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DETROIT FREE PRESS

With Webber, No Longer A Kid, The Image Is Oftenonly Part Of The Reality

By Mitch Albom

Think about 19. Think about where you were, what you were doing. Maybe getting drunk at a frat party, maybe starting a job you knew would never last, maybe flopping on the couch, watching TV, trying to decide what to do with your life. It's an in-between age, 19, and most likely you felt torn at some point by the childhood behind you and the adulthood that lay ahead. Like a wishbone.

Think of Chris Webber, 19, as college basketball's biggest wishbone -- with half the country yanking on one side, half the country yanking on the other: Stay young. Grow up. Be mean. Be gentle. Be different. Be the same.

You look at this kid, you wonder why he doesn't wear earplugs.

"Wherever I go," says the 6-foot-9 sophomore, stretching out on a couch,
"people always say something. They say, "I know you're gonna go pro, Chris, but you should stay one more year.'

"Or they say: 'I know you're gonna stay, Chris, but you should go to the pros.'

"Or they say, 'Hey, Chris, you're livin' all right. Don't look so mean out there.'

"As soon as I meet somebody, I count the seconds. They're either gonna ask me about staying, or they're gonna give me advice. It's like, what am I, an idiot?"

He is not an idiot. Chris Webber, for all that muscle and bulk, for all those rim-hanging dunks, thundering fast breaks and rebounds caught in his pterodactyl wingspan, for all that, he is -- and this may surprise you -- as introspective and sensitive a college basketball player as you'll ever meet. He is open with his time. He is forward in his thinking. He shakes more kids' hands than Michael Jackson. Most of his life has been this one long press conference. He spent high school hounded by the question, "Where are you going to college?" He has spent college hounded by the question, "When are you going to the NBA?"

Lately, he feels, a new question has been thrown in the chamber: "What's the matter with you? Why do you behave like such a jerk out there?"

To which he says: "Huh?"

This Sunday, Michigan travels to Indiana, to play the most important game left in the Big Ten season. And Webber, who is always wondering about his life -- this is what makes him special -- can't help wondering this: Would things have been different had his uniform been different?

What would they say if Chris Webber had played for Indiana?
'Traveling sideshow' on road

"I'll tell you what they'd say," he answers. "They'd say, 'Look, he's always smiling, he's got such personality, such heart! He's a mean player but a good mean player. He's enthusiastic and he understands the game. That's what Bobby Knight wants from his kids.'

"Or if I went to Duke? They'd be saying, 'He's such a smart player! Look at the way he pushes Bobby Hurley! Look at how he gets everyone pumped up! He's smart, and a great overall person!' "

He takes off his cap, rubs his shaved head and laughs.

"It would be different for me at a lot of other schools."

He puts the cap back.

"But then, it'd be different for all of us."

True. Ever since Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson became the Fab Five, Basketball's Beatles, Never Met A Jam They Wouldn't Slam, they have also become a shtick in people's minds, an act -- and a marketing tool. A way for arenas to sell tickets. A way for TV to get ratings. People think nothing of using them for profit, hanging autographed pictures in restaurants, hawking their jerseys.

Or promoting their telecasts. Before the last Michigan- Indiana game, I watched as Dick Vitale from ESPN got Webber to stand in the middle of an empty court, arms tight at his side, head pointed at the rafters, like some android soldier -- "This'll only take a second, Chris," the producer kept saying, "we really appreciate your time" -- and then the cameras rolled and Vitale launched into his act, screaming: "MICHIGAN HAS THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL TODAY, CHRIS WEBBER. . . . "

They used him like a prop. But later, during the broadcast, Vitale criticized Webber and Rose for showboating too much on the court. Vitale? The same guy who posed Webber for his act? Now he was slamming the kid for doing his own?

"I never would have done that stuff if I'd known what he was gonna say about us," Webber says. "But that just happens. They don't give us the same respect they give other schools. If Bobby Knight were coaching this team, we wouldn't get as much hassle. Even with all the crazy things he says, the stuff he throws, the whip he used in practice, all that's forgotten because he's Bobby Knight. They have this way of thinking about him. Same goes for places like Duke, or North Carolina, or Georgetown.

