Webber says he will sign with hometown Pistons

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – Chris Webber will sign with the Detroit Pistons, returning to the area where he starred in college and was tarnished in a booster scandal.

The five-time All-Star was waived by the Philadelphia 76ers last week. He becomes an unrestricted free agent after clearing waivers Tuesday, freeing him to sign a new deal.

“Joining the Pistons will allow me the opportunity to play the game I love in my hometown of Detroit surrounded by my family,” Webber said in a statement Monday.

Webber watched the Pistons play the Minnesota Timberwolves with his father, Mayce, in front-row seats at The Palace and was greeted by a standing ovation late in the first quarter.

“We think Chris is going to be a great fit for the way we play,” Detroit coach Flip Saunders said Monday. “The guys are excited, I’m excited and the town’s going to be excited.”

The 76ers cut ties Thursday with Webber by buying out the final 11/2 years of his contract, which called for him to make nearly $21 million this season and $22 million next year.

Webber is coming back to familiar territory. He was born in Detroit and was one of the nation’s outstanding college players at Michigan, leading to him being the No. 1 pick overall in 1993.

His accomplishments, however, were clouded by his ties to a booster that resulted in federal charges against him and NCAA sanctions against the university.

Webber, who was regularly booed at The Palace before Monday, wants to contribute to a contender, and Detroit gives him a chance to do that.

“I look forward to joining a roster of talented athletes and working towards a fourth NBA title for the Pistons and the great city of Detroit,” he said.

Webber, 6-foot-10, could start at center next to power forward Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and are the first team since the early 1990s to advance to four straight conference championships.

Center Nazr Mohammed, who lost his starting job last week, said he wants out if the Webber acquisition leads to him being used even less off the bench.

“I’m not the type of guy that can sit on the bench happy. I came here to play,” said Mohammed, who came to Detroit as a free agent last summer after Ben Wallace left for Chicago. “If I’m not in the plan, I would ask for a trade.”

Webber missed 11 of the last 14 games, officially with foot and ankle injuries, in Philadelphia. But the 33-year-old player had become frustrated with his reduced role on a team with the second-poorest record in the league. He averaged 11 points and 8.3 rebounds in 18 games.

Webber has career averages of 21.4 points and 10 rebounds and in his prime, he was one of the NBA’s top players. Sacramento gave him a $123 million, seven-year contract in the summer of 2001.

Last season, Webber proved he could still produce. He averaged 20.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 75 games – the most he played since the 1999-00 season with the Kings. Webber said in training camp he was feeling as strong physically as he had since surgery on his left knee in 2003.

Webber has learned to play without the eye-popping explosiveness of his prep and college days. He won state high school titles at Detroit Country Day and led Michigan’s Fab Five” to NCAA championship games in 1992 and 1993.

But he is vilified by some for his involvement with deceased Michigan booster Ed Martin. Webber was booed when introduced before a playoff game against the Pistons two years ago, but not as loudly as in previous visits.

Michigan took down the banners Webber helped the Wolverines earn as part of its punishment and removed his name and likeness from its media guide and basketball arena. In 2003, the NCAA also forced the school to dissociate itself for 10 years from Webber and the other former players involved in the scandal: Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock.

“All of that hurt,” Webber told The Associated Press two years ago. “But I still love the University of Michigan.”

Webber pleaded guilty to a federal criminal contempt charge in July 2003, a day before jury selection was scheduled to start for his trial on a perjury charge. He was ordered in 2005 to pay a $100,000 fine after he completed 330 hours of community service.

Webber acknowledged lying to a grand jury in 2000, when he said he didn’t recall giving money to Martin. Webber also admitted that he gave Martin about $38,000 in cash in 1994 as partial repayment for expenditures Martin made on his behalf.

Martin, who died in 2003 at 69, pleaded guilty in 2002 to conspiracy to launder money and told federal prosecutors he took gambling money, combined it with other funds and lent $616,000 to Webber and three other Michigan players. Martin said he gave Webber and his family $280,000 from 1988-93, a period extending from his freshman year in high school through his sophomore season with the Wolverines.

Because of NCAA violations connected to the case, Michigan was not eligible for postseason play for two years, lost scholarships and was placed on probation.

AP-ES-01-15-07 1646EST

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