VICE Sports Q&A: Chris Webber on Broadcasting, Amateurism, and That Timeout
Chris Webber tells us how he has successfully transitioned from being a star NBA player into the thinking fan's announcer. And, yes, he does talk about that famous timeout against North Carolina, too.
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
The Western Conference Finals between the Thunder and the Warriors gets underway tonight in Oakland. Handling the call will be NBA on TNT analysts Marv Albert, Reggie Miller, David Aldridge, Craig Sager, and the relative newcomer of the bunch, Chris Webber.
Webber first got into broadcasting as a guest studio analyst in the spring of 2008-09, following his retirement from the Warriors after fifteen seasons in the Association. Webber has gained a reputation as the "thinking fan's" announcer, with a cerebral low-key approach to calling games free of gimmicks, schtick, catchphrases, and the canned shouty-shouty.
Webber's college and professional basketball career was snakebitten. There was, of course, the infamous time out that cost the University of Michigan the chance to win the 1993 national title against North Carolina, and Webber is on a short list of the greatest players who never even got the chance to compete for an NBA title. (NBA conspiracy theorists, Webber included, will always raise an eyebrow at Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, when the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone.)
While Webber will always fall short to the "championships or bust" crowd, his career brought hoop junkies something much more important, beauty. The Fab Five is as iconic a college team as there ever was, a brash, exciting, youthful squad that rescued the world from nut-hugging short-shorts. And the Kings of the early 2000s saved basketball from the ugly hand-checking iso-ball that dominated the 1990s. Those teams were a wild fun-loving carefree ball-moving group of basketball savants that served as bridge to the magic of today's Warriors.
Webber spoke to VICE Sports about why the timeout doesn't haunt him, his incensed call of the Dion Waiters push-off, the "Greatest Show on Court," and his burgeoning career in academia.
VICE Sports: Your broadcast career started right after you hung up the sneakers. Was it something you always wanted to do or did an opportunity just present itself?
Chris Webber: I'd always taken notice of guys calling games like George Blaha, Dick Stockton, John Madden. I'm a big sports fan and they're part of the culture, guys I always wanted to hear call games. I have a lot of aspirations, but I love basketball and want to stay close to the game, especially since I never got the chance to play for a championship. I started considering broadcasting in Sacramento when I was out with a knee injury. It's been a wonderful opportunity, a way to stay connected, to share stories and a little bit of knowledge.
How have you gone about developing your own voice? Did you emulate others announcers you like?
The first rule is you have to be yourself. Whatever personality traits I have, I brought to the table. Initially, I had to challenge myself to open up. The second thing is, take all the help where you can get it. I had so many people looking out for me at Turner. I watched how Reggie Miller took notes. My style is a little different, but I followed his approach. Kevin Harlan showed me how to prepare for a broadcast. Dick Stockton got me ready for my first playoff games. Ernie Johnson gave me insights on approaching Inside the NBA. And now, being able to work with Marv Albert? That's an honor. Along the way, everyone helped me get better by critiquing my work. It started with baby steps, Gary Payton and Ahmad Rashad showing me the ropes in the small studio. I have to thank everyone for being there each step of the way.
What is the unique thing Chris Webber brings to a broadcast?
I wouldn't say I bring anything different, but we're all different people with different backgrounds. I love Hubie Brown, the way he attacks calling the game, breaking it down like a coach, but it isn't a position I've been in. I have, however, been the best player on a team who receives the bulk of the criticism, so I have no problem criticizing a player in the same position. I also know what it's like to take the last shot on the final possession, all the pressure that goes with it. I've been there many times, so I can give an honest account. I feel empathy for that player, and sympathy when it doesn't work out, more than someone who hasn't been there.
I caught a lot of criticism myself for the call at the end of Game two in San Antonio. It was heightened because it's the playoffs, but I caught flack for the same thing last winter when Golden State lost at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves. There was a play where Karl Anthony-Towns got whistled for a charge and it was a terrible call. Part of it comes from the fact I've been there before. I was on an awful Bullets team that played the 72-win Chicago Bulls. Of course, they got the calls. We're in the same league, give us the same respect. The Bulls were so good, they didn't need any help. I've also been the Top Dog, but don't think we should be treated better because of our record.
