WEBBER HAS DODGED THE PITFALLS ALONG ROAD

One by one they came up to Chris Webber, smiling, batting eyelashes, bearing gifts. They gave him candy.

Photographs. Phone numbers. Lots of phone numbers.

“Call me,” a young woman cooed.

“Call me,” rasped another.

He smiled at them all. He took their numbers but lost them quickly after they’d gone. He stepped into the limo and marveled at the crowd as the car sped away.

“They don’t even know me,” he said, shaking his head. “Why would I call them?”

The city was San Francisco. The time was last week. Chris Webber was out in public, and that meant hysteria. Children raced up to him with pens and paper. Grown men turned to jelly, yelling the first thing that came to mind.
“You gonna beat on Barkley, Chris?” “You like all this attention, Chris?” One woman, maybe 19 years old, wearing a black jumpsuit over a yellow T-shirt, screamed as if this were 1964 and she were inches from the Beatles.

“Can I touch you?” she asked.

When Webber shrugged, she touched him, then squealed like a wounded animal. “EEEEEEEEEE!”

This is the world of big-time sports. People want to touch you, to rub shoulders with you, to give you things for no reason other than the hope that one day, maybe, you’ll remember their names.

Webber, now a rich and marketable NBA star, is not new to this world. And neither are his Fab Five buddies still at Michigan. Pro or college. The spotlight makes no distinctions. Big Time is Big Time.

They are all Big Time.

So as Jimmy King and Ray Jackson allegedly took beer from a convenience store — without paying for it, openly, with the apparent blessing of the store’s cashier — they were not doing anything that hasn’t been done before, by them, by their peers, by athletes across the country. They were taking advantage of a world that acts as if dunking a basketball is some sort of royal crest.

It is, strangely enough, what some call “the good life.”

At times, it is anything but.

The beer that Jackson and King allegedly walked out with that night was not the first alcoholic beverage they ever held. And it was not the first thing they’d ever gotten for free. Please don’t tell me this surprises you. Heck, one hour on Bourbon Street last April, after the NCAA championship game, smashed both of those innocent ideas.

So why are they in so much trouble now? Because they got caught. And because they never thought they would. I know both of these young men. They are good guys, smart guys. Both come from solid families, and they certainly do not need to steal.

But both King and Jackson have enjoyed the role of “star athlete” whether it means entering a party and having all the heads turn, or asking a cashier to “hook me up,” smiling, and getting what they want.

Should they know better?

Of course.

Should they have paid for the beer, even if the cashier said, “Go ahead, it’s taken care of”?

Of course.

Would you?

Well, only you can answer that question.

Steve Fisher considered all this — and considered the fact that his players were underage and were buying alcohol — and he took disciplinary action. He suspended King and Jackson for one game. It was a big game, on the road, against Michigan State, and losing those two players should have hurt the Wolverines’ chances to win.

They won anyhow. And now, partly because of that, critics are yelling that Fisher has not done enough, that he should keep King and Jackson out of tonight’s game against Indiana, because that would really show he was serious about the punishment.

Fisher followed his conscience.

They are back in the lineup.

Personally, I would also have liked to see Fisher sit out King and Jackson tonight — but not because they need to learn a lesson. Knowing Jackson’s and King’s relationship with their parents, my guess is the embarrassment they have caused is more than ample punishment.

No, I would have liked to see Fisher bench those two as a message to the other kids on the team — and as a message to the “friends” of the program who think they are being loyal fans by handing things over to athletes.

This would be the message: You are not helping anyone.

Sports is a crazy enough world to be in without freebies. By waiving cover charges or handing out free meals, you are just encouraging kids to think that sports are all that matters. Getting good grades doesn’t earn you a free pizza. Doing charity work doesn’t get you a free CD. But hit a few jump shots, or bang a few boards, well, that’s a ticket to a wealth of goodwill.

Listen, folks. Doing athletes favors doesn’t make you their friends. It simply puts you in a line with countless others who are doing the same thing. I have seen athletes throw their arms around store owners, smile for photos, say the most sincere thanks you could imagine — then walk out the door, gifts in hand, and say, “What’s that guy’s name again?”

Back in California, Webber was entering a downtown clothing store. The salesman snapped to attention, offered a warm handshake and a huge smile, then began a parade of $1,500 suits and $700 sweaters.

“These are really sweet,” the salesman said.

“Uh-huh,” Chris said.

“Some guys from the Denver Nuggets were in here, and they bought a ton of these.”

“Uh-huh.”

“If you don’t like these, I have lots of other things.”

He went scurrying off, came back with more, scurrying off, back with more. The clothes kept piling up, even though, after 15 minutes, it was pretty clear that Webber didn’t want anything. He was too embarrassed to just say no.

“This is a good deal,” the salesman kept saying.

“Uh-huh.”

“How about these?”

Finally, Webber inched his way to the door, said he’d be back in a few weeks, smiled and slipped away. He sighed when he got back in the car. He seemed relieved.

“You know what’s weird about being well-known?” he said. “You can’t trust anyone anymore. Everybody has something they want. And they’re only being nice because of that.”

It’s a good lesson. Webber has learned it. His ex-teammates would be wise to do the same.

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