- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Three seasons ago, the Detroit Pistons were in need of a spark.

They took a risk midseason by trading for forward Rasheed Wallace — a big man with a bad reputation but undeniable skill — hoping he would put his problems behind him, and he helped bring the team a championship.

Now, the Pistons want Chris Webber to do the same thing.

Webber signed with Detroit as an unrestricted free agent for the veteran’s minimum after the Philadelphia 76ers bought out his contract for $36 million in mid-January. Since that time, the Pistons have gone 31-11 and solidified into a diversely effective team — one that has vaulted back to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Before Webber’s arrival, the Pistons were a good but inconsistent team with a few glaring weaknesses, including one at center. Now Detroit has gained offensive consistency and, more surprisingly, has become more defensively sound thanks to a mix-it-up philosophy that includes zones and traps that hide Webber’s deficiencies.

“He’s added a dimension to our team that we can use very well as a big guy that can pass, shoot, can score on the block and add some leadership,” point guard Chauncey Billups said. “And he’s a guy that’s hungry. Everything I envisioned this team would look like — and everything he would look like and be like — has come to fruition for us.”

And Webber, like Wallace, has used the veteran environment and lack of a star system on his hometown team to reinvent himself, a long-needed cleansing for a player once named a starter on Sports Illustrated’s All-Poison team.

“If anything, I’m just appreciative that I’ve lasted this long,” Webber said. “I’ve been relatively healthy, I’ve had a good career and I have a chance to win a championship. I just really know that I’m blessed.”

The five-time All-Star and 1993-94 rookie of the year took Michigan to back-to-back NCAA title games in 1992 and 1993 as a member of the Fab Five. He also helped the Sacramento Kings advance to the Western Conference finals in 2002.

But along the way, Webber also was branded as a somewhat disingenuous player who couldn’t lead a team to a championship.

After his rookie season with the Golden State Warriors, Webber demanded a trade when he couldn’t mesh with coach Don Nelson. The Warriors obliged in the offseason, completing a sign-and-trade deal that sent Webber to the Washington Bullets.

During his four-year tenure in the District, Webber helped the team break its nine-season playoff drought and made his first All-Star team in 1996-97. But he also had two run-ins with police over marijuana possession in 1998; the first set of charges eventually were dropped, but Webber paid a $500 fine after police found 11 ounces of marijuana in his bag while leaving a promotional tour in Puerto Rico.

In May 1998, Webber was traded to Sacramento, where he quickly became recognized as one of the league’s top forwards. There, he was perennial All-Star and helped the once fruitless Kings franchise become a title contender. He was rewarded with a $123 million contract in the summer of 2001.

But the Kings never did win that title, with Webber taking the brunt of the blame, especially after an overtime loss at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. A year later, a knee injury in the playoffs nearly ended his career. Webber underwent microfracture surgery and returned almost a season later, but by then his game had suffered considerably.

In February 2005, the Kings traded Webber to Philadelphia. Paired with Allen Iverson, Webber again became a 20-point, 10-rebound performer, and the 76ers made the playoffs in his first season. The following season though, Philadelphia struggled to a 38-44 record, failing to make the playoffs.

Early this season, when it became more clear Philadelphia wanted to play its young guys, Webber wanted out. His wish was granted when the 76ers bought out his contract shortly after trading Iverson to the Denver Nuggets.

Now, for perhaps the first time in his career, Webber is in a situation that is perfectly suited for him to thrive. He’s no longer a dominating force inside, but in Detroit he is not asked to be the team’s leading scorer or public star.

He’s not even needed as the voice of leadership — not with tri-captains Billups, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince guiding the locker room — even though the Pistons say he has helped the team in that area as well.

“He’s shown very, very good leadership qualities,” coach Flip Saunders said. “You have to respect a guy coming into a situation where you have a lot of guys who have been here and have had success. He’s not afraid to speak his mind and say here’s what we need to do.”

But all the Pistons really wanted out of Webber was for him to play his game and become comfortable.

He did, almost instantly. He said he felt at home after his first game, a loss to Utah, as he joked with his new teammates.

“After a loss you can tell a lot about people,” Webber said. ” … We were sitting there laughing and joking. I knew this was the place for me.”

A talk with team president Joe Dumars in February cemented any lingering doubts as to his role.

“I wanted to come in and make sure I was doing whatever it took to help us win,” Webber said. “And [he told me], ‘You’re not being aggressive.’ He said, ‘We want you to try to play your game.’ ”

Webber hasn’t grumbled about his numbers or playing time, even as he has become less of a fourth quarter player. He seems to have adopted the team attitude that individual success doesn’t matter in as long as the team is winning.

Some might not see that fitting with their preconceived notion of who Webber is. That’s fine with him.

“Maybe that’s how I’m different,” he said. “I used to worry about the misconceptions, and now I don’t. I mean, it is what it is. People like me just because I came home. When I was in Philly, people didn’t like me. You’ve got to take everything with a grain of salt.”

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