MASKED MAN PLAYS HARD-NOSEDWOLVERINES’ MASKED MAN LEADS WITH HIS HARD NOSE

MINNEAPOLIS — The elbow flew, it made contact, and suddenly, Chris Webber was Rocky, taking the whack and hitting the deck, as the crowd noise swirled like a jet engine on dope. He was halfway to la-la land, head on the floor, eyes wet with ooze. You could almost hear Burgess Meredith yelling “Stay down! Stay down!” Jalen Rose leaned over him. Steve Fisher leaned over him. The trainer, Dave Ralston, leaned over him.

What do doctors tell you when your nose is broken? 1) Take it easy. 2) Avoid stress. 3) Avoid contact. Above all, avoid contact.

To which Chris Webber says:

Cut me, Mick.

So instead of sitting at home in a nice warm bed, here was Webber, with two straps of velcro and a plastic Phantom-of-the- Opera mask covering his broken schnozz, less than 36 hours after surgery — What’d he fly? Air Hospital? — and he’s out there in the middle of a boxing match of a basketball game in this cinderblock palace, and pow! Gopher Randy Carter, 235 pounds, thick enough to be a heavyweight, whacks him square in the nose. Right in the honker. And down he goes.

I half expected the referees to start counting “One! Two! Three! . . . “

They needn’t have bothered. Say what you will about Webber, his cockiness, his high fives, the way he hangs on a rim after a slam dunk. But it’s hard to doubt his toughness, not after Wednesday night. Not after getting up from that blow and coming back two minutes later and diving again for a loose ball on the very next play and finishing the night with seven blocks and another Michigan victory.

“He didn’t even want to come out after the hit,” said Ralston, the trainer, who saw that Carter’s elbow had knocked the mask right off of Webber’s nose.
“He was woozy, for sure, but he said, ‘I want to say in.’ I said, ‘You have to come out. It’s the rules.’

Ralston shook his head.

“That was about the only way I could get him out of the game.”

Consider what Webber, whose nose was broken by teammate Eric Riley during a defense drill Monday afternoon, had been through the last 36 hours: Operated on in Ann Arbor, pumped with medication to kill the pain, forced to sit for a fitting of the plastic mask, rushed to the airport, put on a plane, given more medication, woken up — “I don’t even remember Tuesday night,” he would say — and suddenly, here he was, coming out in the starting lineup, in enemy territory, looking like Jason in “Friday the 13th.” He picked at the black straps. He adjusted and readjusted the plastic. He looked like a man playing with a fly in his face. The sweat would drip out the center of the mask, beneath his already tender nose, and the tightness of the plastic would force him to breathe through his mouth, so that he looked like a very young child running up and down the court, his mouth open in apparent wonder.

“That was the hardest part,” Webber said after the game, “just breathing.”

The basketball part seemed to return rather quickly. Although his shot was off in the first half, and he missed a dunk — cause for considerable embarrassment on this Wolverine team — Webber was right there, playing tough defense, blocking five shots in the first half alone.

And after he took the blow to his face, believe it or not, he actually came back stronger. With the score still close, 51-46, Michigan, he half-blocked another Gopher shot, came racing down the other end and slammed home a feed by Jalen Rose. On the next possession he snuck inside the defender and slammed home another. On the next possession, he took the ball inside, turned and banked home a hard jumper. And on the next possession he made a beautiful feed to Juwan Howard for an easy lay-up. The next two Michigan baskets: Webber slam! Webber slam!

Remember Jimmy Durante’s classic imprimatur, when he pointed to his nose and said “Dis is my schnozzzzola!”

Webber seemed to say: “Dis is my . . . dunk shot!

Twelve points, he was responsible for? After lying, semi- dazed, just a few minutes earlier?

The rest of the team is being fitted for masks this morning.

“Hey, if having a mask on your face affects you, then you’re not a very good player,” Webber said, rather nonchalantly — although he was sniffing — after his performance, which included 12 points, four rebounds, and those seven blocks.

Seven blocks?

“I had to let them know they they couldn’t come at me just because I was hurt.”

You know what was the nicest part of all this? The way Webber’s teammates seemed to rally around him. After Carter knocked Webber down, Jalen Rose, the closest thing Webber has to a brother on this team, came charging down court absolutely determined to score. He did. Over and over.

“That’s my boy over there,” Rose said afterward, nodding to Webber. “I had to let Minnesota know that Chris may be out, but Jalen’s still here.”

Call it cocky. Call it bragging. But Rose had 23 points, and Juwan Howard picked up Webber’s rebounding slack with nine boards, and Jimmy King had nine rebounds of his own, and Michigan avenged an embarrassing loss here last year, and they did it, this time, without Ray Jackson.

And with Batman.

Which is just one of the names Webber is hearing.

“Oh, they’ve been getting me pretty good,” he admitted of his teammates’ predictable razzing. “Batman. Toucan Sam. You know. But that’s part of this team.”

In newspapers this morning, readers will only see a boxscore of another win by Michigan, and an average night by Webber, its sophomore forward. But Wednesday was anything but average. It showed a lot of people — a few NBA scouts as well, I’m sure — that this kid has something special inside that big old frame. Something you never know is there, until its tested.

“I did think I had broken it again,” Webber admitted of that Carter jolt to the schnozz.

Then why did he want to stay in?

“Because . . . ” he said. He didn’t finish. What you learn about athletes, the good ones, is that, when danger circles, and injury threatens your confidence, the game becomes clear, very focused, and you find out who you are athletically in a very simple fashion:

You follow your instincts.

Or, failing that, your nose.

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