The ball was passed downcourt, and nine players followed it. They left the 10th player behind. He was on his knees, his massive palms holding his weight, his head down, facing the floor. His eyes were tight with pain. He held there for a moment, then slowly began to crawl, inch at a time, inch at a time. He wanted desperately to get off the court, a car trying to cross the line on fumes. Inch at a time . . .
Not 50 feet away, his mother caught her breath. She was wearing a T-shirt with his cartoon image on the front. This was supposed to be a big night. Her son’s homecoming as a pro. Now she flashed back to a time in high school when he went down in a similar way. “Not again,” she thought.
His father, who had worn a sharp black suit for the occasion, felt a lump in his throat. The player’s college coach, Steve Fisher, had a similar reaction. So did the player’s friends. And his ex-teammates.
In fact, the Palace went silent. Almost no one was watching the game, which might as well have been a YMCA affair now. Chris Webber had come home to Detroit, a rich man, an NBA success story, and, now, before he even broke a sweat, he had tangled with Bill Laimbeer, came down awkwardly, and was in a heap under the basket support.
Sixty-five seconds into the game.
This, of course, was not the way he planned it. It was not what he had in mind when he flew into Detroit with his Golden State teammates and told them about his town, his boys, his hangouts. On Saturday, he saw his old buddies, and on Sunday he took a teammate to his aunt’s house for a home-cooked meal. He saw his parents, of course, and his younger brothers and sister, because he always sees them, he raps them on the shoulder and looks down and smiles mischievously. He envisioned doing a monster dunk tonight, then looking at them and winking. He envisioned a swooping lay-up, followed by his characteristic gunslinger stare.
Now he was on the cold floor, his ankle throbbing, and the trainers were huddled over him. Knocked for a loop
“Do you want me to go to the hospital with you?” Mayce Webber asked his son in the Golden State locker room. They had helped him there like a wounded soldier, the trainers wanting to know where it hurt. Webber would later say, rather smartly, that the body parts don’t hurt as much as the pride. From the outside hallway, you could hear the sounds of the game, going on without him. A horn. Mild applause. Loudspeaker music.
“Just stay and watch the game,” Chris Webber told his father. He then put a towel over his head, balanced himself on the crutches, and followed the Warriors’ staff people to the van. TV cameras waited in the tunnel. Six months ago, he had done this same scene, after calling a time-out his team didn’t have in the NCAA championship game. He knew the routine. Avoid eye contact. Keep moving forward. Webber slid into the van. It pulled away.
At Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital, they threw an X-ray switch, and threw another, and Webber waited an hour to learn whether the ankle was broken. Several people found their way into the waiting room, having heard the news on the radio. One man, wearing a colorful leather jacket, peered into the glass and said, “I’m Chris’ cousin. I never met him, you know, face to face, but I’m his cousin. Is he in there?”
The ankle was not broken. Sprained, but not broken. They put it in a cast. They sneaked Webber out the side door. In the van, they had the game on the radio, and they could hear that there were six minutes left. If they hurried, they could get him back in time . . .
They made it. Webber was in the locker room when the team came in. (It had won without him.) And a few minutes later, reporters mobbed the small room, going directly to Webber. He was back in the loop where he would have been had he never been injured; the star player, the star’s attention.
With crutches. Another wounded Warrior
“You know, all I expected to do was score 13 points, grab rebounds, and get the win,” he said, after most of the reporters had left.
“When I came down on (Bill) Laimbeer’s leg, I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe this.’ It was really frustrating, especially with all the injuries we had.”
Webber’s team, the Warriors, is the Beirut of the NBA. It carries bandages to bed. Chris Mullin is injured. Sarunas Marciulionis and Tim Hardaway are out for the season. Webber had been their only bright spot. Tonight was to be the night he showed the home folks why. “Our team . . . it’s like the ‘Twilight Zone,’ ” he said, shaking his head.
Webber has learned a lot about the NBA since leaving Michigan as a sophomore. He has learned about money. He has learned that there is no rah-rah in the NBA, that the world is a little colder out there.
And that the plans you make are not always the ones you keep. His homecoming was 65 seconds. He doesn’t come back for a year. You wonder where the good news is. Then you see Webber, hugging the mob of people who waited for him even though he lasted 65 seconds.
“I’m glad I came home,” he said. “I got to see my family and friends. They can watch highlights on TV, but I got to visit in person. That’s what matters.”
They had come to see how Chris Webber had grown up in the NBA.
In a way, they just did.