"But us? They don't take us as seriously as other schools. Ever since last year, we're like this traveling sideshow."

And Webber is center ring. 19-3: U-M's way works

Now, this is not fair, even if it's understood. The Michigan kids do play breakneck basketball, they often choose alley-oop over pick-and-roll, behind-the-back over behind-the-foul-line. But don't forget: They are 19-3. Last season they went to the championship game. It's not as if this stuff doesn't work. They lost to Indiana (now No. 1 in the country) by a point, and Duke (formerly No. 1 in the country) by a handful of points, and Iowa (a top 10 team) in an emotion-soaked away game.

And that's it for losses.

Meanwhile, Webber (19.3 points, 9.5 rebounds) has continued to shine, despite a broken nose, despite crowds of defenders, and despite more finger-pointing and suggestions than Bill Clinton gets walking down Main Street. Everyone has an opinion on Chris Webber. People dissect his body. They project him in the NBA. They analyze his relationship with Michigan coach Steve Fisher.

What most of them don't do is talk to him.

"You know, this stuff about me going pro?" he says, his voice quick yet almost sleepy, the way he gets when he's serious. "What people don't understand is that I'm really scared of that life-style. I'm not sure I want to be grown up like that yet. That's why I'd want to stay.

"But then, I went to lunch the other day with Shonte Peoples from the football team, and we didn't have enough money for the food. We had to, like, take two pops off, and return this fish sandwich, get a three-piece chicken instead of a five- piece. And you can't help but think, 'If we had some money, like the pros, we wouldn't have to go through this.'

"People don't understand about not having money. Or, like, calling your mother, and hearing she had to work overtime. Or finding out your father's car broke down. All that stuff affects you.

"I heard this guy on ESPN say, 'Chris doesn't need to go pro, because his parents are both working.' I'm like, hey, you don't know anything about me. So what if they're working? Do you know where they're working, or if they're happy? Or if I'm happy? Or if I like school? I'm like, you don't know anything about me."

He sighs.

"And then they criticize me for trash talking." Indiana wasn't his style

Did you know Webber once took a visit to Indiana? Unofficial. He was a junior in high school and he went to see a friend. They were invited to the gym, during a practice, and Knight rushed over to talk. This is the same Knight who does things only his way, who wants players who conform, players who don't showboat. People think Bobby Knight would thumb his nose at a Chris Webber.

"Hey, I got the papers in the office," Knight joked just minutes after meeting Webber. "You can sign them, come to school here, we can give you an Indiana pin right now."

Thumb his nose. Uh-huh.

"What did you think of Knight?" I ask Webber.

"I thought he was nice. He ran a good practice."

"Did you ever consider going there?"

"No."

"No?"

"It's not my style of play."

Well. Give him credit for knowing what he wants. And give him credit for a little more. Sure, Webber may hang on a rim, or give a menacing look that suggests he just kicked an ox, and the ox went down. Sure, he may go face-to-face with Rose, his friend since junior high, like two football players working themselves into attack mode. But so what? Whom are they hurting? And if you think those two invented trash talking, you obviously never heard of Larry Bird, who was King Mouth in the NBA.

We forget these kids are sophomores. We forget they are hailed as rock stars, then asked to be in chemistry class by 9 a.m. We forget that stuff. But we don't forget to pass judgment. Not you. Not me. Not Dick Vitale.

"If you want to judge me, judge me after you meet me," Webber pleads.
"Don't judge me by what Vitale says. He doesn't know me from Adam."

I have an easier suggestion. If Webber makes a funny face, or does a little childish showboating, but then you see him sounding very mature, saluting his opponents, then you hear him talk about the pros, then talk about the joys of college, if you see him laugh, then scream, then sulk, then smile, and you find yourself saying, "What's with this Webber kid, he's a bit of a contradiction?" -- well, try to remember age 19.

Weren't we all?

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