One coach, upon learning that Chris Webber goes to church every Sunday, dashed off a letter saying, he, too, was a regular churchgoer: “The other night we were singing a hymn, and I had the joy of Jesus in my soul — and then I started thinking about you, Chris, and how, if you played basketball for our school, it would bring joy to my soul, too.”
Chris threw the letter away.
Another coach got wind that Chris was sensitive to family matters. So he phoned the teenager and began moaning about his divorce, how it was tearing him apart, affecting his work. “Chris,” he said, nearly breaking into tears,
“if you came to our school, it would make my life so much better . . . “
Chris handed the phone to his father, who told the guy no thanks.
There was the coach from Southern Cal who wrote how he loved watching Chris play basketball, and how he had followed his career since junior high school — except that he spelled the name wrong, over and over, calling him
“Weber” instead of Webber.
And then there was the coach from a college in Nebraska who called the house and couldn’t get anything right.
“So, Chris, you guys play Class D ball, right?”
“No, Class B.”
“Oh, right. So, how do you like living in Birmingham?”
“I live in Detroit.”
“Oh, right. Say, uh, how’s your Dad? I spoke with him just yesterday.”
“My Dad’s been out of town all week.”
“Well, listen, we sure would like you to come to our school. . . . “
On it goes. Behind Chris Webber, in front of Chris Webber, above Chris Webber, below Chris Webber — this endless parade of college basketball characters. Coaches, recruiters, alumni, boosters, all tripping and stumbling and generally embarrassing themselves, chasing any lead, swallowing any tip —
“Where will he go? Which way is he leaning?” — all because this tall, graceful, well-mannered son of an automotive worker can play basketball better than any other high schooler in the country.
He can swoop and dunk. He can pass like a point guard. His body, long and thick, can find the ball through any crowd of defenders, two, three, four, they can’t stop him. One game, he scored 38 points and sat out the fourth quarter. Another, he had nine dunks by halftime. In a playoff game, an alley-oop pass went too high, over his head, but he just hung in the air until the ball ricocheted off the glass, then he grabbed it and stuffed it. Amazing. His coach at Birmingham Detroit Country Day, Kurt Keener, says Chris Webber plays the game “as if God built him to do it.”
But God never had recruiting in mind. You thought you had a hard time getting through high school? Here is a teenager who has actually removed the phone from his bedroom because it never stops ringing. He has keys to four of his friends’ houses — which he goes to even if they are not home — just to escape the madness. When he goes to school, people ask, “Which college have you picked?” and when he goes to the video arcade they ask, “Which college have you picked?” and when he stops at the supermarket they ask, “Which college have you picked?” — as if their lives will change with his decision.
Sometimes, he makes things up, just to throw them off. They swallow it anyhow. He could say he was going to Mars and recruiters would scurry to find what Mars was offering.
“It’s embarrassing,” Webber says. “All these grown-ups making this big fuss over me.”
Embarrassing, yes. Also silly and sad. This is a story of the biggest prize
in high school basketball, a 6-foot-9 specimen who can dunk, shoot, pass, rebound and hang in the air long enough to challenge a balloon.
But mostly this is a story of a kid who wants to be a kid. And can’t seem to find the time.
At first I loved all the attention, I admit that,” Chris Webber says, “but now, I just wish it would stop.” He is stretched across his bed at home in Detroit, a simple brick house on a street full of simple brick houses. Downstairs, the phone, as usual, is ringing. Chris ignores it. He looks around his small bedroom. On one wall is a huge poster of Charles Barkley. On the other, a picture of Big Daddy Kane, the rap artist. Near the bed is an open Bible and an old phonograph with a gospel record on it. Behind the bed is a plastic bag full of sneakers. And next to it, the huge box of recruiting letters from universities across the country.
Hundreds of envelopes. Name the school. It’s in there. Unopened.
“I used to read every letter I got,” he says. “Now I get maybe 50 a week, and I don’t even look at them. They’re so phony. I just give them to my younger brothers. I used to take every phone call myself, too. But now, my sister has a list of names of people I don’t want to talk to, and she tells them I’m not home.”
“When did the calls begin?” he is asked.
It was that year that someone actually offered his father $20,000 to send Chris to a certain high school in Indiana. Ever since, Webber’s life has only
partly belonged to him. Basketball controls the rest, yanking him as if he were on a leash.
