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Webber Wants the Ball, Chance to Shake Criticism

March 30, 2003|Greg Beacham | Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Chris Webber wants the ball. Right now.

Sure, it's only the pregame shootaround, but the Sacramento Kings' leading scorer and rebounder has a reputation to shake. He takes the first shot in the layup line, and he wears his trademark scowl to midcourt for the jump ball.

Later, in the final minutes of a tight game against the Houston Rockets, Webber muscles into the low post and scores over Maurice Taylor. Moments later, he hits an outside jumper.

With just a few seconds left, the Rockets pull within a point. They intentionally foul Webber -- and he clangs both free throws off the rim.

The Kings win anyway, but Webber gets another reminder of the enormity of the task he has set for himself this spring. Being the main man on a championship-caliber team is harder than anything he's done so far in his basketball career.

"I wish I'd had a better result, but I've got to put myself on the line for that," Webber said. "I've got to be taking those shots. I want to be in that situation."

That's a bit of a shock to those who know Webber's history.

His talent has never been doubted, from his controversial college days at Michigan to his rookie-of-the-year season with Golden State, from his frustrating years in Washington to his salad days with the Kings.

But ever since his infamous mixup in the 1993 NCAA championship game -- with time running out, he called a timeout when the Wolverines didn't have one -- Webber has been widely considered a superstar who couldn't or wouldn't deliver in the clutch.

It was the reason many questioned the Kings' willingness to sign Webber to a seven-year, $127 million contract in 2001. Could Sacramento really win a title with a star who had never shown that innate ability to carry his team, particularly in tense situations?

The label was hung on Webber most recently in last season's playoffs, when he didn't seem eager to take any big late-game shots while Sacramento lost its memorable conference finals to the Lakers.

Webber didn't see anything wrong with his play at the time, but the Lakers' Rick Fox was among those who wondered why Webber -- who, to be fair, was fighting through an ankle injury -- didn't step up.

"You need to have guys who can step up and make it happen in the clutch," Fox said. "(The Kings) need a guy like that. I don't know if they have one yet."

After failing to raise two mediocre teams to elite levels during his first two NBA stops, Webber had been content to be one piece -- albeit the biggest one -- of the Kings' dynamic team concept.

But critics from Charles Barkley to Shaquille O'Neal have said Sacramento can't win without a star to take center stage, and recent history has plenty of examples.

"The great teams always have a guy or guys who just won't let you lose," Dallas Coach Don Nelson said. "That's what every team is trying to develop. Our team and the Kings both have great rosters with a lot of talent, and we hope there's somebody who will step up and take charge like Michael always did, like Magic and Larry did."

So after years of shrugging off the label, Webber has undergone a change of heart during one of his best NBA seasons. His statistics aren't spectacular, but Coach Rick Adelman thinks he has scored in all the right situations.

"We've always trusted him late in games, but you can tell he's very driven to be our late-game guy this year," Adelman said. "It's obvious he wants that responsibility. He doesn't shy away from anything. He says, 'Give me the ball.' "

Webber has told anyone who will listen that he's determined to put the Kings' championship hopes on his shoulders, despite another ankle injury that has him playing on one good foot for the third straight season. He missed 10 games with a sprained left ankle, derailing a potential MVP campaign.

"I still don't understand how I played in the playoffs last year," Webber said. "This season, I'm jumping off one leg again. It just makes you look bad. You're out there throwing up all these old-man hook shots. It's embarrassing.

"Maybe if I can play through that pain like an Isiah Thomas and win a championship, I'll have a great story. That's what I want: To take a team and raise it up like that."

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