Thanks to Colby Spath who forwarded the sad news of Marvin Webster’s passing earlier this week at the age of 56. A 7′ 1″ center for Morgan State, the Nuggets, Sonics, Knicks and Bucks, Webster was found dead in a Tulsa hotel Monday afternoon. The New York Times’ Harvey Aarton recalls the circumstances of Webster’s acquisition by New York in 1978 after leading Seattle to the NBA Finals.
During a brief coaching run, Willis Reed campaigned publicly for the Knicks to sign The Human Eraser, as Webster was known, when he became a free agent. Reed, a great believer in post defense for obvious reasons, got his man at what was then a considerable financial cost: $650,000 a season over six years.
And then ” those being the days when the league™s commissioner, Larry O™Brien, was empowered to impose compensation to the team shorn of a player ” it got worse. O™Brien awarded the Sonics the Knicks™ athletic power forward, Lonnie Shelton, as well as a first-round draft choice and $450,000.
The next season, Seattle returned to the finals ” further compensated by the rise of another young big man, Jack Sikma ” and reversed the Bullets™ result. The Knicks stumbled to a slow start. Reed, the franchise icon, was fired early in the season. Webster, for the most part, became a lost soul in New York.
Webster came, as advertised, as a very good defensive center. He was comparatively slow-moving, already dealing with tendinitis in his knees, but he had excellent instincts and a long wingspan. He just wasn™t very good offensively and by the time he joined the Knicks, he was running stiff-legged. The team soon disintegrated, and traded its best player, Bob McAdoo, to the Celtics for three first-round draft picks. In 1979, the Knicks drafted Bill Cartwright, Webster™s opposite ” an offense-first center with a poor defensive construct.
There was a point when the Knicks thought the Webster-Cartwright tandem might be their answer to the Celtics™ Twin Towers, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. It was wishful thinking. Neither Knicks center could play away from the basket, especially on defense. The plan faltered. The wise guy from the Post dubbed Webster and Cartwright The Twin Tenements.
The wise guy in question was presumably Peter Vecsey. The Daily News’ Fillip Bondy has a few poingant recollections of his own ;
A couple of odd things pop into my mind about the guy: For one thing, Webster was partially responsible for Michael Jordan going to Chicago. In 1984, the Bulls’ Steve Johnson was called for goaltending while blocking Webster’s late-game, late-season shot (which probably would have clanked off the rim), giving the Knicks a 115-113 victory in Chicago. That defeat was necessary for the Bulls to hold down the third pick in the draft, because Cleveland was just one game ahead in the standings. This was pre-lottery. The worse the record, the higher the pick. And the Mavericks owned the Cavs’ pick.
I am not proud of another memory. Back in those days, beat reporters would travel with the players. As we boarded the bus one day before the game, I accidentally rammed my giant Portabubble computer into Webster’s already aching knee. He limped around for some time afterward, and I felt horrible about it. But he was always a gentleman, and never so much as frowned at me.