Although Webber desperately wanted to attend Southwestern High in Detroit, where many of his friends were going, his parents chose the prestigious Country Day School in Birmingham, a place that demands a coat and tie each day, has terrific sports teams and costs thousands of dollars a year in tuition — unless you get a scholarship, as Webber did. It was his parents’ way of assuring that he got an education along with the athletics. But for the young Webber, it seemed like just another reminder that basketball made him different.
“When I first got to Country Day, it was really hard to adjust,” he says.
“It’s pretty much a white, upper-middle-class school, and a lot of my classmates had these stereotypes about blacks from Detroit. They thought we all had big gold chains, that my mom worked in a Laundromat, that all my friends were thugs, that I wouldn’t get good grades.”
Eventually, Webber’s personality — which, when he’s relaxed, is friendly, funny and complimentary — won them over. But he never quite felt at home at Country Day. “I still don’t,” he says. He recently gave a talk to an assembly about racial prejudice, telling the story of how his great- grandfather was lynched by whites in Mississippi. It has become an important subject to him. Of all the kids in school, he remains closest to a small group of black teammates from his Detroit neighborhood.
“They’re like me,” he says. “Their parents made them go to Country Day.”
But if Chris Webber feels funny, like a standout, let’s be honest. He would stand out no matter what high school he attended. Basketball will do that — especially if you dominate the way Webber does. Watching him play, even against the better teams, is like watching a man among boys. He towers over most of the other players and is so superior in shooting and rebounding that he frequently gets bored and tries to make fancy passes or bring the ball upcourt just to stay interested.
Webber led Country Day to the Class C state championship two years ago and the Class B title last year. In his senior season, when Country Day again is ranked No. 1 in Class B, he is averaging 29 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots. More than that, he just looks like an NBA player-in-training. His sleek body moves, his strength, his shooting touch — even his trash-talking. For all his manners, Webber, on the court, is not to be taken lightly. He likes to dig at his opponents, mumbling, “Don’t even think about coming in here. . . . Don’t even try to shoot that ball. . . .”
Once, when a particular opponent got mouthy in return, Webber took a pass on the wing, drove straight at him, full speed, and nearly leaped over him en route to the basket, knocking him to the ground with his legs. “I thought the kid was dead,” Keener said.
Talent. Size. Competitive fire. No wonder the recruiters drool. You can’t get a college coach to compliment Webber on the record — that is forbidden by the NCAA until he signs — but off the record, they call him “a franchise .
. . he’ll make your program . . . the best in the country.” Which is why, on any given day, at least several major college coaches will be in the Country Day gymnasium, leaning against a wall, watching Webber practice. They can’t speak with him — more NCAA rules — but they come anyhow to make eye contact, to send a silent message: “We want you.” For this, they fly in from all over the country. One remarkable afternoon, Lute Olson from Arizona, Mike Krzyzewski from Duke and Jud Heathcote from Michigan State were all in the gym to watch Webber play — in a pickup game.
It never stops. When Webber visits campuses, it’s a red alert. He took a trip to Duke and was quickly roomed with Christian Laettner, the team’s star player. When he recently attended a Spartans game at the Breslin Center, the student cheering section began to chant, “WEB-BER! WEB-BER! WEB-BER!” He was not impressed.
“It’s so phony,” he says, shaking his head and hooking his long arms across his chest. “I went there with Jalen Rose (another hot prospect, from Southwestern), and at one point, Jalen tapped me and said, ‘Look at the bench.’ There was this guy, maybe a student manager or something, and as soon as he saw us, he walked over and whispered something to another student, who goes over to the cheering section. And next thing you know, they’re cheering,
‘WEB-BER! WEB-BER!’ I mean, the whole thing was set up. I saw it!” He shakes his head again. “So phony,” he says. “I hate that.”
Now. Maybe you say it’s a shame that a kid who will turn 18 on Friday has already become so cynical. But what did we expect? This is big-time high school basketball. Even Keener, Webber’s coach, is not spared.
“I’ve already been on four or five radio talk shows from Kentucky,” he says. “People call in and say, ‘How y’all doing up there in Detroit? What’s Chris thinking? How’s he been playing? Does he want to come to school here?’
