Webber's career path full of promise and pain

Why does Chris Webber's retirement matter so much to me when, in the end, the record will show he did so little?

His career can almost be defined by what he didn't accomplish: never won an NCAA championship, never played in the NBA Finals, never won a Most Valuable Player award, despite all of that talent. What will end up as the high point of his playing days -- two trips to the NCAA's championship game in two years of college -- isn't even recognized by Michigan because of a booster payout scandal. Gone. Not there. Stricken from the record.

But Webber wasn't just Seinfeld, creating plotlines around minimal moments in life. He was Sisyphus, a tragic Greek figure condemned to eternal failure.

The defining image of Webber's NBA career is in this view of Robert Horry's winning shot at the end of Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals. Webber was sooo close to blocking it (here's another angle). And yet he wound up on the wrong side of history. Again.

To watch Webber's failures was endlessly more fascinating than to see most people's successes. It's because he was so much more expressive than the average player, capable of introspection at a much deeper level. He never gave you the run-of-the-mill quotes. Who else could lament a loss to the expansion-era Raptors by saying, "This shouldn't be happening. If there's a food chain in the NBA, we're supposed to be above them." Oh, and he was talented. Tall, mobile, athletic and blessed with what former teammate Rod Strickland called the "best mitts" he'd ever played with.

Webber was such a good talker that he could always seduce people -- starting with himself -- into believing that this time, it would work. He had changed, he had learned his lessons, everything would be better. From Golden State to Washington to Sacramento to Philadelphia to Detroit and back to Golden State, we heard variations of the story. He had something to offer, something to prove or, in his last two stops, something left.

I always wanted it to work out. It was that combination of intellect and potential that made Webber such an interesting subject to me. He wasn't afraid of emotions, shedding tears following devastating losses or breakthrough victories. He could pause, step back, put everything into perspective. Maybe he just said what he knew would sound good. One time, a Washington Post reporter flew to Sacramento to check on Webber after the disappointments on and off the court led the Wizards to trade him to the Kings for Mitch Richmond. Before the game, Webber told the reporter he really wasn't thinking about the Wizards anymore. Afterward, he said he was motivated every day by making the Wizards regret their decision.

Maybe I didn't mind the shifting because whatever he said, at least it was more interesting than 95 percent of the things you heard in a locker room. Maybe I was invested in Webber because I was with him for the whole ride.

The first time we met he was sitting in front of his locker at Michigan's Crisler Arena, just out of the shower after playing an open intrasquad scrimmage. It was Nov. 9, 1991. The date sticks with me because it was two days after Magic Johnson announced he had HIV.

It was a Saturday; I was a senior at Northwestern in Ann Arbor to cover a football game, and stuck around to take advantage of the first public opportunity to see the Fab Five play together in Michigan jerseys. There were moments during that scrimmage when Webber looked like the next version of Magic. One play blew my mind: Webber led a fast break and from the top of the key he threw a behind-the-back pass to a teammate for a dunk. You see a 6-foot-9 freshman do that -- in Johnson's home state, no less -- and you can't help but think of the Magic man.

Seventeen months later, I was in the Louisiana Superdome for the last game of the Fab Five. I was the college basketball writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, and all season long the Wolverines were the No. 1 story in college hoops. I had covered their games in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, at Indiana's Assembly Hall, covered them in Illinois and Iowa and back home at Michigan. They were, it turned out, college basketball's last rock stars. Had he come along five years later, Webber would have followed the trend and gone straight to the pros. Had he come along under today's rules, Webber would have done his obligatory one year in college and then bolted to the NBA.

Instead, Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson burst into our lives as rambunctious freshmen, then they all came back for another go-round as the presumptive favorites in their sophomore year. Bigger and badder than ever. They had the shorts, the swagger, the skills. They were one of the first hip-hop teams, with a soundtrack provided by the EPMD CDs constantly spinning in the locker room. At the Final Four in New Orleans, they were late for a news conference because they were mobbed in their hotel lobby and were delayed getting on the bus. When they finally rolled up on the dais (Rose greeted Steve Fisher with a casual "'Sup, Coach"), a buzz went through the room. Every time they were around it felt like an event.

The championship game against North Carolina was a great game, but the only highlight you'll see this month is Webber calling the timeout his team didn't have. You won't see his line of 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots anywhere. If Michigan had won, he would have been the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, no doubt.

I bet you can't name the guy who did win the MOP without Googling. (I'll save you the keystrokes: Donald Williams). That's the thing. Webber and the Wolverines were far more compelling in defeat than the Tar Heels were in victory. I spent most of my time in the Michigan locker room, then felt for Webber when he went to the news conference to face the nation's media and blamed himself for losing the game.

Webber never unchained himself from the timeout gaffe the way Vanessa Williams was able to change her storyline from "disgraced former beauty queen." It became the point of reference for him. When I ran into him the summer after the 2002 seven-game loss to the Lakers and asked how he coped with it, he said, "It hurt worse than the timeout." No further explanation necessary. The benchmark for pain.

For years fans in NBA arenas, equipped with far more animosity than creativity, yelled, "Timeout!" or "Hey Webber, call timeout."

Once, in Madison Square Garden, with the Bullets hopelessly behind, he wearily obliged the hecklers. He looked into the stands, formed a "T" with his index fingers and mouthed the word "timeout." Then he stared at them, his expression asking if they were happy now that they got what they wanted.

I'd never ever seen a professional athlete look so vulnerable. They actually got to him. It reminded me of Lex Luthor pushing around Superman after he hung kryptonite around the Man of Steel's neck. It's disturbing to see gods become mortals.

It was the only time I actually saw his spirit broken. Usually it was his body that malfunctioned. His Achilles' heel might have been the one part of his anatomy that didn't get injured during his 15-year career.

One time the Bullets were down in Miami, and Cal Ripken came over from the Orioles' spring training camp to watch the game. I chit-chatted with him and he wondered where Webber was. I told him he had a back injury and went back to Washington to have it checked out.

"He gets hurt a lot, doesn't he?" Ripken said.

On its own, it was an innocent question. But coming from the man in the midst of a record-setting consecutive games streak, it sounded like an indictment.

Webber played in 76 games his rookie year and never matched that number again. As if by karmic retribution, he injured his shoulder on his first trip back to Golden State and it went downhill from there. He enjoyed a couple of good years as the focal point of those entertaining Kings squads at the start of the decade, but his run in Sacramento -- and the Kings' days as serious contenders -- effectively ended with a knee injury in the second round of the 2003 playoffs.

He could barely move during his time with Detroit last year, unable to provide that final push to a championship-consideration Pistons team, turning him into just another witness to the ascension of LeBron James. He looked even more out of place trying to keep up with the run-and-gun Warriors in his brief comeback this year.

I was there for his debut in the new Warriors jersey in February. It felt surreal to be interviewing him again, 16½ years after the first time at Michigan. He said he felt good, to give him four or five more games to really get it back.

One last bit of potential, unfulfilled.

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.