I'll never forget the look on Webber's face when he walked off the court after Kings were swept by the Lakers in the first round of the 2001 playoffs. Holding back tears, he turned around and scanned the Acro Arena crowd for a few seconds before leaving through the dark tunnel into the locker room. I was so sure that it would be last time he'd put on a Kings jersey, that I traded Webber to the Pistons for draft picks in NBA Live '01. Lawrence Funderburke was now the team's starting power forward, and Sacramento won 35 games in my simulated season. I quickly hit reset.
Team owners Joe and Gavin Maloof did everything they could to convince Webber to stay instead of bolting to New York or Detroit, from promising to build a downtown soul food restaurant to begging on oversized billboards all over town. One of the more curious ones had a picture of the two brothers promising to mow Webber's lawn if he'd re-sign, as if a multi-millionaire couldn't afford gardeners and landscapers. I wouldn't have been shocked if they kidnapped his girlfriend, Tyra Banks, and ransomed her for his signature on the dotted line.
In the end, the billionaire Maloofs just did what they do best — they threw a shitload of money at the problem. Webber signed a staggering seven-year, $127 million contract, and I celebrated by cutting Lawrence Funderburke from my video game roster. Webber responded with two MVP-caliber seasons, before he'd hear an NBA player's two most dreaded words (besides "paternity test"): microfracture surgery.
The Kings opened the 2003-04 season by winning 43 of their fist 58 games without Webber, but when he returned to action for the final 24 games, understandably rusty and visibly hobbled by his balky knee, the chemistry suffered. The team with the best record in the league became a disaster, losing 11 of their final 18 regular season games and squandering a division title to the Lakers.
It was painful to hear Webber get booed by the home crowd as he dragged his left leg behind him and pulled up for outside shots instead of going inside the paint. My friends joked that the "C" in C-Webb stood for "crippled," which would've been funny if it weren't so alarmingly true. In his younger days, he'd swat a weak shot into the third row, but he was now cemented to the floor while quicker players blew by him to the rim. I knew then that Webber, robbed of his athleticism and explosiveness, would never be the same player again.