. . . “
Fortunately for Keener — and maybe everyone else — Kentucky has been eliminated from the picture. Webber has narrowed his choices to five schools
— Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Duke and Detroit Mercy. Which hasn’t stopped the controversy. Just this week, the Detroit News reported that Webber had decided on Michigan. Webber flatly denied it in the Free Press the next day, saying the News’ sources “might have been a 3-year-old, for all I know.”
There have been nasty accusations flying across the battlefield, charges that one school is telling Webber that another school’s coach is a racist, charges that Perry Watson, who coaches Southwestern, will become an assistant at Michigan and will bring Webber and Rose with him. It is crazy. Out of control. As Mayce Webber, Chris’s father, says, “This recruiting stuff, man, it’s a dirty business.”
And in the middle sits a thoughtful, smiling teenager who, were he not so tall and gifted, might be hanging around the mall with the other kids today. True, he might not have a future in pro sports that could bring him millions of dollars. But he wouldn’t feel like a piece of meat, either.
“Sometimes I do feel like a prisoner of basketball,” Webber admits. “I haven’t gone on vacation during the school year in so long. A lot of my friends go to Florida and stuff. We always have to practice. In the summertime, I play in all these leagues, like 200 games a year. If I do go away, it’s with a team to play basketball somewhere. It’s not like normal kids.”
Downstairs, the phone rings again. He ignores it.
“Do you think people would like you if you didn’t play basketball?” he is asked.
“Well, I think they would like me, but it would take them a lot longer to get to know me. Right now, they like me without even knowing me.”
“What if you couldn’t play basketball?” comes the question.
“I think about that a lot. Did you ever see the movie ‘Mo’ Better Blues?’ That trumpet player, what happened to him (his lip is busted in a street fight and he loses his ability to play), that was really scary to me. When he couldn’t do what he wanted to do, he wanted to crawl up and die.
“I don’t want to be like that. I want to have things balanced. In case one thing leaves me — like basketball — I don’t want everything else to collapse.”
Pretty smart, huh? For this perspective, he can thank his family: his father, who intercepts many of the recruiters; his mother, Doris, whom Webber says “couldn’t care less about basketball, she just wants me to get a good education”; and his younger brothers and sister — Jeffrey, Jason, David and Rachel — who, when he plays a bad game, confront him as soon as he comes home. “Chris, you played lousy tonight.”
“I like that,” he says. “They’re honest.”
And every now and then, life provides its own lessons. Not long ago, Webber was at a camp with Pistons forward John Salley. “He was showing everybody this pivot move to the basket, and I was guarding him,” Webber recalls. “I blocked his shot, kind of showing off. He did it again, and I blocked him again. He turned around and said, ‘All right, rookie. I’m gonna teach you a lesson.’ Then he turned to the crowd and said, ‘I’m gonna go to my left and dunk on him with this hand.’ He told me exactly what he would do and where he would go. I tried to stop him — and he dunked on me. Easy. He could have done it 15 more times if he wanted.
“I said to myself, ‘No matter what everyone else keeps telling me, I got a long way to go.’ “
And once again, it seems, the kid is smarter than many of the adults. Webber still gets the ridiculous phone calls, still gets the bundles of mail.
“One coach called here to tell me he went to church, just like me. He said,
‘Chris, the preacher gave this great sermon last night, from the book of Palms.’ Can you believe it? He said the book of Palms. Not Psalms. Palms. I mean, I just had to laugh.”
And maybe that is the best approach. Laugh it off. Still, teenagers shouldn’t have to endure this kind of thing — driven from their houses, hounded by the mail and the phone, watched at every practice, every scrimmage, every game. After all, there is always another Chris Webber. There was Antoine Joubert before him and Earvin Johnson before Joubert. You would think these recruiters would have learned not to drool so much over any one kid. But perhaps they enjoy the chase as much as the capture.
Whatever. Webber will make his decision, and life will go on. Hopefully college will be more peaceful. But the normal high school life, the no-pressure, have fun, hang-out-and-be- kids years, they is gone forever for Chris Webber. And he barely knew them.
Back at the house, Webber lumbers through the living room toward the front door, where his father is returning from work. He goes outside to greet him. A photographer asks whether they would pose together.
“Yeah, Dad, let’s take a picture,” Webber says.
And they sit together on the front porch, arms around each other, looking, for the moment, like a normal family. Inside, the phone begins to ring, but neither Chris nor his father makes any attempt to answer it.