Numbers are more than mere figures to Anthony (Spud) Webb. They are a part of his life and his name, forming a perpetual prefix: fiveseven135pound Spud Webb.
Of course, there's a new one, which his victory in the NBA slam-dunk competition in Dallas a week ago fostered: 360, the number of degrees Webb twisted his body for one of his dunks. But for Webb, the most important numbers of all are 23, 12 and 276.
The first is the number of franchises in the NBA, the second the maximum number of players allowed on the roster of each team. Multiply the two and you get the third, the total number of players in the league.
For Webb, that was the real triumph of Dallas, a competition that is rapidly turning him into one of the league's hottest items. Webb is proud that he wasn't brought in off the street or picked after surviving three rounds of Slam Search, but was in the dunk contest because he is considered talented enough to be included on someone's NBA roster and was therefore eligible for the competition, in which he defeated Atlanta Hawks teammate and master jammer Dominique Wilkins.
And that is why the person perhaps least impressed with his accomplishment is Spud Webb.
"That's what struck me that weekend," said Webb. "I was going to an interview and I was thinking that I just won a title and next year I might not even be around to defend it."
Hawks Coach Mike Fratello, who also is 5-7, can perhaps best appreciate what Webb accomplished in Dallas, yet he is quick to point out that he felt that the competition, as well as the three-point shooting contest, took place in a vacuum.
"I'm very happy that Spud won, but does it mean that he can now make it in the NBA?" Fratello said. "Not really. It doesn't help him make the right pass or get our team into its offense any quicker. Selfishly, I want those other things."
However, Fratello must acknowledge the odds that Webb has overcome this season. After being waived last summer by the Detroit Pistons, who had picked him in the fourth round of last June's draft, the North Carolina State product joined Atlanta as a free agent.
His choice of teams was a good one. Three of the guards from last season's squad weren't around. Eddie Johnson and Mike Glenn were unsigned free agents and Glenn Rivers was recovering from a severe wrist injury. A fourth, Randy Wittman, was coming back from knee surgery.
Webb's quickness and hustle were enough to get him onto the young and almost decimated team, but his joy was tempered by the fact that eventually, one, two and perhaps all three players would return.
"It just stuck out in my mind all the time, what was gonna happen when Eddie signed or Doc Rivers got better," said Webb. "Sometimes I'd sit on the bench and think about it. Sometimes I'd be at the scorer's table and it would hit me. I couldn't help it. I mean, it was my future. But once I got out on the floor I never let it affect how I played."
Glenn never did re-sign with Atlanta, but Johnson came back less than 10 games into the season. When he did, the team waived another rookie guard, Sedric Toney. When Rivers returned, Atlanta cut veteran Ray Williams. Antoine Carr, a bruising 6-9 forward, also spent much of the early season on the injured list. But when the big man came back, little Spud stayed.
So did the jokes, and they aren't likely to disappear. A news conference in Sacramento, where the Hawks played the Kings Thursday night, opened with the question: "Is it true your favorite food is shrimp?" The next couple of questions weren't any better and it took some quick intervention by Bill Needle, Atlanta's publicity director (who joined the team for part of its six-game trip west only after Webb won the slam-dunk contest) to prevent Webb from walking away.
"One or two are all right, but when the whole thing becomes nothing but a joke I get tired of it," Webb said later. "Unless you don't care at all about yourself, there comes a time when you just have to tell people that you're sick of it."
There must be something to the heady feeling that follows an overwhelming accomplishment. Jeff Malone of the Bullets made his all-star debut and then returned to score 43 and 36 points in the first two games afterward, as if validating the selection.
Webb came back from the dunk contest and the all-star break with the Hawks' best all-round performance in a loss to Houston on Tuesday, scoring 13 points in 15 minutes. The following day he got a full-court scrimmage off to a rousing start by stripping a teammate of the ball in the back court, then driving through traffic in the lane for -- what else? -- a slam.
But according to Webb, it isn't a matter of new-found confidence.
"Those are plays I should make now. It's 50-some games into the season; I can't be acting like I'm still a rookie," he said. "Earlier this year I wouldn't have dunked the ball, I would have just laid it up. I was trying to get away from dunking because that's all people wanted to see."
In that respect, winning the slam-dunk championship may have been one of the worst things Webb could have done. At dinner here Wednesday night, he constantly was accosted for autographs.
"Hey, Slam-Dunk, sign this for me!"
"Spud, before you throw down those fries, can I get your autograph?"
"We had to push him to say anything about winning the contest," said Rivers. "We teased Dominique about getting beat, and Spud giggles, but I don't think he's said 10 words about it. I think if he could have won the contest in an empty gym it would have made him happy."
Even Webb, who admits to being a most private person, wouldn't go that far.
"I watched it last year and now there were people in the stands holding up '10' signs for me," he said. The morning after the contest, Skip Bayless of The Dallas Morning News wrote a column praising Webb's performance to the high heavens.
"I put that one in my scrapbook," said Webb, a Dallas native.
The night before the contest, Webb appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and told the host that "also being in the business," he knew the value of a good performance.
And the value was intensified by Webb's size. As a result, most observers agreed that if Webb did anything unusual, such as a 360-degree dunk, he'd be a lock to win because the degree of difficulty for Webb's making such a shot was about 10 times greater than for taller players.
The same experts figured Webb would attempt such a feat only as a last resort. Imagine the surprise when he did that very thing with his second attempt. After that, the thinking was, "I can't imagine what else he could possibly do."
His creativity flowing, Webb not only did the same dunks that Wilkins used in winning last season's title but added new twists to some old staples.
The best dunk was easily the one where Webb softly lofted a basketball from between midcourt and the three-point circle, caught it on the rise at the side of the rim and threw it down with his back to the basket.
"Do you realize how perfect everything had to be for him to do that?" said Fratello. "He doesn't know where the ball is going to bounce or how hard he has to loft it to get it to bounce up high enough. If the ball is underinflated the whole thing is ruined."
Well, Webb has a confession to make. The play that had you and the rest of America high-fiving actually was a mistake.
"The ball didn't do what I wanted it to do," said Webb. "It was supposed to come down at the front of the rim. But I hadn't practiced it since last summer, so I guess it was okay for what it was."