NBA: Blazers' Webster battles the best in Kobe, then LeBron
By Steve Kelley
The Seattle Times
PORTLAND, Ore. — Back in the early, wide-eyed days of his NBA career, Martell Webster waited in a game for the official to hand the ball to LeBron James to start the second half.
“Don’t forget,” the Portland Trail Blazers rookie said to James, “you promised you’d give me your shoes after the game.”
Before he was a player, Webster was a fan. And like most rookies, he fought the urge to be awe-struck when he first shared the court with the likes of James and Kobe Bryant.
“I was like that too,” Blazers leader Brandon Roy said. “In fact, I still am. I’m a bigger fan of these dudes than a lot of the fans sitting in the seats. I love all these guys I play against. I might be the biggest fan of Kobe’s. I know exactly where Martell was coming from.”
Still, when you’re a rookie, the best thing to do is keep your idolatry to yourself. If LeBron James gives you his game shoes, hide them in your bag. Don’t let your teammates see you toting them out of the arena.
But on that night five years ago, Webster made a rookie mistake and came on to the Blazers’ bus with James’ Nikes slung over his shoulder, and the joking from his teammates was merciless.
“That just showed his youth,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said Sunday, before James and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Portland 106-94.
But now in his fifth season, still just 23 years old, Webster, who came directly into the league from Seattle Prep in the 2005 draft, has grown into the NBA.
After missing all but five games last season, he has become a starter for the injury-plagued Blazers and one of their defensive stoppers.
In a season that has seen the Trail Blazers lose center Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla for the year and key players Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and Nicolas Batum for large stretches, Webster has played in all 39 games.
On Friday night against the Lakers, he played 46 minutes and defended Bryant practically every tick of those minutes. On Sunday he played 38 minutes, most of them against the mighty LeBron.
Kobe on Friday. LeBron on Sunday. So Martell, how was your weekend?
“I could have done better,” he whispered.
The truth is, even though the numbers back up his claim, Webster did well. Bryant had to shoot 37 times to score 32 points. And while James scored 41, he had just 10 in the second half, when Webster got more help from his teammates.
“He’s doing great,” said Blazers assistant coach Dean Demopoulos, walking past Webster’s locker after the game. “Is that what this is about? We couldn’t be happier with him.”
Before Sunday’s 12-point night, Webster had scored 14 or more in his last five games. But the new jewel in his game is his defense. He now draws the Blazers’ toughest defensive assignment every night.
“Martell and I have always been like brothers,” said Roy, who played at Garfield and starred at Washington. “He’s been like my younger brother, and to see what he did against Kobe Bryant on Friday, that was special to see.
“When he came into this league, Martell was so young. This is a league where people aren’t very patient. But the good thing about Portland and Coach Nate is that they’ve been able to be patient with Martell. I think that patience has been important for Martell.”
At the beginning of last season, McMillan decided to make Webster his starting small forward. Then the foot injury last year changed everything. Webster could have pouted away the season. That one injury could have changed the direction of his entire career.
Instead of sulking, Webster studied. He learned the league from the Blazers’ bench. He made his adversity his opportunity.
“It’s just about not backing down, not giving in to anything. That’s how you have to be,” said Webster, who is averaging 9.9 points per game. “You have to be relentless and if you’ve got heart, you’ll find a way to get it done. I just decided, if I’m out, I’m still going to be in the game. I’m still learning. I’m still going down that path. I haven’t got there yet, but I’m going to keep on working.”
McMillan said every weekend is going to feel like the All-Star weekend for Webster. Every night he will be challenged by the best.
“He gets that assignment even though he’s not the best defender,” McMillan said. “But he has worked at it and gotten better and he will continue to improve. He’s figuring out what he can do in this league and what he can do for this team.”
And if Webster still asks LeBron James for some sneakers, he most certainly hides them in his gym bag. It’s all part of the learning process.