- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

SACRAMENTO, Calif. So much has changed about Chris Webber since the Washington Wizards traded him to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe in 1998. He isn't fickle about his hair these days, wearing it in a small Afro, a stark contrast from the way he fluctuated between hair and no hair with the Wizards.

And he no longer shies away when a microphone or tape recorder is thrust in his face, as it often was during his many brushes with the law in his four seasons in Washington.

These days, Webber is receptive to prying reporters, partly because the line of questioning is much different. Rather than hearing questions about his whereabouts on a certain night, he gets asked about his status as a front-runner for league MVP. Webber is the main reason the Sacramento Kings lead the Pacific Division the best division in the NBA. Two years after being traded by the Wizards, Webber is third in the league in scoring (26.7), fourth in rebounding (11.4) and tied for fourth in blocked shots (2.4).

As a result, Webber, who will face his old team tonight at ARCO Arena, will be the most sought after free agent in the league when his contract expires following this season. So the big question in Sacramento is whether he will return.

"I think it's clear that Chris is one of the best players in this league, on the planet," said Geoff Petrie, vice president of basketball operations. "When we traded for him we felt then that we were getting a special player. That hasn't changed."

However, Webber, who speaks little about his basketball future, has said little to make Sacramento optimistic.

"I don't know," Webber responded when asked if he would return next season. When asked if Sacramento was his top choice, Webber simply said, "No."

Webber says winning is his main priority, not money he can re-sign with the Kings for the most cash, $121.275 million over seven years. And he says where he will play has a lot to do with the character of the organization.

"It's not just about money," Webber said. "I want to go to war with warriors. You have to be at your best. That's a big part of it. I'm happy with a lot of things here. These are the best owners I've ever been around. And I love Geoff Petrie. He's shown faith in me, and I owe him so much. So as far as the structure and organization go, things are great.

"But what's really important for me is to know that the guys hate losing as much as I do," said Webber, who rarely assumed this stance in his Washington days. "I want guys who will sit in their car after a loss and accept responsibility for that loss. It doesn't have a whole lot to do with winning or not, because we can lose to anybody. But what's most important is that these guys hurt when we lose. That's going to have a lot to do with my decision."

Late last year that didn't appear to be the case. Webber was all but set to sign a five-year extension with the Kings, but his former agent, Fallasha Erwin, advised him not to, and he backed off. Erwin reasoned that Webber was in line for a deal that would maximize his salary out at $121.275 million. Under the extension the Kings had on the table, Webber would miss out on the final two years of a deal that would earn him $20.475 million and $22.050 million, respectively.

However, in a stunning development, Webber recently released Erwin, his agent since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1993.

"I'm disappointed," Erwin said. "I've been with Chris since the beginning. I've been here for Chris and with him since he came into the league. I saw myself as his mentor and his advisor in business ventures."

Webber, who still doesn't have an agent, sees it differently.

"I need to have people around me who can really help me take it to another level," Webber said.

Whatever level that is, the fans in Sacramento hope he reaches it there. And they let Webber know that earlier this month in a game against Houston at ARCO Arena. With Webber at the free throw line with 2:29 left in what would be a 111-98 Sacramento victory, the fans pulled out signs that simply read, "Stay." Right on key, the sound system blasted lyrics from a song: "Why don't you stay, just a little bit longer."

Webber, who posted his typically dominant numbers against the Rockets 37 points, 18 rebounds broke into a smile that remained until he left the court.

"It was flattering. It definitely made me feel good," Webber said. "What else can you ask for when you know that the fans love you?"

How about a commitment?

"We'll all know the answer this summer," Webber said.

Notes Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton suggested he might start Gerard King at forward instead of Tyrone Nesby, whom the team acquired earlier this month to be the starting small forward. Nesby is averaging 6.9 points but is shooting just 31 percent from the floor.

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