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Chris Webber’s recent retirement didn’t get the attention it deserved around here.
Perhaps Wizards fans are just too happy with the current state of the franchise, which clinched a fourth straight playoff berth on Friday, to dwell on the Webber Era.
But anybody doubting just how good things are now should look back to that, um, special period. O, what a time! O, what a team!
Webber’s squads had some similarities to today’s Wizards. Well, make that, one similarity: Both were dominated by a trio of players and personalities. Today’s Big Three: Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and Gilbert Arenas. Yesterday’s: Webber, Juwan Howard, and Rod Strickland.
But this late model bunch wins its share of games and is as likable as any in the league (who doesn’t love Caron Butler?). The Webber Era confabs weren’t only uncompetitive—one playoff appearance, zero playoff wins—but hindsight reveals their rank as the most unlikable team to ever call this town home (who doesn’t despise Rod Strickland?).
The Titanic set sail in November 1994 when the then Bullets gave four first-rounders (Tom Gugliotta, 1992’s No. 6 overall, plus three future picks) to Golden State to bring Webber here.
By January, Webber was going to the press to complain about the food served on the team’s chartered flights: “You got this little thing right here with beef on it. I don’t eat beef,” he told the Washington Times. (Owner Abe Pollin bought the team its own plane in 1998.)
Webber was also soon publicly slamming the front office for not consulting him before making personnel decisions.
In hoops-unrelated affairs, Webber and a sponsor commissioned a 50-foot rendering of him on a Chinatown wall. He also laid out architectural plans for a 15,000-square-foot home on a 14-acre site in Prince George’s County, complete with three islands, officially dubbed the Chris Webber Estate. And Webber started a record label and called it…Humility Records. (Cassette copies of Webber’s own Humility release, a rap recording titled “2 Much Drama,” are often available on eBay for less than $5.)
And, remember, Webber’s the guy who made the throat-slash gesture infamous, threatening New Jersey fans with it after a March 1998 game against the Nets.
He wasn’t any nicer to the home fans, charging a $15 membership fee to the Chris Webber Fan Club, then lowering it to $6 after getting slammed for greediness.
Much of the Webber Era’s despicability came from players doing things that didn’t show up in the box score. Like: getting arrested. The beginning of the end of Webber’s run here came when he was pepper-sprayed and busted by Prince George’s police in January 1998 after a very high-profile bust. Webber was convicted of a few minor driving offenses that came out of the incident, but a jury cleared him of more serious charges, including assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and possession of marijuana.
Because of the arrest, Webber missed a session to produce a promotional video of the Wizards theme song “You Da Man” for season ticket holders. When the team rescheduled the shoot to accommodate the star’s legal affairs, Webber again didn’t show up.
Pollin gave Webber away to Sacramento for an old-and-in-the-way Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe in May 1998, then went on the air with George Michael to say Webber’s “antics” were “a disgrace” and that shipping out his star player was the only way to go.
Howard began his awful run with the team in November 1994, the very same day as Webber, signing an 11-year $37.5 million deal as a rookie to end his holdout. Those negotiations ended when the team agreed to allow Howard to void the contract after two years. After two losing seasons alongside his fellow former Fab Fiver—including a 21-61 record and last place finish in 1994-1995—Howard bailed out of that deal and held out again for a seven-year, $105 million contract from Pollin.
Just months after signing the second whopper, Howard, whose good-guy image was pushed by agent David Falk to force the Bullets to re-sign him at the inflated wage, got arrested for drunk driving after partying with Webber at LuLu’s Mardi Gras and yelling at cops on M Street NW. After the arrest it came out that Howard was involved in a paternity suit for nickel-and-diming the mother of his 4-year-old son.
Howard, like Webber, didn’t show up for the “You Da Man” video shoot. And the local masses grew to despise Howard long before the Wizards traded him to the Dallas Mavericks for Etan Thomas, Christian Laettner, and a gaggle of nobodies amid the 2000-2001 season. By the end of the 1998 season, in fact, his and Webber’s approval ratings were so low that when both were accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a party at Howard’s Potomac home—charges made from whole cloth, as it turned out—most callers to sports radio were sure they were guilty. Shortly before leaving, Howard was booed by the home crowd after taking the court to plug his youth charity.
That left Strickland without a D.C. posse. The borderline all-star and borderline sociopath had been brought in from Portland in a trade for Rasheed Wallace.
Whereas Gilbert Arenas now gets peeved when doctors tell him he’s too injured to play, Strickland pulled no-shows at games because doctors told him he could play. He was once fined a game’s pay—$111,111 according to a report in the Washington Post—for not coming to practice after the team physician ruled that his shoulder injury shouldn’t prevent him from suiting up. It’s not like Strickland had a reputation for taking care of his body: After he threw up on the court mid-game in New
Jersey in March 1998, Strickland admitted having a pre-game ritual of shoveling down pizza and hot dogs just before tipoff.
Then there were the off-court scrapes. A whole lot of scrapes.
He’d been a bad actor before coming to Washington. Strickland broke his hand in a 1991 barroom brawl in San Antonio and was arrested the same year for indecent exposure in Seattle. He was charged with battery after a fight in a Chicago parking lot in 1994 and had to complete court-ordered counseling sessions for domestic abusers after pleading guilty to a 1995 assault on the mother of his son in New York.
He added many lines to that rap sheet around here. Strickland’s first drunk-driving arrest in this market came in September 1997 after he’d made an illegal U-turn on New York Avenue NW; Strickland’s “Do you know who I am?” defense failed to sway D.C. cops. His second DUI arrest here came in April 1999, just weeks after completing probation for his first offense, with cops saying he ran three red lights on 16th Street NW. His third DUI arrest here came in January 2001, when police saw his Cadillac SUV juking on the George Washington Memorial Parkway shortly after 3 a.m.
He was also arrested for disorderly conduct in October 2000 when police said he wouldn’t follow a fire marshal’s order to empty out the Republic Gardens nightclub on U Street NW. The law didn’t get involved, however, when Strickland gave teammate Tracy Murray a seven-stitch eyebrow gash in a brawl at a North Carolina hotel in 1997.
The official end of the Webber Era came when Strickland was paid $2.5 million by the team after the 2001 season to void the rest of his contract, just to get him to leave. But he wasn’t done tormenting this area; Strick came back to town on the night of Sept. 11, 2001. We know this because Strickland was arrested after members of his entourage, which included wimp soul maven Chico DeBarge, took out their 9/11 frustrations by pounding on fellow customers in the parking lot of a T.G.I. Friday’s in Bowie (“The TGIF Massacre,” Nov. 2, 2001).
Once more with feeling: Sept. 11, T.G.I. Friday’s, Rod Strickland, and Chico DeBarge.
Oh, speaking of bad music: Strickland joined Webber and Howard in pulling a no-show for the “You Da Man” shoot from 1998. With none of the Big Three around, producers were left to let Lawrence Moten, then on his last 10-day contract with the Wizards, star in the video for season ticket holders.