'Changed' Webber Wants to Stay in D.C.
By Ric Bucher
Washington Wizards star forward Chris Webber yesterday addressed several issues that have arisen since the 1997-98 regular season ended, including his desire to remain with the Wizards, his willingness to provide the team much-needed vocal leadership and a profound change in his relationship with teammate Juwan Howard prompted by the sexual-assault complaint filed against them following a party April 5 at Howard's house.
After a season in which he sometimes attributed the team's struggle to make the playoffs on elements beyond his control, rejected the role of a vocal leader, insisted he would want to go elsewhere if Howard was traded and played down the impact his off-the-court problems had on the team, Webber sat on the patio of a local restaurant during a 2½-hour interview and sounded like a changed man.
"I don't want to make the same mistakes anymore and that's why I want to come back," said Webber, who is scheduled to be tried today in Prince George's County Court on the criminal charges that arose from a traffic stop in the 9100 block of Landover Road on Jan. 20. "I've had some revelations, if that's what you want to call it. I used to fight unwinnable battles and I don't plan to do that anymore. I'm so at peace right now, even with everything that is going on. One, because I know the truth, two, because I know my mistakes and three, I believe I'm not going to let a lot of those things happen again.
"My whole attitude has changed. And the only reason I don't like saying that my whole attitude has changed is that I know cynics will say, 'Oh, of course it's changed. Now, after all this.' But I can't worry about that. I'm looking forward to next year, period."
While the investigation into the sexual-assault complaint continues, the approach that Howard and his attorney, Billy Martin, took in proclaiming Howard's innocence while not mentioning Webber has broken a friendship that went back to the players' college days. They were part of the University of Michigan's "Fab Five" team that made consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament final. Webber, who responded to late-season trade rumors involving Howard by saying he hoped they would not be separated, doesn't appear to feel that way anymore.
Webber stopped short of saying he was no longer adamant about playing with Howard, but said: "Let's put it like this I've learned a lot about friendships, learned a lot about loyalty, learned a lot about what people will do when their back is against the wall. But one thing they can't change is when the true story comes out in the end."
Neither Martin nor Howard could be reached for comment yesterday evening.
The season began with great promise for Webber with his selection to Dream Team IV, the U.S. national men's team that will compete in the world championships in Greece this summer. And he hoped that before the season was over he would have divorced himself from the group of young NBA players blamed for sullying the league's reputation. Instead, he was charged by Prince George's County police with three misdemeanors and six traffic violations, followed by the sexual-assault complaint.
"I thought this was going to be the easiest year of my life," he said. "I was going to be quiet, be to meetings on time, take care of business on time, not make mistakes. I thought this was going to be the year to disappear from the Generation X crowd, and it didn't happen. Now I'm not only a member, I'm the president."
Webber said at one point he contemplated resigning from the world championship team.
"I didn't want to bring an embarrassment to the team," he said. "I would have rather not gone, worked my butt off and then tried to go to the Olympics. But [selection committee chairman and NBA senior vice president-operations] Rod Thorn stuck his neck out even having me on the team. One reason I still want to go is they could've taken action and they didn't, even though I'm sure it crossed their minds. They showed some faith and trust in me."
Regardless of how the sexual-assault complaint is resolved, Webber said he realizes that the Wizards' fans question why he and Howard were up until the wee hours in the midst of a desperate, and ultimately futile, run to make the playoffs.
"I think what people need to realize, first, is that it wasn't a quote, 'party,' " he said. "It was about 40 people that we knew and included four people we didn't. We've had hundreds of get-togethers like that.
"We can't go out to a bar and have a drink, which everybody else does. Where a lawyer may have a case tomorrow or a doctor may have surgery, they can go to a bar and have a drink. There were people at the house drinking, playing cards, cooking, playing pool, playing video games. It's something that we've done and, truthfully, I would rather continue to have gatherings at my house. It was until 2 or 3 in the morning, we did have practice the next day, we weren't late for practice, it was a great practice, we went at it hard and we worked hard. Other than that, there's nothing I can really say."
The battles Webber said he has decided to stop fighting include his criticism of MCI Center fans for booing the Wizards. Having long asked for the unconditional fan support he received during his days at Michigan, Webber acknowledged that was unrealistic.
"I definitely learned that you just have to lose that innocence and just accept the responsibility," Webber said. "That's why you're a professional. It's different from being in high school or in college."
He also admitted that his off-the-court problems placed an unfair burden on his teammates. "I knew it was going to take a toll on everybody and I feel bad about that, but this was a year that could've destroyed us and that it didn't mean great things could happen next year," he said. "But I definitely feel bad, especially as a captain."
Webber hopes to take his role as captain beyond simply staying out of trouble.
"I'm not going to let my light dim any more," he said. "That's something my mother has said to me all my life: 'Don't dim your light.' I think I did that by not being a leader. To me, it's very easy for me to take a back seat because I'm very confident. ... But a lot of times, by being quiet, you dim yourself."
Of course, Webber also is aware that his critics will view his remarks now as an attempt to put a positive spin on a season in which he and the Wizards fell drastically short of expectations. Asked why he waited so long to talk about his off-the-court problems and other issues, he said, "I've had some revelations, but when you go through a situation, you get tired of trying to explain yourself. I know when I hear someone do that I say to myself, 'C'mon, now.' There are a lot of things, looking back, that I would've done differently. But even if I was out here screaming, 'I'm innocent,' it doesn't matter until it's all over.
"I don't think I can change anyone's mind. Those that know me and believe me, believe me, those that don't, don't. I just want to be here because I have some things to prove to myself."