It's increasingly difficult to explain away these Chris Webber moments. Each one seems more disappointing, more disheartening than the last, right up through Wednesday night's missed three-pointer in Game 7 against Minnesota that left his team short of a championship -- again.
Eleven years ago, with 11 seconds left in the NCAA championship game, Webber called a timeout his Michigan Wolverines didn't have, costing his team dearly in a loss to North Carolina. He scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in that game, but the timeout is what most people remember now. Webber, despite being crushed, handled the whole thing with such good humor; he named his charitable foundation "Timeout." But there's no way to lessen the hurt when it is renewed year after year.
Let me admit right up front. I've liked Webber since that day.
I like the way he has worked on his game, polished it and expanded it. I like the way he includes his teammates by passing the ball better than any forward in basketball today. I like the way he developed a jump shot after having only a back-to-the-basket game when he first entered the NBA.
I've liked that he is so irresistibly engaging, so bright, so well-read and well-traveled and interested in so much beyond himself and basketball.
Even when Webber screwed up -- and there were plenty of those episodes, like the time he refused to roll down his window when stopped by a police officer in suburban Washington -- I liked him because even in his immaturity he genuinely seemed to want to do the right things with his life, and my God, could he play. The Sacramento Kings were a joke when he got there; the team had never had a winning season before he arrived in exchange for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, courtesy of Washington. But with Webber, the Kings were a serious contender almost overnight. Webber, more than anybody else, did that. He turned the Kings into a threat to win it all.
But it's always stopped with the threat, hasn't it? Two years ago, with two chances to close out the defending champion Lakers and lift his own team into the championship round, Webber and the Kings came up empty, losing Game 7 at home, no less. Last year, with the Lakers out and the Kings clearly the best team in the league, Webber suffered a knee injury and the Kings lost Game 7 to Dallas. Now, playing against a Minnesota team that had never had a Game 7 in franchise history, the Kings lost another seventh game.
Not only that, but the Kings blew a big lead at the end of Game 2, blew a game at home after coming from 13 points down with 2 minutes 37 seconds to play to force overtime. And while a few of us were simply convinced the Kings would pull themselves together in Wednesday's Game 7 and give us that delicious rematch with the Lakers, fact is they blew it again, in Minneapolis. A team that makes 80 percent of its free throws made a mere eight of 17 (47 percent) in the pressure cooker of Game 7. Peja Stojakovic, for the second time in the three Game 7s, disappeared, and he's supposed to be an MVP candidate. It really is time Stojakovic start to take account of his own inadequacies under pressure.
But I'm getting away from the point. The NBA is the one sport where one guy -- The Star Player -- assumes the lion's share of the responsibility, whether we're talking about Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or Tim Duncan. That is standard operating procedure in the NBA.
And Stojakovic, no matter how small he showed up again, isn't that guy.
Webber is. Yet, he missed all three free throw attempts Wednesday night. He missed that critical layup late. And he missed the three-pointer that could have tied it. It's Webber's team. He makes the most money. He's the straw that stirs the drink in Sacramento, even if Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson are thought by the pro basketball fraternity to be tougher mentally.
While Webber was having a nice game -- 16 points and eight rebounds -- his opposite number was strapping his team to his back and carrying it to the conference championship round. While we have to take into account Webber's ailing knee still limits what he can do, it's plain as day that Kevin Garnett did what Webber has yet to do, which is to say be the star when the pressure is the most intense.
You know how many guys have had 30 points and 20 rebounds in the history of NBA Game 7s? Wilt, Russell, Heinsohn, Baylor, Barkley and now, Garnett. That's it, that's the list.
I wonder, as I see Webber limping around and laying the ball in (instead of throwing it down with that cat-like burst) if he'll have another chance like this, or whether his 31-year-old body will betray him. Maybe the Kings are destined to be one of the great underachievers in NBA history.
Maybe Rick Adelman (who coached the unfulfilled Trail Blazers teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s) is the problem and needs to be replaced ASAP.
Whatever, Webber at the very least is star-crossed. Just this year, he was found to have lied to a grand jury about accepting payments from a Michigan booster, and was essentially banished from the record books of the school he took twice to the NCAA championship game. Then he was booed at home, by a bunch of ungrateful rubes who had nothing but 50-loss seasons before he arrived. And that, trust me, hurt him more than anything that has happened, even more than being traded by Washington, even more than being banished by his alma mater.
A game-tying three-pointer to force overtime wouldn't have been redemptive; stars have to win championships to claim that ground. But it would have been sweet. It might have awakened something in the Kings, who seem as star-crossed as he is. It might have enabled Webber to change his own history of failing to break through in the postseason.
At the very least, it would have given the Kings five more minutes.
Instead of having Lakers vs. Kings with a million story lines, with all the images from the seven-game thriller two years ago, we're left with Lakers-Timberwolves. Is this simply a snack for the Lakers, who've suddenly found their purpose? Or in Garnett are we watching a great basketball ascension? Just as Webber's primary helper got lost on his way to the gym, Garnett's primary helper (Sam Cassell) dragged his injured back through a 23-point, seven-assist performance, one where he made 10 of 11 free throws.
It's possible, as the Timberwolves rise into contention, that we've seen the last of the Kings as we've known them through five entertaining but undecorated seasons. It's difficult to imagine Webber and the Kings going through more disappointment together. But the images of these last three postseasons -- the missed shots, the missed free throws, the missed opportunities -- make it just as difficult to see him or them finding success together, too.