WEBBER MAY TEST IF YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

And what if Chris Webber became a Piston? It could happen. The Pistons would like it to happen. Hey, any team that could pick up a guy of Webber’s talent – or what’s left of it – for the price of chewing gum by NBA standards would be crazy not to.

And so the Pistons might.

And wouldn’t that be something?

Once this would have been Webber’s biggest fantasy. Playing for his hometown team? Laboring under a guy he watched as a kid, Joe Dumars? Driving around Detroit during the season as well as the off-season, partying around Detroit, hosting events around Detroit, doing his charity work in the shadow of where he grew up? Once Webber and childhood friend Jalen Rose and college buddy Juwan Howard joked about winding up on the same NBA team – and that team, of course, would best be Detroit.

But a lot of water has passed under that bridge. Webber is 33. He gets booed when he comes to the Palace. He gets ripped by the local media. He is barely welcome at Michigan, his former university, and his basketball records there have been erased.

Oh. And then there are the questions – unanswered for years – that hang over Webber whenever he shows up here, like a small cloud over the head of a comic strip character.

Could he really come to work in Detroit and not expect to answer them?

Questions on and off the court

Think about a Chris Webber news conference if he signs as a Piston next week.

First question: “Chris, how does it feel to be playing for Detroit?”

Second question: “Chris, how much money did you take from Ed Martin?”

Third question: “Chris, did you ever lie to a grand jury?”

Don’t think it won’t happen. And Webber is smart. He knows it will dog him. He may be a curiosity when he comes to town playing for another team. But once a Detroit kid becomes a professional Detroit athlete, he becomes an obsession. We all pay attention. Newspaper. TV. Radio. Webber would have a spotlight that likely would exceed his contributions to the team.

And what would that do to the rest of the Pistons? This is a franchise that has prided itself on chemistry. It didn’t have the big-name superstar. It didn’t want one. It thrived with a starting five that knew one another like brothers and a gritty defensive philosophy that simply outworked the bigger-ego teams.

But lately that chemistry has come into question. With Ben Wallace gone, some of that shut-up-and-get-the-work-done approach is gone, and Rasheed Wallace has become a larger shadow on the team. Rasheed, as we all know, is an enigma: loved by teammates, frustrating to coaches, a mystery to fans.

Still, in the right setting, he can be invaluable. Before this season, the four other Pistons starters were a great counterbalance to Wallace’s quirkiness, the way an earlier Pistons team once was with Dennis Rodman.

But with Big Ben gone, Rasheed is a bigger deal, and it seems, as of late, the fine PH balance of the Pistons has been disturbed. Rasheed has been benched for coming late to work. Tayshaun Prince, who doesn’t speak up often, spoke up to say the off-court chemistry is wrong.

And now Webber could be thrown into the mix?

A chance for a championship

Not that Webber wouldn’t like it. He has labored most recently in Philadelphia, a team going nowhere. Before that, he was with a Sacramento team that came close, but ultimately gave up on him. Before that were failed stops in Washington and Golden State. It has been 14 years since he was a star with the Fab Five, and the last time he won a championship of any kind was up the road at Birmingham Detroit Country Day.

So what could be better for Webber, who is viewed as damaged goods, a guy on the downslope of the mountain, to resurrect himself with a championship back where it all began, in Detroit?

It is the lure of that, I believe, that will make him say yes to the Pistons – even with the avalanche of questions that await him, even with his lack of defense on a defensive team, even with his desire for starters’ minutes on a team that, when healthy, may not have starters’ minutes to give.

Chris always thought he could handle everything. I imagine he thinks he can handle this.

Whether the Pistons can remains to be seen.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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