I don't want to hurt the NBA, but I do want the fans to know they're getting my honest, sincere opinion.
You come across as a quieter announcer than a lot of guys, were you aware in the moment of how fired up about the OKC push-off non-call you were getting?
I mean that's just me. I'm from a family of five, and I can be low-key, but at Thanksgiving everyone has to talk over everyone else just to be heard. One thing I've had to work on calling games is to Slow. Down. I get so excited. The Thunder's building was so loud... I love golf, but I'm not out here trying to be a golf reporter whispering away from the hole. This is live action.
When you went back to review the game what did you think of the call?
It still holds true. I've seen the replay where there were six other things that could have been called, but guys cross over the sideline all the time. Ginobili's sideline step wasn't a missed call. Waiters committed an offensive foul, which kept the Spurs from setting up their play, which was my main point. I know from winning and losing big games, from making huge mistakes and hitting game-winners, from rejoicing and moving on. It was a bad no-call that affected the outcome of the game.
It was nothing personal, though. I rode back with two of the referees. I told them I almost had a heart attack I was so hyped up at that game. We laughed about it. I know how hard their job is, but I don't think they would respect me if I said it over-and-over without critiquing their errors as well. I thought it was funny that some journalists were killing Kyle Lowry for playing terrible, which he was, calling his game garbage, but then also getting on me for getting on the refs. I never call a referee out by name because we're all part of this game. There's always good and bad. It's all about staying balanced.
You recently told Dan Patrick that you thought the 2002 Game Six Western Conference Finals officiating wasn't on the level. During the game, how do you address a situation where you assume you won't be getting any calls? Is it something the team openly discusses, does it get in your head, do you alter your game plan...
Out of the thousands of games I've played, that is the only one where during, and after, I felt something smelled fishy. I'd never been in that situation, and don't think I'll see it again, so it was an anomaly unto itself.
Otherwise, sometimes when you're on the road, you won't get calls, but you can't cry about it. Thinking everyone is against you should never enter a player's head, nothing good can come of it. You should adjust to how the game is being called. If it's ticky-tack, play less physical. If it's rough, then reach, grab, and pound a little more on the defensive end. Players should be able to quickly figure out how close a game is being called so they don't waste fouls.
No fouls are called in the playoffs anyway. That's grown-man ball.
To me, those early 2000s Kings teams don't get enough credit for changing the game for the better. There was a lot of motion, passing, and Vlade Divac has way more in common with Draymond Green than Rik Smits...
I don't know if fans see it, but I do a lot of coaching clinics where I bring tape of the sets we ran, the things we did. They know. When I interview coaches before games, they'll talk about it, or ask for my help implementing some of our plays. Pete Carril installed an NBA version of the Princeton offense, so there was a lot of ball movement. We had a great shooter in Peja, great passers in J-Will and Bibby, and Rick Adelman, the genius behind it all. We were on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Greatest Show on Court."
You don't always get it into the moment when you're playing, but I remember being completely aware of what we were doing because our offense was so fluid. It was so much fun that it erases some of the pain of not competing for a title. Like I always say, give me guys I love playing with even when we're losing...
You were outspoken in college about not getting paid even though it was your name on the Michigan jerseys the school was selling. Where do you think we're at today, is there a sea change coming? And, do you see anything differently a someone who now announces college hoops?
I don't see anything differently, and it's an issue that I'm looking forward to talking about in the upcoming year. It's a conversation that needs to continue, and I can bring my college situation and what happened to me at Michigan. The conversation shouldn't stop until there's vast change, the disparity between the haves and have-nots must be addressed, even if it has to go to Congress.
One criticism that comes up during the NCAA Tournament—it's often lobbed at Charles Barkley—is that NBA announcers don't know college players when they discuss games. How do you go about preparing when you're not familiar with the participants?
It's easy to get familiar. I watch games during the season, game tape before broadcasts, and call up friends who are college coaches and scouts. However, I also realized nobody can be fully prepared for the first day when you're calling four games with eight teams. There's too many different situations to account for, so the opening weekend is when I double down on preparation. Inherently, you'll be ready for the second day because it'll be some of the same teams, but you don't want to sell anyone short on the first day. Usually, the lower seeds are going to get beat, often badly, and it's the stories of the guys on the No. 13-16 teams that I really want to tell. They're the ones putting it all on the line for one game, especially the seniors.
