I would like to write a glowing column about Chris Webber, one that celebrates him home. But it’s not that easy.
I would like to cheer his return, talk about winning a title with his hometown team in the autumn of his career. But it’s not that simple.
I would like to share only positive things about Chris Webber as I have been privileged to know many of them, his family, his intelligence, his grace. I once liked this kid as much as I’ve ever liked any young athlete in Detroit.
But that wouldn’t be the whole story.
And so, at a news conference Tuesday where, for the first 10 minutes, the questions were basically light, bright and easy, I asked what I felt, as a journalist, needed to be asked.
I asked about Michigan. And booster Ed Martin. And money. Because, when given a chance to embrace the past Tuesday, Chris Webber did so quickly. But when given a chance to explain it, he ducked.
“Today, I’m talking about being a Detroit Piston,” he said. “I don’t think this is the forum to talk about something that happened 15 years ago. I’m just really happy. So to talk about anything else that’s not about this would be a waste of my time.”
A waste of his time? Too bad U-M couldn’t say that, or his former teammates, the FBI, a grand jury, or Ed Martin – before he died.
So when will the right moment arrive?
Look, I understand why Chris wanted this to be a fireworks moment. It’s nice that he’s back. It’s a great story. And as someone who spent the better part of two years all but living around Webber and the Fab Five, I really hope it works out.
But Chris is too smart for this. A waste of his time? That’s insensitive to his old school and its fans, who saw their basketball program trashed by probation due to the actions of Webber and others.
It’s insensitive to his old teammates, who had their records “erased” with Webber’s.
It’s insensitive to his old coach, Steve Fisher, who always insisted he believed Chris when he said he never took anything that violated NCAA rules. And it’s insensitive to a general public that witnessed FBI investigations and grand jury indictments – months and months of taxpayers’ time and money.
This wasn’t 15 years ago. It’s a 15-year shadow. The grand jury stuff was in 2003. Michigan only came off probation last season (and still will lose a scholarship next season).
Look, nobody wants to fry Chris Webber. But he has been saying “it’s not the right time” for years. He has said he’d explain after a season. He has said he’d write a book about it.
Enough. He came home Tuesday, the first time the Detroit media assembled en masse for him since the night he was drafted in 1993, at the very same Palace. It was a perfect chance to put it to rest. All he needed to say was, “I was young. I did some things I regret. I took some money that was against the rules, and I am sorry for what happened later. I’m older and smarter and look forward to moving on.”
Would that have been so awful?
He must write the final chapter
Instead, he sadly leaves many questions unanswered – questions about the alleged $280,000 Ed Martin gave him over the years, about lying to a grand jury. These are not niggling details. They cost people a lot. No, Chris isn’t the only player involved. But he’s the bull in the china shop. He can’t pretend there aren’t broken dishes all over the floor.
And please understand something. This isn’t about journalists “having the right to know”- at least not for me. For me, it’s more about Chris Webber, now 33, being what he was born to be, a standup person, a leader. Chris is not a thug. He was raised in a loving family that was so tight, neighborhood kids used to call them “the Waltons.”
The Chris Webber I knew didn’t duck. The Chris Webber I knew once showed me his No. 4 Michigan jersey selling in a store window, while he had to put cafeteria food back that he couldn’t afford. I got his point. It was – and is – a ridiculous system.
But what I admired most about that moment was Chris’ honesty.
And I would love to celebrate that Chris again; I told him as much after the news conference. But I am not controlling Chris Webber’s story these days.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.