First, the nickname. Spud. Apparently, as in potato. With a last name of Webb you might expect Spider or Tangled. But it's plain old Spud, or in West Texasese, "SPU-uhd," as in, "Ask SPU-uhd if he wants white gravy on his chicken-fried steak, Joe Bob." Spud's older brother, David, is known as Bean. It's intriguing to think for a moment of a family named exclusively after vegetables, but this isn't the case.
"When I was born, my head looked like a bean so they called me Beanhead," says 22-year-old David, who works in the family store, Webb's Soul Market, in Dallas. Bean notes that his three sisters and his other brother, Reginald, have no nicknames. "But Spud isn't named after a potato. I know people think that. When he was born, see, he had this big ol' bald head. People called him Sputnik-head, after that satellite the Russians put in orbit. That's where Spud comes from. But now, when Spud jumps, he really is in orbit."
Second, some stats. Spud (given name Anthony) is a 19-year-old sophomore at Midland College, a two-year school in Midland, Texas, a thriving oil town 325 miles west of Dallas. Midland won the National Junior College Athletic Association Championship in Hutchinson, Kan., last March, beating No. 1-ranked and previously unbeaten Miami-Dade North of Florida 93-88 in the finals in double overtime. Webb led all scorers in that game with 36 points, making 10 of 15 shots from the floor and 16 of 18 from the free-throw line.
For the season he averaged 21 points and 7.1 assists. He also had 77 rebounds, 20 blocked shots and two goaltending violations. Moreover, he had approximately—approximately, because no one has gone back and reviewed every minute of every Midland game tape, but people like Athletic Director Delnor Poss and Sports Information Director H.A. Tuck keep pretty good track of these things—40 dunks last season, a few of the slam persuasion. Webb was named the MVP of the NJCAA Region V tournament and the winner of the Bud Obee Most Outstanding Small Player Award in the national finals. Where the line of demarcation for small player ends and for normal or large player begins is unclear. But one thing is certain: Spud Webb is a small player. Midland's assistant coach, Reggie Franklin, weighed Webb after a recent practice, and he tipped in at 132 pounds. This reporter personally measured Webb against the Midland College gym wall and found him to be an armadillo hair under 5'6".
But what about those dunks, you say. Forty of them? Yes. Approximately. There may have been more, of course. One of them came in the first game of the final round of the NJCAA tournament. It was against Westark College of Arkansas, the defending champ, in the second half. Midland had the lead, but Westark was coming back when Webb stole a pass, raced downcourt and rose and jammed the ball viciously through the rim with a righthanded tomahawk. "The crowd went berserk," says Midland Coach Jerry Stone. "Before that, Spud was a rumor; after it, he was real. The screaming didn't stop until we won the championship four days later."
Two goaltends? Indeed. One was your garden-variety, descending-arc, get-rid-of-that-thing swat, but the other was a remarkable, perhaps even improperly called, orbiting-satellite nullification that had to be seen to be believed. Webb did it in a home game against Western Texas College on a breakaway. The shooter jumped high and laid the ball up toward a spot on the glass far above the rim. Webb came from nowhere to fly up cleanly over the opponent's back, leaning forward as he flew, one arm ahead, one at his side, like some kind of arrow or dwarf missile or elongated spud. With a bat of his hand he knocked the ball out of the air after it hit the backboard.
It's hard to tell from a videotape what the crowd did after that move, though it appears nobody breathed for at least two seconds. Franklin played basketball at SMU and later with the Harlem Globetrotters, but he says he has never seen a player as exciting, as springy, as Spud. "Every day he amazes me," says Franklin. "I've already told one of the Globetrotters about him."
Perhaps the only person who doesn't freak out when Webb takes off is teammate Chester Smith, a 6'7" forward who was a varsity player at Wilmer-Hutchins High School in Dallas when Webb was a jayvee. Along with Webb and 6'9" Center Ernest Harris, Smith is one of the reasons Midland is considered a decent bet to repeat as national junior college champion. "Spud and I used to go to Highland Hills Gym, a rec center in Oak Cliff," says Smith. "And when he first dunked—I think it was the summer after he was in 11th grade—everybody was surprised. But I wasn't. I knew he could jump. I just said, 'Well, ol' Spud can dunk now.' And these days, you know, once you get in college I think you should dunk."
Perhaps. Everybody on this year's Midland team, including 5'8" Earl (Terrestrial) Wimbush, can. But when Webb first dipped, at age 16, he was only 5'3". Last season, when he got his approximate 40, he was listed at 5'6", though he was only 5'5". Most college players can't even remember 5'5".
Webb himself is noncommittal about his jumping prowess. "Dunking means I can dunk," he says. "In a way I guess it's good because people say I can't do something and then I do it, and they don't say nothing."
A shy, baby-faced young man, Webb clearly is seeking the dignity little people always must fight for. "He's a quiet, independent, proud little person," says Stone. "Nineteen is a tough age to be—you don't know if you're a man or a boy. But I don't want to be his father away from home; I don't want to analyze him. You can take the fight out of people if you talk about things too much."
Though he plays with a blank, occasionally scowling expression, Webb is openly responsive to Midland fans, many of whom wear buttons proclaiming, I'M A SPUD NUT. "Of course, children love him," says Poss, "because they can look him in the eye."
