Webber reaches out with collection of African-American art, artifacts

He certainly never envisioned a collection. That's the first thing. Chris Webber was a young athlete with some money and an interest in cultural history that was slowly gaining traction in his mind, and what's a millionaire to do in between NBA seasons? Webber bought himself a little art.

"I just thought I was going to put it in the hallway of my house," Webber said recently, chuckling at the thought. "My friends were like, 'You're corny. You're a nerd.' I thought no one would care."

Then again, Webber has made a career of courting either controversy or surprise, from a recruiting scandal to his infamous time-out-that-wasn't at Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship game to an NBA career that has been equal parts brilliance and frustration. Perhaps it makes complete sense that what began almost as a lark eventually would grow into a thing that might endure -- might outlast Webber himself, really.

From a single purchase in 1994, Webber has slowly built a heralded trove of African-American art and artifacts, to the point that his collection is routinely exhibited in museums and public buildings. Along the way, the art has become a gateway for Webber with many of the young people whom he has tried to reach during his visits to schools and their visits to NBA games.

"You get them in with the candy, and basketball talk is the candy," said Webber, a five-time All-Star who at age 34 is finishing this NBA season on a short-term contract with Golden State. "In the beginning, I didn't know if there was going to be interest by the kids in me showing the [art], but so many teachers have told me it really helped break the tension and open up some conversation."

Webber's collection ranges from the star-struck to the genuinely historic; from an autographed copy of the Muhammad Ali tribute "GOAT" to a rare first edition of Phillis Wheatley's seminal 1773 work, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," the first book ever published by an African-American. There is a signed postcard from Malcolm X to "Roots" author Alex Haley; a signed quote by Martin Luther King Jr.; a signed albumen photograph, or carte-de-visite, of Frederick Douglass, the first African-American to be appointed to a federal post in 1877; an accounting book from Virginia in the early 1800s that documents the buying and selling of slaves.

Presented as a collection or simply as part of a class or group gathering, the pieces allow Webber to weave stories of the African-American experience -- and, he says, make a connection with kids that they might not experience otherwise.

"I started with one school by saying, 'How many of you guys are friends?' And they were all different races and colors," Webber said. "And I said, 'Well, you and you -- can you imagine not being able to be friends because of the color of your skin?' And just keep talking about that. I told them about Phillis Wheatley, and how no one believed that she could have written the book -- she literally had to recite paragraphs from it to convince people that she wrote it. So I told them about that, and the girls in the room all felt empowered, like they could do anything.

"They're just things that show how you can overcome any obstacles. We all have excuses, but look at what they did. If they can do it, you can do it. A lot of the kids who I visit with come from pretty rough backgrounds, and just to let them see these stories and touch the pages, or let them see the documents -- I just use it as an encouragement piece."

Webber's own interest in the cultural history was almost accidental. When his parents first insisted that Webber attend Detroit's private Country Day High School rather than his local high school in the late 1980s, Webber was bitterly unhappy. But his experience at Country Day included interaction with fellow students and teammates from all walks, and a visit to a Jewish friend's home at Hanukkah left a deep impression.

"My friend's mom was breaking down the story of the holiday -- why they do this, why they do that -- and she just knew that history completely," Webber said. "I remember then taking just much more pride in African-Americans, in terms of positive things they did -- not just Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but those who did other things that maybe didn't get noticed. That experience in high school made me more embrace who I was, and where I came from."

Still, Webber did not begin purchasing pieces of African-American history with any intent other than to own it, which explains why, by his own description, the Webber collection hews to no dominant theme. Rather, he said, he buys pieces only that speak to him in a particular way -- one reason why he hasn't bought anything over the past couple of years.

Instead, Webber and his assistant, Erika Bjork, have been busy arranging for his existing collection to be shown -- whether it be on partial display at a museum like the Crocker in Sacramento, Calif., or in full regalia, like the 2007 showing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in midtown Detroit, the largest museum of its kind.

Webber, who played for the Kings from 1998 to 2005, houses the collection permanently at the Sacramento Public Library. Select pieces are on display at the library through March 2, in conjunction with Black History Month.

There's one piece that doesn't fit the bill, though Webber still holds it dear -- and never hesitates to show it to the youth he visits. It's a handwritten note from then-President Bill Clinton, not long after Webber called the timeout in that 1993 NCAA final (won by North Carolina, 77-71).

"He just said he admired the way I handled it, and 'You're still a champion,' and -- you know, all the stuff a president would say," Webber said. "Oh man -- I've only seen it three times, because my parents were like, 'That's gold. You can't touch it.' I got to meet him again when I was [playing] in Washington, and I told him that he couldn't know how much that meant to me. The President of the United States actually thought about me, and took the time to write a note. Who does that?"

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory", has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Six Good Innings", about one American town's ability to consistently produce Little League champions, will be released in June. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.