Chris Webber prays for a reunion with his favorite coach.
The headline today read “Webber Returns to Warriors.” Some of you will know what that means and why it’s making my head spin. For the rest, here’s a little history to help you understand just how weird this is:
Back in the early 90s, I was captivated by a dynamic young basketball team called the Golden State Warriors. Coached by NBA legend Don Nelson and led by a trio of up-and-coming stars known by the acronym Run-TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin), the Warriors played an uptempo style of ball that made them both entertaining and successful.
But there was a problem: The team lacked size, and so while they were good enough to make the playoffs, they couldn’t match up with a bigger team over the course of a series. This prompted Coach Nelson to trade Richmond for a rookie named Billy Owens, whose combination of size and skills made him look like a surefire superstar.
This turned out to be a huge mistake: Richmond was a perennial all-star for the Sacramento Kings, while Owens never translated his talents into success on the court. But then the Warriors caught a couple of breaks. First they drafted guard Latrell Sprewell from Alabama. Known primarily as a defensive player, Sprewell unexpectedly turned out to be a legitimate NBA scorer and all-around catalyst. Then, in 1993, the Warriors lucked into the first pick in the draft. There was never much question who they’d select: Chris Webber, a 6-9 forward from Michigan with great hands, superior passing skills, and apparently limitless potential.
In Webber’s rookie year, the W’s won 50 games and although they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns, they looked ready to mature into a real contender. In the offseason, they addressed their one glaring weakness — lack of an honest-to-God center — by trading Owens for Rony Seikaly.
Then disaster struck. Webber had been signed to an unusual contract that allowed him to opt out after his first year. This was considered to be merely a formality, but it turned out he and Nelson didn’t care for each other. So much so that Webber was prepared to walk away from a big pile of money rather than play another season for his nemesis.
So the Warriors started the season without Webber, and they didn’t seem to miss him, going 7-1 in their first 8 games. There was great optimism in Warriorland: once Webber came back or was traded for a quality player, we were going to dominate the league. I have a clip in my mental YouTube from this time of Tim Hardaway throwing a baseball pass the length of the court to Sprewell, who finished with a tomahawk dunk as announcer Greg Papa yelled “Hardaway…Sprewell…touchdown!”
But once Webber was indeed traded to Washington for forward Tom Gugliotta — a solid player who should have improved the team — nothing worked anymore. The team chemistry had turned poisonous, and before long, the Warriors were a dismal 26-56 and Nelson and Gugliotta were both gone. This was the beginning of 13 years of misery that had many, many low points, including Hardaway being traded for a guy named “Bimbo” and Sprewell trying to strangle coach P.J. Carlesimo.
Most of that time is a blur of players coming and going, coaches being hired and fired, with the only constant being failure. By 2006, the Warriors — now run by former player Chris Mullin — had apparently gone through every coach on the market, and so the only alternative was to give Nelson another try. It seemed like a crazy idea, but somehow it worked. Playing once again an uptempo style, led now by Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, and after a trade with Indiana, Stephen Jackson, the Warriors squeaked into the playoffs and knocked off the mighty Dallas Mavericks in a first-round upset.
I’ve written about this before, though I certainly never get tired of it. But lately things have taken some odd turns. One is that Jason Richardson, a franchise centerpiece, was traded for rookie Brandan Wright. This seemed so much like a replay of the Richmond/Owens debacle that it really worried me, but even though Wright has played very little the W’s have improved from last year, compiling a 27-18 record up to this point.
But the same problem as in the 90s has come up again: the Warriors lack size. And the team’s answer is again the same: Chris Webber.
Yes, after bouncing around the league for 13 seasons — Washington, Sacramento, Philly, Detroit — putting up good numbers but never winning much, getting loudly booed every time he comes to Oakland, Webber has decided to get back, get back to where he once belonged. Today he officially announced he’ll be signing to play the rest of the season for the Warriors at the veteran’s minimum salary.
So will Webb redeem himself in my and my fellow fans’ eyes by contributing to a Warriors march to the Finals? It’s unlikely, but don’t bet against it. Because if Chris Webber and Don Nelson can both come back to Oakland at the same time, anything is possible.