t take long until I was hooked, and I’ve been a Warriors fan ever since. Really, Chris Webber is the reason I’m a Golden State Warriors fan… and yet I hate him with every fiber of my being. And prior to this season, it’s been only natural to hate the person who turned you into a Warriors fan. Because before they turned you, you probably enjoyed your life. You probably smiled, laughed, enjoyed the occasional walk in the park. But then you started watching the Warriors, and the world turned into a bad vampire movie. You couldn’t sleep, the sky turned black, and all you saw were 20-win seasons, or Erick Dampier fumbling another errant pass from Mookie Blaylock. Wouldn’t you hate the person you held responsible for that?
Problem was, being a Warriors fan wasn’t always a curse. When Webber left, we still had a good team. C-Webb was still my favorite player though, mostly because we didn’t have a decade-plus of suck to pin on him. It hurt that he was playing for another team, but the man was also the reason I became an NBA fan. In fact, I was at Webber’s first game back in Oakland back in 1995, and I was there to cheer him. Apparently, I was the only one. The boos that night were deafening- if you stood on a tarmac and listened to a plane taking off, it might be in the neighborhood of the heat Webber took that night. It’s still the loudest I’ve ever heard the fans get at The Oracle, including last year’s playoffs. And when C-Webb got hurt and left the game early, the fans in Oakland cheered his exit. This isn’t someone Warriors fans just mildly dislike, this is someone they hate, and have hated for a long time.
But if I didn’t blame Webber that night, why would it be his fault now? I didn’t begin to hate him until he started making the playoffs every year, while we sat at home. But he didn’t draft Todd Fuller over Kobe, or trade Tim Hardaway for a bag of marbles. We got 3 first-round picks for Webber, and we had the #1 pick in the draft just a year after he left. It wasn’t his fault we were terrible, it was our own. Hell, the man’s never even played in a Finals, it’s not like we let Wilt Chamberlain slip away (again). Of course, that didn’t stop me from cheering every one of Webber’s painful playoff losses, every nagging injury, every passing year and erosion of his skills. Every time I listened to the Luniz’ first CD, a smile crossed my face when “Playa Hata” came on. Because even if Numskull didn’t take Webber’s credit card, someone did, and that was enough for me. I even cheered Robert Horry’s shot in the 2002 playoffs, which is insane, given how evil those Lakers teams were. Webber was getting close to a championship without us, and watching him succeed while we failed became a reason to hate him.
But in the end, nothing worked out the way it was supposed to for anyone involved. We missed out on the best Warriors team in the last 30 years, Webber lost his chance at playing for a Hall of Fame coach with three All-Star teammates in their prime, and Nellie never got his shot at coaching the closest thing he’s ever had to a championship-caliber team. Really, everyone was left feeling disappointed, though we ended up getting the worst of it by far.
It’s hard to put this whole situation in perspective, mostly because reunions like this don’t come along very often. It’s almost like an old rock band who decides to get back together again, a decade after everyone realizes how stubborn and ass-like they were. And in 5 years, when we’re watching the comeback of Guns N’ Roses (who have a song called “14 years”, coincidentally), do you think people will cheer Slash and boo Axl? Will they be bitter because they had to go so long without a Gn’R record, having been forced to listen to years of Nickelback and Smashmouth? Of course not. They’ll be mostly happy, and a little sad, but not angry.
So why is this any different? Nellie got a pass for his part in that whole mess, both because he spent more time here in his first go-round and because he’s overseen the renaissance we’re currently enjoying. But why shouldn’t Webber get a pass, too? He led us to one of the most exciting seasons we’ve ever had, definitely the best Warriors season I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. He’s not coming back as a scout or a front-office suit, like so many other ex-Warriors. He’s coming back to help us on the floor, setting aside any old bitterness and playing for the man he worked so hard to escape from. I can’t believe I’m typing this even as I do it, but maybe it’s time for us to cheer Chris Webber. MAYBE.
But if you think about it, the entire time we sucked, all we wanted was a good basketball team. Well, we finally have that. And now, of all people, Chris Webber has volunteered to help make this team and its coach even better. Short of getting down on his knees and begging us to forgive him, what else could we really ask of him? The man doesn’t know Doc Brown, he can’t go back in time and undo anything. We could be cruel and force him to wear his old 1994 uniform as a kind of scarlet letter, refusing to treat him like some random schmoe we just signed off the street. And really, we aren’t going to treat Chris Webber the same as any other mid-season rental. So why pretend? Because whether you love him or hate him, “Webber 4” is a Warriors jersey every Golden State fan has wanted to see again for a long time. Personally, I used to want the Warriors to retire the number 4 and hang it in the men’s room. But now I can’t think of a more exciting regular-season moment than Chris Webber getting off the bench for the first time in Oakland. And if that sounds bi-polar to you, you’re not far off; this signing is threatening to turn a lot of Warriors fans into Harvey Dent.
Of course, it’s not like anyone is going to sympathize. Here were are, complaining about adding a Hall of Fame power forward with a little something left in his tank. For a group of fans who’ve been enjoying the good life for nearly a year straight, this is a sure way to deliver a reality check. As fans, we’ve been getting just a little high and mighty lately, treating bottom-feeders the way other team treated us not so long ago. We may have read too many of our own press clippings, deluding ourselves into thinking we’d somehow changed the league with our craaaaaazy idea of all wearing the same T-shirt. We love this team to a fault, and we loved Webber the instant he arrived, which is why it hurt so much when he left.
