Each day he drives to a high school gym and works out with a trainer and an old friend. Then he drives home slowly, “praying I don’t get in an accident and ruin everything.” It is November, and for the first time in his basketball life, the game is going on without him. No practice. No paycheck.

And it’s his own doing.

“To be honest, I really wanted to play for Detroit,” Chris Webber says from his home in Oakland, Calif., where he remains a restricted free agent.
“When I came home over the summer, I was hoping to stay.”

He had spent one NBA season on the West Coast, and that was enough. He exercised an option in his lucrative long-term contract which allowed him to become a free agent. His dream, he says, was that the team he grew up watching would come after him with a charge.

“I was very disappointed the Pistons didn’t want me more,” Webber says.
“Me and Grant Hill, Joe (Dumars) and Lindsey Hunter — a young team — that would have been everything I wanted.

“We had discussions with them. I think things could have been worked out.

“But I don’t think they were ever serious.”

Well. There’s a reason, the Pistons say. A small matter of Webber’s team, the Golden State Warriors, who last year traded their No. 1 pick, Anfernee Hardaway, and three future No. 1’s for the explosive Fab Five alum. You do that, and you don’t just watch your Golden Fleece walk out the door.

Most teams figured Golden State would match any offer, even if it included the space shuttle. So why bother? This explains why no one has bid for Webber’s considerable talents.

And why Billy McKinney and the Pistons were no exception.

“I don’t think there was any offer the Warriors wouldn’t have matched,” said the Pistons’ vice-president for basketball operations, admitting he had several talks with Webber’s agents. “At the time we talked, we were doing other things. We needed money to sign Grant. We talked about Chris. There’s no question we would have loved to have him. But, to be honest, we didn’t think we were the only ones interested in him. We got the impression there were five or six teams he and his agent would consider.

“Why would we want to get in the middle of that — just so Golden State could sign him back?” Rookie year ‘miserable’

And so the Pistons continued to spend money elsewhere, and Webber eventually returned to California. There he sits, in the handsome house he bought last year in an exclusive Oakland suburb, staying inside, watching TV, working out, as the Warriors play — and win — without him. It’s a remarkable situation. The NBA rookie of the year, without a contract — at his own choosing.

Webber was the absolute darling of the Bay Area last season. His face was everywhere. Was he worried that all the positive press might turn against him, because he’s being portrayed as a holdout for whom 15 years, $74 million wasn’t enough?

“I don’t care,” he says. “I got positive press all last season and had the

most miserable year of my life.

“I’d rather have it the other way around.”

Webber’s problems in Golden State stem not from money but from his relationship with coach Don Nelson, which is good when it’s good, but difficult for Webber when it’s bad. Nelson is, even by Webber’s admission, “a great coach,” but insiders say he has a temper that flips on and off rapidly. That pulls the rug out from under Webber, who, for all his muscle, wingspan and bluster, is still only 21 years old and always has needed a coach to boost him, compliment him, but above all, act as if he respects him.

“Listen, I’ve had coaches that were absolute jerks, I mean, they screamed at us all the time,” he says. “But you still have to respect people. You don’t yell at them: ‘Why did we draft you?’ in front of little kids in the stands.

“I talked to him about it six or seven times last year. Sometimes we get along fine, but other times. . . . I just don’t know how he’s going to act.

“I want to be treated like a man. Take Glenn Robinson. If I were him, I wouldn’t even play for the Milwaukee Bucks now, after the way they started campaigning against him. There’s a time when the business line is crossed. Why’d they have to do that — paint him like the enemy? A guy who’s going to be your future? Come on. You can always work things out. Why trash someone in public?”

And so Webber waits — without a paycheck, he says, not from the Warriors, not from his shoe deal with Nike (“they don’t pay you until you’re playing”) — and he wonders whether anyone will bid on the services of perhaps

the best young talent in basketball besides Shaquille O’Neal. The Warriors have been making moves without Webber. They acquired center Rony Seikaly from Miami for Billy Owens, Webber’s best friend on the team.

“He was the only real buffer between me and Coach,” Webber says. “Now that he’s gone, I have even less feeling for being there.”

How long are you willing to do this, I ask, sitting out, not playing?

“All season, if I have to,” he says. Howard’s holdout, too

That seems unlikely. Webber and his agents have had feelers from several teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers. He even thinks it’s possible he could wind up traded to Washington for his former teammate, Juwan Howard, this year’s No. 5 pick, who hasn’t signed. Howard, living in a hotel at a Chicago airport, does what Webber is doing: works out with a trainer every day, and waits for the phone to ring.

“It’s not what I figured it would be,” Howard admits. “I expected to be playing my third or fourth NBA game right now. Instead, I haven’t played a real game since the NCAA tournament.”

Webber said: “Juwan can’t sign for what they’re offering him. Everyone would laugh at him. They want to pay him less than guys drafted after him. Why should he take that?

“It’s funny, isn’t it? Of the three of us, only Jalen (Rose) is signed and playing in the NBA. I bet you thought it’d be the other way around.”

Rose and his team, the Denver Nuggets, were in Oakland a few days ago to face the Warriors. It was a game Webber had circled on the calendar, the first time since high school that he and his best friend would compete against each other. But the game came and went, and Webber watched from a friend’s apartment. Rose later called and said: “I wanted you out there.”

Things, apparently, are not that simple. I suggest to Webber that, had he so desired, he could still be at Michigan now, starting his senior season.

“I cannot even believe that,” he says, almost incredulous. “It seems like last year was three years all by itself. When I talk to Ray (Jackson) and Jimmy (King) and they tell me about class and study table, I just laugh.”

And eventually he hangs up and looks for something to do. Sources say the money part of the deal is settled between Webber and the Warriors, but Webber wants more freedom in the contract. Outsiders will find it hard to feel sorry for a guy, who, despite earning only — he says — $1.25 million last year, was guaranteed a mega-rich future.

But this is not about sympathy to Webber. It’s about growing up professional. The youngest player in the NBA last season, the star of the rookie class, and perhaps the most popular NBA player in California these days, gets ready for another day at the high school, working on his post move. This is going forward, this going backward. That’s what he keeps telling himself.

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