AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Every free throw prompted a sigh. Every dunk was enough to make you cringe. You don't have to be a die-hard Philadelphia fan these days to dislike Chris Webber. Some would say all you have to be is a basketball purist to despise everything he stood for as a member of the 76ers.

But even the harsh reality that the Sixers are nearly $37 million lighter in the wallet with nothing to show for it pales in comparison to what will rake the nerves now.

"I'm happy," Webber proclaimed Tuesday night, less than an hour after his Detroit Pistons were blown out by the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. "I'm happy to be home. Happy to be with my family. Happy just to be in a good situation."

There is nothing but truth in what Webber had to say. Nor was there any malice in his words. In pursuit of that elusive NBA championship, the one folks had hoped he and Allen Iverson would bring to Philly, C-Webb took time out of his busy schedule to praise everyone from the Sixers players to the organization and, specifically, president/general manager Billy King. But not coach Maurice Cheeks.

If this means nothing to you, perhaps you should pay attention.

Webber called King "a good man." When asked what advice he would give him, Webber said, "I'd tell him to stand on a ledge. If you're going to get pummeled in Philly, get pummeled. But go with what you believe and let this be a new start for him. At least he'll be able to say he gave it all he had."

Predictably, Webber didn't have much to say about Cheeks, aside from calling him a good man while proclaiming, "He was different than the coach I was told he was in Portland."

Of course, most Sixers fans would say they couldn't care less about what Webber has to say. The truth is, they must.

They care because Webber is playing while the Sixers are home. They care because he has left for greener pastures while Sixers fans are still waiting for the team's pastures to turn green, period. And while he is far from a star in these playoffs, averaging 9.3 points and 6.3 rebounds, the 26 minutes per night Webber has recorded have revealed a level of endurance, agility and hops that many thought was buried someplace in Sacramento, before he ever arrived in Philadelphia.

It's enough to make anyone wonder exactly how hurt C-Webb was upon his departure.

"You say that's impossible," Mayce Webber, C-Webb's father, deadpanned. "I say it's a miracle. God works in mysterious ways. Especially when you're happy. Chris was just down. He didn't have that zest, that passion that you need to feel alive. People may underestimate this, but there's something to be said about being happy. People need to think about that sometimes."

C-Webb had a different take, of course.

"My father sees my experience in Philadelphia differently than me," C-Webb explained. "I'm a competitor. If I let the mood of the situation handle how I approach the game, then I'm just a fly-by-night type of dude, which I'm not.

"I was at the point where I was playing for pride to uphold my name. I want to play with guys who say, 'I'm Chauncey Billups. I'm Tayshaun Prince. You can win with me.' I like that ego. If you have that, then hopefully that carries you through the rough times.

"I'm not judging the Sixers, because Billy King and those guys were very good to me and allowed me to have my time there. But I was asked to change. You don't go from 20 points to eight points a game. I don't believe you fall off that much in a year."

Now he's gone, so what does it mean for the Sixers?

"It means they get to start anew," Webber explained. "Billy King has great ideas. He just needs to do what he feels and not worry about anything. I know I don't anymore."

Playing alongside champions like Billups, Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton will do that for any player. In Webber's case, who knows how it will pan out?

All we know for sure is that he's better off than the Sixers are these days. He hasn't bothered wondering why, but maybe the rest of us should.

The Sixers' future is right in front of us, you know.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith
at 215-854-5846
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stephensmith.