But inside that little body burns a big fire. At the student center recently Webb and Smith and two other students played noontime doubles Ping-Pong. On one volley Webb took a ferocious swing at the ball and smashed it, ending the game because there was no other ball to play with. In high school Webb didn't make the varsity basketball team until his senior year. "We could have brought him up from the jayvees earlier," says Homer Smith, the coach at Wilmer-Hutchins High. "It wasn't his height. He was scoring 25 or 30 points a game for the jayvees. But we wanted him to be more of a team player. He could have gotten discouraged or quit. But he's a tremendous worker, very intense, and he made himself into the great player he is."
Over a cafeteria lunch of meat loaf, french fries, white bread and Coke, Webb acknowledges that he's hungry for recognition. "People talk about my dunking and not the other stuff," he says. "I can pass, jump shoot, dribble, lead the team. Maybe they want entertainment, but I want to be known as a good point guard."
And in fact, Webb is a well-rounded, authentic, major college-caliber point guard. Last spring he signed a letter of intent with North Texas State, but decided to come back to Midland and try to improve on his opportunities. "Spud can direct the team, make assists and pass on the break as well as anybody I've seen," says Stone. "The jumping ability is just icing on the cake." Tulane Assistant Coach Mike Richardson, who recently scouted Midland, says Webb is definitely big-time. "Coaches look for big guards, but Spud plays like a big guard," says Richardson. "Plus, opponents want to block his shot so bad, they don't play their normal game. They want to embarrass him and instead they end up embarrassing themselves."
Webb couldn't play well in a slowdown offense or in a laid-back zone defense. "He needs to be in a transition-type game. Running, moving around," says Richardson. That's how Stone uses Webb, allowing him to roam about both on offense and defense, creating havoc with his speed, timing and spring. "I mean, just imagine you're a six-seven forward and this little guy comes out of nowhere and blocks your shot," says Stone. "That's going to affect you."
With clearouts and screens Spud can score almost anytime he gets the ball—in the national finals last season four guards fouled out in four games trying to cover him. "He could average 40 a game if we went to him all the time," says Stone. "But that wouldn't be good for him or the team." This season, if teams mob Webb at the point, Stone says he'll even move him down to the low post! Does that mean Midland will set up alley-oop passes for Webb to ram home, a la David Thompson? "Yep," says the coach.
When Stone was recruiting Webb, it wasn't really Webb's height that worried Stone—he'd had success with other small guards at Midland—it was Spud's fragile build and babyish appearance. There is a 1978 calendar behind the cash register at Webb's Soul Market, which is just around the corner from the Cotton Bowl, and on the calendar is a portrait of the Webb family—five of the six kids, Mom and Dad. Spud, age 15, looks maybe nine. Bean says he recently found some photos of Spud at an even earlier age, dunking on a 6½-foot basket in the garage, smiling out at the camera and looking like a toddler.
Clearly, it's dangerous for anyone so small to constantly go so high. In recent years Webb has hit his head, neck and shoulder on the bottom of the backboard. Last summer he was undercut while dunking at a Dallas gym and fell on his side, injuring his neck and right knee. "That's why I hang on the rim," Webb says. "To protect myself."
Stone's concerns about Webb's toughness—"You know, he only wears a size-7½ shoe," says the coach—were alleviated by two things that happened early last season. One occurred when a reporter asked Webb why he insisted upon driving in among "all that tall timber." "Because that's where the basket is," Webb replied. The other happened after Spud was steamrollered while taking a charge in a defensive drill, knocking a couple of his teeth through the skin below his lower lip. "I wondered what to think," Stone recalls. "How was he going to react?" The next day Webb was back at practice, stitches in mouth, taking charges.
Still, it comes down to that launching power. Forty dunks? Goaltending? Good gosh! To find out what Webb could really do, I took it upon myself to measure his vertical leap. I tested him after Midland finished a long scrimmage with Sul Ross State at Midland's Chaparral Center arena in late October. Spud was exhausted and the gym floor is very hard, but he jumped 41 inches straight up and 48 inches after taking a short run. There is every reason to believe that when the adrenaline is flowing and Webb is rested, he can go even higher.
Chuck Dillman, a biomechanical engineer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs says that a vertical leap of even 36 inches is "phenomenal"—David Thompson, for example, has jumped 44"—and that someone like Webb must have "optimal coordination of body segments" and possess "a very high force-to-weight ratio."
Jesus Dapena, an associate professor of biomechanics at Indiana University who specializes in analysis of high-jumping techniques, says Webb obviously has "a fantastic nervous system and fantastic muscles." With the aid of a formula that takes into account Webb's running leap, his height and center of gravity, Dapena calculates that Webb could high-jump 7'2" using the crudest technique. With training, who knows, "maybe 7'5", maybe 7'9"," says Dapena.
But Webb's place now is on a basketball floor. At the end of last week, Midland was 5-0 and he was averaging 15 points and 9.0 assists per game. In one win he scored 25 points and slammed two dunks. The crowd loved the show, but for some reason there were a few empty seats. That's odd. You'd expect a full house for a satellite launching.