From prince to the pauper

At least their fans aren't soft.

Rolling out the red carpet and holding the door open only goes for the Sacramento defense now, a Kings problem that has existed all season but reaches a critical stage as the playoffs approach and opponents continue to run layup lines down the lane. It's everyone else that has become demanding.

Chris Webber is getting booed inside Arco Arena, and that's a story.

It's a story because that doesn't happen in Sacramento. The Lakers, the referees -- they're on their own. But to be a King is to be beloved. Scrubs at the end of the bench get commercial endorsement deals. Tony Delk still gets cheered when he comes back, all these teams later. Jon Barry. Corliss Williamson. Terry Porter just got a nice ovation when he came back as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, after spending all of one season as a Rick Adelman assistant. It's about being part of the city.

It's a story because it is Chris Webber, a team captain and a pick for one of the three All-NBA teams each of the previous five seasons. Before the knee injury that knocked him out of the second round of the playoffs last season and the first 50 games of 2003-04, he was the Kings' best player. When he was about to become a free agent, fans serenaded him with Jackson Browne to staaaaaaay, just a little bit lonnnnnger. When he did re-sign, they packed a downtown plaza to celebrate.

But now the boos have happened twice and now Webber is unsure about his future in Sacramento. He wants to stay, a lot longer. He is planning an addition to his home. He loves being part of the Kings, in atmosphere and style of play. He just has no interest in spending the rest of his career in a love-hate relationship with fans and will consider asking for a trade at the end of the season if the scorn continues.

Webber has played seven home games since returning from the knee injury and the eight-game suspension from the NBA that followed and been booed twice. Certainly not by everyone -- the harsh treatment sparked such a debate that soon talk shows were flooded by calls of fans chastising fans, a spin-off of the original issue of his play. Some faithful wanted to write Webber to let him know they weren't among the critical and that he was still appreciated.

But the boos were obvious and loud. So loud that after going back downcourt after making a basket, he shouted curses back at the stands, even if they were drowned out by cheers and couldn't be heard in the first row. So obvious that, despite saying all the right things in the aftermath, he is hurt.

Webber won't talk about the potential implications, saying he wants to avoid distractions and stay focused on the season ahead, but it is known that he's suddenly debating whether Arco is the place to finish his career. He has already hinted that the early feedback is creating a chasm on his side as well, telling a group of reporters after the latest incident that "It definitely changes my focus, my outlook." It was left at that.

Pressed later, he would not expand. He did acknowledge, when asked about the responses to his occasional early struggles, that "I'm very disappointed. And I'm shocked."

Because he feels betrayed by the same fans that once strongly backed him?

"I feel more disappointed," Webber said. "It actually hurts. It's more than betrayed."

It's also deeper. People close to Webber said he has already vented to some friends and family members about not wanting to continue to have to sing for his supper every night, not knowing how he will be received each game. That would become too draining and a great distraction.

There so far have been no conversations with management about his future, and it wouldn't matter anyway. The trade deadline passed Feb. 19. But people close to Webber caution he could be pushed away or at least moved to ask for a trade if the relationship with fans remains in the same state of tension that has developed this month. The option is prominent enough, insiders note, that Webber has already considered addressing the issue with owners Joe and Gavin Maloof or president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie in the summer.

What happens from there is impossible to gauge, months away from taking place and maybe not at all, and even then dependent on the variables of how the playoffs finish and the health of Webber's left knee. That comes with the biggest unknown of what happens the rest of 2003-04.

The expectations of a contract worth $122.7 million over seven seasons, a series of Webber injuries and playoff letdowns, and the league's eight-game suspension in February (for violating the anti-drug policy and pleading guilty to one count of criminal contempt of court) strained the union. When he finally returned to action this season, after missing 58 games, it was to overwhelming cheers. He responded with three impressive outings.

The next home game, on March 9, Webber missed 19 of 21 shots and was booed. He went into the March 21 game against Houston averaging 18.7 points, nine rebounds and 4.5 assists, solid numbers for anyone and very encouraging for someone coming off a serious knee injury, while shooting just 44.3 percent. That night, Webber got booed again while making just four of 18 attempts.

He could have handled a negative response in the first game, if Sacramento had voiced its collective displeasure at his off-court decisions that led to the suspension. He would have taken that hit and understood he had it coming. But it never happened. It was only during bad games.

What got Webber was fans turning on him so quickly while coming back from a major injury. In the three appearances before getting booed March 9 against Golden State, he had averaged 24 points and nine rebounds and shot 50.9 percent. Two days before facing the same treatment against the Rockets, he contributed 24 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists as the Kings beat the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers on the road.

It has been a culmination. Fans are greatly frustrated by his reliance on a perimeter game, but it's the same shot selection he's always had and no one booed when he was at 48 percent or better in four of the first five seasons as a King or as he averaged at least 20 points each campaign. They see the offense is not as fluid as when he was on the sideline, which is true. Just as blame falls to teammates for standing around watching him more. And oh, by the way, Sacramento doesn't win the championship without Webber so there's something to be said for making the investment now to work him back in.

"You may want to sacrifice a little now to gain a whole lot later," Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said.

Every game has been a struggle on defense, where the slow recovery from Webber's knee injury is really exposed, but the Kings were a sieve months before he ever showed. The rebounding has been inconsistent, from impressive production to getting embarrassed by not boxing out the quicker Kwame Brown and getting beaten to missed Washington free throws in the most recent home game.

At least he didn't get booed that night, and it has become so strange in Sacramento that it gets noted if a King gets complete support or not. It was a first step to the future, or to the past.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.