DETROIT (AP) – Chris Webber and Mateen Cleaves return today for what could be an uncomfortable homecoming.
The former state college stars come in with the Sacramento Kings to play the Detroit Pistons, and things are not as they would like them to be.
Webber will be pressed for answers about his alleged involvement with former Michigan booster Ed Martin, indicted in a loan scam, and some fans are expected to boo the one-time leader of the Wolverines’ “Fab Five.” He has been cheered in previous visits.
A local radio station is doing its part to fuel the ill feelings by handing out fake dollar bills with Webber’s face printed on them.
Cleaves will face a less-scandalous return.
Many will ask how it feels – in just two years – to go from leading Michigan State to the 2000 national championship, to being Detroit’s first-round pick, to getting traded and relegated to the end of the Kings’ bench.
The point guard is averaging less than two points and one assist when he plays, which isn’t often.
“This is a minor obstacle,” Cleaves said yesterday in a phone interview. “Last year, my brother and cousin were murdered. And last week, I went to a funeral for (former Spartan and current Pittsburgh Steeler) Plaxico Burress’ mother. I don’t take life for granted. I’m blessed to be able to walk, talk, breathe and see.
“But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me at all, because I’m such a competitor.”
Webber’s talents and competitive nature have helped him average more than 24 points and 10 rebounds this season while leading the NBA-leading Kings.
But the focus won’t be on the Detroit Country Day and Michigan star’s improved mid-range jumper.
According to a federal indictment released two weeks ago, Martin loaned Webber about $280,000 from 1988-93 while he was in high school and college. Webber has called the situation, “annoying.”
“There’s no way in the world that I took $280,000 from someone,” Webber said in an interview with ESPN last weekend, ” … and in no way do I want to mess up the name of college basketball, especially my university, the University of Michigan, which is the greatest university ever in the world. … I don’t want to put a bad mark on my family’s name, so as I said before, no, I did not accept the money. And how can you take the word of a criminal anyway?”
Martin, a retired Ford Motor Co. electrician, and his wife were arrested March 21 on charges of running an illegal gambling business, conspiracy and money laundering. They allegedly loaned former Michigan players Webber, Robert Traylor, Maurice Taylor and Louis Bullock more than $600,000.
Cleaves’ name is nowhere in the indictment, but ironically, he’s linked to the six-year scandal.
Martin’s name first surfaced after Taylor lost control of his Ford Explorer on Feb. 17, 1996, as he was returning from Detroit where he entertained Cleaves and visited Martin during Cleaves’ official visit to Michigan.
Cleaves said he and Webber don’t spend much time talking about the scandal.
“We laugh about it,” Cleaves said. “But it’s nothing we pay much attention to. The one thing I’ve learned is, people have to write about something. If it’s good news, it’s in the papers for one or two days. If it’s negative, it can become news for years.”
Some are still bitter that Webber chose to stay in Sacramento when he could’ve signed with Detroit last summer. Others blame him for playing a part in damaging Michigan’s reputation.
But Webber said he’ll enjoy his stay in Detroit.
“There’s going to be a lot of love,” Webber said yesterday night after the Kings beat the Grizzlies in Memphis. “I think there’s going to be a few boos sprinkled in, and then it will just be the game.
“It’s kind of like I hope I get booed a little bit because that will be respect of how well our team is playing. … I’m a number-one Pistons fan besides Sacramento, so I understand if I have to get booed for the team.”