Chris Webber went up to catch a routine lob pass from Mike Bibby and then dropped down to the floor, clutching his left knee in agony. In Bill Walton's expert opinion, "that [wasn't] good for Sacramento." But as I watched the Kings' best player being carted off the court, I wasn't the least bit upset. I'm almost ashamed to admit it now, but I felt a little relieved.
After coming within a game of reaching the NBA Finals the previous year, the Kings were getting blown out by the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals. Now, without their star and with tempered expectations, I pictured Vlade Divac giving them the old "nobody believes in us" speech in the locker room, maybe even adding, "let's win one for Chris!" for extra motivation. It almost worked. The short-handed Kings battled back, ultimately losing the series in seven games. I was disappointed but optimistic about next season, not yet knowing that Webber's injury would signal the end of his career and the closing of Sacramento's championship window.
I was flipping channels during the final episode of Seinfeld when I came across breaking news on SportsCenter. I stared wide-eyed as Dan Patrick reported that the Kings had traded Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe to the Wizards for Chris Webber. Despite being one of the most gifted players in the league, Webber had now worn out his welcome in two cities.
Perceived as an immature malcontent, he forced his way out of Golden State after a public feud with Don Nelson, and was shipped out of Washington after being charged with marijuana possession and assaulting a police offer. He didn't help matters by complaining about being "banished to cow-town," and for a while, it didn't sound like he'd even report to the team. My favorite player and the Kings' only star was on his way to D.C., and Sacramento managed to get nothing in return. When the NBA lockout wiped out the first three months of the season, for the first time in six years, I forgot all about basketball.
Of course, once the greedy league owners signed a new collective bargaining agreement and Webber decided to show up to training camp, it worked out better than anyone could've predicted. I knew the Kings had truly arrived when TNT started showing a Webber alley-oop slam in the pre-game highlight montage and NBA Inside Stuff filimed a three-part feature on the team's dramatic turnaround from basement dwellers into title contenders. Webber had a permanent smile on his face and and gushed about finally finding an NBA home. And yet, when he became a free agent three years later, Sacramento seemed to be the last place on his mind.