FROM DREAM TO NIGHTMARE IN 9 SECONDS

Twenty . . .

The clock matched Chris Webber’s age when he pulled down the rebound. But as the seconds ticked away, he seemed to grow younger with them.

Nineteen . . .

His first thoughts were of victory, how his whole life had been geared to this moment. We will win, he told himself, cradling the ball against his chest. We will make a basket and we will win!

Eighteen . . .

He spun, and seemed to grow confused. He made a hand signal to the referee, then saw Jalen Rose clapping. Jalen, Chris thought, relieved. Jalen. He went to pass, but saw a defender and he pulled the ball back while dragging his foot, as awkward as

Seventeen . . .

“WALK!” Dean Smith screamed, leaping in the air.

“WALKING! THAT’S WALKING!” North Carolina players sprang from the bench in unison, as if 100,000 volts had just shot through their sneakers. “WALKING! WALKING!”

Sixteen . . .

Now we’re definitely gonna win, Jalen thought, watching all this happen. The ref let us have that traveling call, we must be supposed to win. Jalen wanted the ball, but Chris charged past him, pounding that conga-drum dribble. Jalen instinctively took after him, backcourt mates, like the old days, when they were

Fifteen . . .

“Over here, Chris!” Rob Pelinka was thinking. He had floated to the left, he was open, he was ready. It was spooky. Someone had told him earlier he would win this 1993 championship game with a three-point shot. Rob was tingling. “Over here, Chris!”

Fourteen . . .

What’s Chris doing? Juwan Howard thought, waving his arms, as Chris dribbled past him on the right, headed toward the corner.

Thirteen . . .

What’s Chris doing? Jimmy King thought, muscling under the basket, as Chris picked up his dribble in a sandwich of defenders.

Twelve . . .

What’s Chris doing?

Eleven . . .

What’s Chris doing?

Chris heard no questions, just this funny sound, like thunder, and these half-words from the bench area: Ttteeahhhouut . . . tiiahhhhnooo . . . tyyynoooeeehhh.” He had brought the ball this far, protected it from harm, now he felt the stalking of the two Carolina defenders, George Lynch and Derrick Phelps, and for a second, the noise, the sweat, his heartbeat, he lost track of it all, the clock was taking his basketball life in reverse, from 20 to 11, the year it all began, the year he met Jalen, the year he learned the game, and in learning the game they teach you this: when you need help, you call for help, you call for help, call for help . . .

Eleven . . .

“Time-out!” he signaled, poking his hands together in a “T” as he spun to the baseline. “Time-out! Time-out!” The referee blew the whistle and made a “T” sign right back at him. The Carolina defenders looked at Chris like a car thief being offered the keys.

Then they jumped.

Michigan had no time-outs.

Chris had just turned it over.

A technical foul? Two shots, plus possession? Time out? He called time out? When he had no time-outs?

It was the national championship, wrapped in a bow.

“OH! OH! A HUGH MENTAL MISTAKE,” Billy Packer told the world.

Eleven . . .

And over. The final tears

“GOD DAMN IT! WHY’D YOU MAKE ME CALL TIME OUT!” Chris yelled at the bench when the fog cleared and he realized what he’d done. His eyebrows furrowed, his head had begun to throb. He looked decades older, a bald, angry man. He turned back again. “WHY’D YOU MAKE ME DO IT?”

He yelled this in the direction of Michael Talley, who held up his palms and said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” Talley, perhaps as confused as Webber, had signaled for a time-out when Chris came upcourt — he even clapped when Chris made the call — until assistant coach Brian Dutcher, standing next to him, threw his head back in disbelief. Had Talley yelled “Time out?” Had Webber heard him? He said he heard somebody. He said he was confused.

“Why’d they make me do it?” Chris repeated to himself. He wanted to run away, jump into a black hole, pull that moment back before it ever reached heaven and was officially recorded.

Heaven.

Chris thought of God.

“Why’d you do this to me?” he asked. “Why me? Why?” He saw the Carolina players hugging each other in exaggerated happiness, like a family winning a game show. Did people always look so stupid when they were happy? He wiped his eyes. He felt the whole world watching. He heard the Carolina fans singing
“WEB-BER! WEB-BER!” as they tapped their foreheads, mocking his intelligence. He saw the referees huddling. He put his hands on his hips, and there was Jalen, from somewhere far away, yelling at him, “Come . . . on . . . boy! . .
. This . . . ain’t . . . over . . . yet . . .”

But it was over, he’d played enough basketball to know that. The Fab Five would get nothing. The Fab Five would have another terrible summer. He had handed away their destiny, and now he suffered through the final seconds, the jolt of the buzzer, the pats of his teammates, their mumbled “Don’t worry about it” Fisher’s heartfelt “I’m proud of you. You did nothing wrong.”

But all that was data now, like the final score, 77-71, North Carolina, just data collecting on some shelf inside Chris Webber’s brain. His soul had left his body, left the court, left the building, flying around somewhere high above New Orleans, and it stayed up there for the next hour, through the short, mumbled press conference, through his hiding in the locker room, through the clothes that someone slipped him so he wouldn’t have to come out. Finally the security people led his empty husk down the corridor, with one guard behind it, one in front of it and five TV and newspaper people around it, saying nothing, too sympathetic to ask a question. It was almost to the door, almost to the bus, when, from behind the railing, Chris’ father, Mayce, and his younger brother David slid under the rope and stepped in front. They opened their arms, they touched him and his soul came rushing back, like the end of a falling dream, hurling from space and landing with such a jolt that he froze, stiffened, then slumped into their shoulders.

He wept like a baby.

“Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, the American Dream” is available at bookstores for $21.95.

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