How fast the time goes, Doris Webber thought, as she watched her son step to the podium. She heard the lenses click. Saw the TV lights flick on. Not long ago, it seemed, her firstborn was just starting to talk. Now the cameras whirred and the tape decks rolled and he was telling the world, in his deep, mumbly voice, that he was done with college basketball — after only two years — his next step would be a pro career, at age 20.

She folded her hands. She tried to look hopeful. Her daughter, Rachel, Chris’ younger sister, leaned on her shoulder, as if ready to cry. Chris’ kid brothers were half- excited, half-depressed. His father crossed his legs, uncrossed them, crossed them again.

Anyone who thinks this was automatic, a no-brainer, anyone who figures,
“Hey, you throw $15 million in the water, any fish will bite” doesn’t know Chris Webber. Unlike many athletes, he thinks first, acts second. Maybe he thinks too much. But he has this unshakable belief in fate, and from the moment his last game ended, that Monday night in April, when Michigan lost the national championship to North Carolina and his Fab Five group again fell hard off the rainbow, he had been waiting for a sign. A thunderclap. A burning bush. Anything that would shake these clouds, make him say, “Of course! It’s soclear! I should (stay, leave, stay, leave) . . .”

He called friends. He called relatives. He flew to visit famous people
— athletes, rap artists — to seek their counsel. Experts were predicting he’d be an easy top three draft pick, multimillion-dollar contract, and almost all the NBA players he asked said, “You’re ready, come out.” Shaquille O’Neal told him and Joe Dumars told him and Magic Johnson told him.

Other people, including his younger sister, said “stay.”

For a moment, over the weekend, he decided she was right. He would come back one more year, play with Jalen, Juwan, Ray, Jimmy, come out next season. Then, on Monday, a woman in a Cadillac stopped her car to ask for his autograph — and something snapped. Understand that Webber, an inner-city kid, has long had this dream of buying a big home for his family. Of telling his mother, “You don’t have to work at that school anymore” and his father, “Can you manage my career, instead of your GM assembly-line job?”

Most often, he dreamt of cars, Cadillacs, presenting his parents with a matching pair, shiny and new, then standing back and seeing their tears flow. Kids have these dreams. It makes them feel paid up.

So Webber saw this woman in her Cadillac, asking for his signature, and a voice inside said, “This isn’t fair.” It was a voice he had heard a million times. But here, in the heat of Decision Time — and with his belief that he could play with those NBA guys — the voice was especially clear.

He had his sign.

Not long after, Webber went home to Detroit and took his mother around in a hug.

“It may not be your first choice,” he told her, “but it’s my choice. It’ll be good.”

Say good-bye to Fabulous. A positive spin

“We had him for two years,” said his coach, now his ex- coach, Steve Fisher, who, despite his worried expression seemed determined to put a positive spin on this loss, “and that’s two years more than anyone else. He’s ready to compete in the NBA. I can’t say he’s not. If he stayed another year, he’d be able to come out and dominate, but . . .” He stopped himself.

No point in buts.

Say good-bye to Fabulous.

“I think I’m ready,” Webber said. “If I came back, it would only be for one game (the national championship) and if we didn’t get to that . . .

“I’m still part of the Fab Five. The only thing is we won’t be playing on the same court anymore.”

That’s a big “only thing.” Webber leaves a legacy in Ann Arbor as arresting and curious as the team he played for. Perhaps the most dominating player to ever wear a Michigan uniform, he will never be first on any all-time list. And in some ways, the Fab Five Wolverines will now be known as the Greatest Team To Never Win A Title. No Big Ten ring. No national championship.

Yet there is no denying their impact: They shook up college sports; they made everybody watch. With their baggy shorts and shaved heads and black shoes and black socks they played basketball and played with the basketball. They flew and dunked and yelled trash and slapped fists and inspired fan mail and inspired hate mail and drew more TV closeups than any college team in history.

They will not be the same without Webber. It’s like the Beatles without McCartney. Webber was the one who commanded the most attention. He was The Face. The Force. In two years’ time, he had become internationally famous, he was mobbed when the team went to Europe, and that was last summer. As the nation’s top high school player his senior year, he arrived at Ann Arbor with the brightest pedigree, and started every game in his brief career. While he often made overanxious mistakes — passes too high, shots too hard — he also made backboard- rattling dunks, and vacuum rebounds, he held the ball the way a longshoreman holds an orange, and he showed the most expressive faces, hanging on the rim after a slam, charging downcourt after a basket, running out of the tunnel, waving a fist and urging on his teammates.

“THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN US! THEY SAID WE’RE UNDERDOGS!” he yelled before the Final Four game against Kentucky, pointing at reporters as the team raced through the press area. And those same reporters leapt to their feet and ran alongside him, jotting down his words, hoping for more.

Webber had that kind of charisma. He is fascinating to listen to — he can ponder race relations, jump shots and TV announcers in a single sentence — and because of that, he inspired emotion, from resentment to sympathy, especially after what is now the final play of his college career: the ill-fated dribble upcourt in the last minute against North Carolina, when he froze, then called a time-out the Wolverines didn’t have. He watched, slack-jawed, as the ball, the game and the dream were grabbed away by the referee.

Someone asked whether that play was the reason he would not return.

“No,” he said. “At first I thought, ‘No way I can end my college career on that.’ But nobody died from it. Nobody lost their job from it. And I just have to go on.”

Time passes. Wounds heal.

Say good-bye to Fabulous. Michigan had its chance

Now, there are many out there who feel burned by this, as if Webber just reneged on a loan, or took training here and got a job somewhere else. And maybe, once upon a time, you could say that about college athletes. After all, they get a free scholarship, free coaching, and in return, they are expected to give the school their best years, which are usually their last two.

But let’s be candid here. Michigan has already made a zillion dollars off these kids. Count the ticket sales, the TV revenue, the extra money for twice reaching the Final Four, the publicity, the merchandising, the uniforms with Webber’s number on it — take all that, and then figure that not only don’t the athletes see any of that money, but they are not even allowed to work during the season, and you quickly stop objecting.

The system is outdated. It clanks with hypocrisy. These kids will keep leaving, younger and younger, until college sports wakes up and comes into the
’90s.

And I don’t mean the 1890s.

“I don’t feel Michigan owes me anything, and I don’t think I owe them anything either,” Webber said. “Coach Fisher kept all his promises. I made some great friendships. I played on a once in a lifetime team.”

And he’s gone. Outta here. Will he make it in the NBA? No question. As quickly as if he stayed another year? Maybe not. Is he ready for a life where money is the bottom line, where teammates can be traded, where nobody watches to make sure you’re OK, going to class, getting a degree, staying out of trouble?

He thinks so.

They always do.

Maybe this one is. Chris Webber is a unique young man, with a broad view of life and an undying devotion to his parents and siblings. He used to hold his sister’s and brothers’ hands when they walked across the street. He slept with them in their beds when he came home from college. They cried when he told them he was going pro, mostly because they felt they wouldn’t see him anymore.

Because he aspires to taking care of them all, because the fame is there, the money is there, the confidence is there, and the path is open, he is stepping through the looking glass. Whether we like it or not, his era ends today.

So be it. Just an hour before the press conference, he was in the gym, shooting baskets with his buddies. And during the announcement, the lights grew so hot, he began to sweat. His mother quickly sent up a tissue so he could wipe his forehead, because your children are still your children, even the ones about to make a boatload of money.

Sunrise, sunset, says the song. Quickly go the years. Right or wrong, Chris Webber has found his sign, his star light, star bright, and we can only wish him luck as he tries to follow it through the sky.

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