And while it’s hard to even think about forgiving C-Webb, it’s even harder to dislike anything about these Warriors. At this point, I can’t even muster an angry word about Chris Cohan anymore. I feel like Alex in “A Clockwork Orange”: I’m happy, but I almost miss my old rage, my desire to harm anyone associated with this franchise. The anger has been around so long, it’s hard to bury at this point, like losing a pet. Part of me wants Webber to cheap-shot J-Rich Friday night, just so I’ll have a reason to keep hating him. But now that 14 years have passed, if we boo him all over again, doesn’t that just make us bitter and grumpy? If Webber and Nelson can forgive each other, why can’t we?
To put in perspective just how long it’s been, consider this: Webber’s the only player left from that ’93-’94 team who’s still in the league. Mullin is our GM, Avery is coaching our Dallas Mavericks for us, Timmy Hardaway’s sitting at home silently rooting against Rudy Gay, Spree has gone Howard Hughes and locked himself in his Milwaukee home, Seikaly is a dirty old man dating 20-year-olds down in Miami Beach, and Jud Buechler is recovering from yet another back surgery, the result of having to carry Michael Jordan to all those championships with the Bulls in the late-90’s.
It’s been so long, in fact, that none of Webber’s current teammates were in the NBA when he and Nelson divorced, and none of the guys from his draft class are currently on an NBA roster. He’s not the Chris Webber we want to remember, the one in the old barbershop commercial with Sprewell. He’s old and broken down, tired from all those failed attempts to reach the mountaintop elsewhere, like Stallone returning to play Rocky or Rambo.
But there is something to be said for nostalgia. With Chris Webber back in Oakland, and Jason Kidd trying to make his way back to Dallas, and Shaq and Penny briefly reuniting, it feels like the mid-90’s NBA all over again. If this led to the return of the NBA on NBC each Saturday, with Matt Goukas and Marv Albert calling games again, then I’d be all for it. But that’s not happening, just like Payton-to-Kemp in Seattle’s old high school gym is forever confined to YouTube, and Dick Versace’s glowing white afro is doomed to live on only in our memories. Sorry, Hannah Storm, but this is not your lucky day. Do not pass go, and do not collect $200.
Back in Webber’s first and only season here, the Warriors featured Don Nelson coaching a small-ball team with a dominant point guard, a ticking time bomb of a swingman, and a rookie power forward acquired in a draft-day trade who would’ve needed a map and a compass to track down a public compliment from Nellie. Fast-forward fourteen years, and we’re right back where we started. Even Mullin’s haircut is the same. And it’s a bit ironic that Webber would end up back with Mullin, since I’m pretty sure David Stern originally mandated they be broken up after seeing how dominant they were together in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. C-Webb was also my favorite player to use in NBA Live 95 as a middle-schooler, and he’s now playing for a team that employs my exact coaching strategy from that game: namely, to launch as many 3’s as possible. And when we play Dallas, if Webber decides to turn off the fouls and take full-speed running starts at Devin Harris, I may just dust off my old number 4 jersey and forget the past fourteen years even happened.
The weirdest part of all this is may be the sick enjoyment I get just thinking about Chris Webber returning to Sacramento in a Warriors uniform. After years of wanting nothing more than to see C-Webb get booed every time he returned to Oakland, only to have those boos drowned out by cheers from visiting Kings fans, it would be fantastic to watch Webber head back to Barnco Arena as invading Warriors fans (who have taken over that place in the past year) cheer him on, rubbing salt in the wounds of Sacramento fans. It would serve as the perfect reminder that not only do we have a better team than they do, but we’re headed to the playoffs with the best player in their franchise’s history in tow. In fact, we might have everything a Sacramento fan would want: Chris Webber, a winning team, a rep as the league’s best crowd, and female fans who still have all their teeth. It’s been a long road, but everything in the NBA just feels right again.
The most relevant, and perhaps least interesting, question in this whole story is: why sign him? Why Chris Webber, at age 34? The obvious reason is so that we have someone to match up with Juwan Howard when we play Dallas. But there’s more to it than that. This team, under Mullin and Nelson’s leadership, goes big or goes home. It’s the main reason this team is so fun to watch. Antoine Walker’s famous response when asked why he shot so many three-pointers (“because they don’t have 4’s”) seems to be this team’s motto, and it’s indicative of the franchise’s general mindset nowadays. If you’re going to get beat, at least go down swinging for the fences. And signing Chris Webber, in this town, qualifies as a swing for the fences. We could have just as easily re-signed D.J. Mbenga or Josh Powell to fill our need for a big man, but Mbenga and Powell aren’t marquee names. We wanted someone who makes a splash, someone who can create enough emotion to carry this team through April, like the trade for Jackson and Harrington did last year. And there is no basketball player who generates more emotion in the Bay Area, positive or negative, than Chris M.F. Webber.
There’s really no way to sneak Chris Webber past us through the back door, but this move couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. Our team is playing winning ball, we’re still drunk from last year’s playoff run, and it looks like this is the happiest we’ll be with this franchise for the near future. Warriors fans are used to being upset, and other than Mickael Pietrus being within 5 feet of a basketball, there really hasn’t been anything to get worked up about this season. If we don’t cheer Chris Webber now, we never will.
Personally, I spent the past week in denial, thinking this could and would never happen. In fact, I was hoping that it would never happen, because I didn’t want to be in a position where I actually wanted to see C-Webb succeed. But whether we like it or not, the villain wants to be a hero again. And with apologies to the Dallas Mavericks and their number one seed, that’s the biggest upset I’ve ever seen the Warriors pull off.
And don’t we love an upset?