NEW ORLEANS — On the night before what might be the last college basketball game of his life, Chris Webber decides to take a walk. Get out of the room. Get some air. It is something we all might do. Relieve the tension. Try to relax. But that’s where the similarity ends.
“Look! Chris Webber!”
“Hey, Chris, go get ’em!”
“Yo, Webber! Yo, big fella!”
He nods. He keeps moving. He wears a baseball cap and long denim shorts and a slight bend to his 6-foot-9 body, as if maybe he could duck under the endless eyes that grab him in their sights. Every six seconds someone calls his name. A woman’s voice, A man’s voice. A little girl. A little boy.
“Chris, over here!”
“Chris, can I get a picture?”
“Chris! . . . Chris! . . . Yo, Chris!”
He signs when they ask him. He stops for pictures. He is walking through a long shopping arcade that is attached to the hotel, the closest open space he can find. He begins the walk with a teammate, Chris Fields, a redshirt player who is barely noticed. When people yell “Chris,” Fields instinctively turns — hey, it’s his name, too — only to see those people march right past him to get to Webber. He squinches his face and shakes his head.
“Man. I’m outta here.” Merchandise without a window Webber continues to try and walk, stopping every 10 feet for another request. As he passes a watch store, he looks in the glass case. Thirty people look over his shoulder.
“Whatcha want, Chris?” someone yells.
“Get one of those Swatches, Chris!”
He tries a nice round watch with a leather band. It barely closes around his large wrist. He asks whether there is anything bigger. Sorry, the salesman says.
“Chris,” interrupts a woman with a beehive hairdo. “I teach special ed. My kids would love it if you took a picture with me.”
Webber smiles. Leans down. Click. Flash.
“Mr. Webber,” says a 9-year-old boy, in a Michigan shirt, “um, could you sign this ball please.” Webber signs. “I think you guys are gonna win. My dad thinks so, too.”
“Chris, will you sign this, it’s all I have?” a young woman asks. She is holding a checkbook. As Webber signs, she flashes her eyes flirtatiously. “Now I’m gonna sign something for you,” she giggles, and scribbles something on another check, folds it, hands it to him. Webber says thanks. She disappears.
“What did she give you?” he is asked.
Webber opens the check. It has her address and phone number at the top, and a “Call me!” scribbled in the bottom. Across the middle, where you normally fill in the payee and amounts, she wrote “VOID.”
Just in case.
“I guess she thinks I’d try to steal her money,” Webber sighs, folding the check. “That’s sad, man. That’s unbelievable.”
Have you ever walked through a public place and been surprised at all the strangers? When you are famous, it’s exactly the opposite: you are amazed at how many people seem to know you, they just keep coming and coming, like water from a spigot, and just when you think you’ve shaken every possible hand, posed with every possible baby and grandmother, here comes somebody else.
“What’s your name? What’s your name?” a college-aged girl shrieks at Webber as she grabs his arm. Webber tells her.
“Oh,” she says, nonplused. “I never heard of you. But I saw all these people around you, so I just wanted to know.” Peace and quiet is a dream By the time you read this, Chris Webber could be done playing basketball for Michigan this year. Or he could have one more game, a championship Monday night. One thing he will not have is peace. Many kids dream of being as successful as a Webber or a Juwan Howard, but there is a price: when you are extremely tall and extremely athletic- looking, folks don’t even need a reason to approach you; they just do. A beast in a cage. Can you imagine hearing your name called every time you stepped out to shop, to a movie, to a bank? How do you ignore it and not seem rude?
“Chris! . . . Chris! . . . Chris! . . .”
He ducks into a video arcade. A swarm of people follow, circling, staring. Like Lilliputians following Gulliver. Webber asks the owner whether he can ride in a giant simulator, which has seats and a door and a video screen. The owner says sure, and soon Webber is inside. The door clicks shut. The last thing he sees is a sea of strangers, peering in, gaping at him.
The ride begins. The machine shakes. The screen simulates a roller coaster ride, a luge run and a drag race. It is dizzying, spinning, the floor rising falling, trembling, shaking.
When it comes to a stop, Webber is laughing, like a 20-year- old would. He sits there in the dark, just for a moment, at peace, nobody calling his name.
“This ride is kind of like your life,” someone says, and Webber says, yeah, it kind of is. The door opens and the crowd is waiting.