I can put myself in their shoes. I remember crying, not just because we lost, but because I knew there were teammates I wasn't going to see again. I haven't seen some of my guys in more than twenty years. There's no more dorms, no more family coming to visit... I'm sensitive to the feelings of the players and their families on the sidelines. How they were all praying together that morning at breakfast. Your Mom is walking around offering encouragement; Your Dad has a stomachache he's so nervous but he's trying to be strong for you. I've been there, so I embrace what they're going through. You never capture the moment as a teenager, 'Wow, look at how great this is!' So I get to relive those good times through these kids. Calling tournament games is different than the NBA. I try to get all the players backstories in the midst of a pressure game, let people know who they are, so maybe it doesn't come down to saying they played "great" or "horrible." They're still kids.
My first year doing college games, a kid missed a shot in the first round and they lost. I don't remember who my partner was, but he said something like, 'Oh my God, what is he going to do?' Well, hopefully he gets his degree, goes back home, marries his college girlfriend, has kids, gets a good job, and loves his life.
When you watch an ending like we had with North Carolina and Villanova, does part of you have a "what might have been" feeling, or have you moved past the Final Four runs where you came up short?
It's funny, I had different reactions from college and the NBA. The first time I called a game for NBA TV, I had to do a lot of research, because if I wasn't calling games, I wasn't watching. It was too hard. The second year, same thing. By the third year, it got a little easier. Today... it is what it is.
I didn't feel the same way about college ball. When I was in the NBA, I didn't have time to watch a whole lot, but the first time I went to call a college game, I got swept up in it. The atmosphere is so great, the love, the crowds, the smaller gyms. It's just a different setting than the pro game. It's the differences between players, families, and loved ones experiencing something together, and a business. Win or lose, it'll be talked about at family reunions because it's an amazing time. I saw Harvey Grant's kid before the Notre Dame game, it humbled me. We used to mess with him, sticking him in lockers when he was four or five years old. And here he is in front of me...
What I'm trying to say is, I'd call that timeout all over again, every time. Life is unfair and there's no guarantees of winning, but nobody can ever take away that special ride we went on together.
A few years back, you told Yahoo Sports you're interested in becoming a GM or an owner, is that still a goal and have you had conversations to that effect?
I've had casual conversations, talked to NBA executives, but I wouldn't say it's something I'm actively pursuing at the moment. I'm always going to be around basketball, but right now, I'm just trying to become a better broadcaster. What's appealing is that guys are still winning championships. Pat Riley's still collecting rings and he retired a long time ago. It's another way to try and win a title.
You've always been a man of diverse interests and your new gig sounds so cool, can you tell us about Chris Webber, college professor?
I'll be teaching a graduate level course this fall at Wake Forest in the new Sports Storytelling program, which is led by Peter Gilbert, one of the creators of Hoop Dreams. The class is about sports and society. I'll be talking about race, gender, the economic impact of sports, like how the Olympics will affect Brazil before and after the games. Serious issues that need to be discussed. It's been great digging into the case studies and working with the wonderful staff. I'm having a lot of fun bringing issues in sports from a historical perspective into today. I'm furthering my own education. I hope I will for the students as well.
Lastly, do you have a blueprint as to how a team could possibly beat the Golden State Warriors four times?
Oh Man... In the games they lost, they didn't shoot well. So, hope for that. Otherwise, I think you have to try and play the way San Antonio did the time they beat them. Not only do you have to focus and communicate on defense, but you have to be vulnerable. Most times, Steph Curry is going to beat you and score no matter how great a defense you play on him. A lot of guys get caught in-between, giving him space because they don't want to get crossed over, but now you're in no-man's land, and another inch is all he needs to knock it down. If you switch-and-deny, denying the back-cuts as well, coupled with containing the boards...
I'll say it would be intriguing if the guards of Cleveland or OKC played with that vulnerability on defense, while making shots at the other end. The Cavs and Thunder have the talent, but we all saw what the Warriors did to both those teams this season.
I'm not sure I see a recipe to beat them.