Lost amidst the Kobe Bryant retirement hubbub was the news that former Portland Trail Blazer Martell Webster was released by the Washington Wizards earlier this week. Webster had been ruled out for the entire season after suffering a torn labrum in October. Webster, who previously said that he plans to retire after his contract expires in order to preserve his long term health, now faces a notoriously difficult rehabilitation with no team for next season. It seems more than likely that his career is over.
In many ways, Webster was an exactly average fringe-starter in the NBA. He was a 6-foot-7 wing who could shoot decently and play some defense. His career averages were serviceable but unspectacular: 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game on 38.2 percent 3-point shooting in 580 appearances for Portland, Minnesota and Washington.
For the Blazers he was a straight-from-high-school draftee that never turned into an All-Star but was a dependable role player for four seasons. Portland used him as one of the original "3&D" guys right as that role was becoming en vogue around the league. He would ultimately leave Portland for Minnesota in a 2010 draft day trade.
The NBA has chewed up and spit out hundreds of players like Webster so his departure from Portland was mostly met with ambivalence. For many, Webster's only enduring legacy would be as the player that Portland drafted instead of Chris Paul.
Despite the lack of fanfare around Webster's career, it is important to remember that role players like Webster are essential to the NBA landscape. Most obviously, the league needs the elite basketball equivalents of "average joes" to highlight the skills of players like Kobe Bryant and Damian Lillard. It is only possible to understand how phenomenal LeBron James is by watching him dominate against the typical NBA player.
But Webster, and players like him, are more than just superstar fodder. Perhaps surprisingly, they are also reminders that even random mid-season games on Tuesday nights can instantly become "must-watch." Role players can add a crucial element of unexpected surprise to the fan experience.
I still know the exact date that I came to understand the unlikely relationship between role player and excitement - January 5, 2008. On that night, the Blazers were playing the Jazz in a nondescript regular season contest. Portland was playing well, recently coming off a 13-game win streak, but unlikely to make the playoffs. Utah was hovering around .500 and had yet to take a mid-season leap that would propel them to 50+ wins.
The first half of the game was run-of-the-mill with nothing of note happening, and halftime became disappointing when it was announced that Brandon Roy would sit rest of the way with a bruised tailbone. Just another night in the NBA.
But then this happened:
Out of nowhere, Martell Webster hit his first seven shots of the second half. He would end the third with 24 points, second only to Terry Porter for points in a quarter in team history.
Webster's breakout quarter was especially remarkable because it came out of nowhere; he had only two points in the game before that and had only scored more than 24 in an entire game once before. He would never score 30 in a game in a Portland uniform.
One of the interesting things about moments like this is watching what happens within the arena. Unlike when Brandon Roy or Damian Lillard nails a buzzer beater and everyone in attendance immediately notices what happened, an unexpected hot streak like Webster's spreads slowly. Someone asks a neighbor, "Hey, hasn't Martell hit his last three shots?" Someone else replies "No, I think it's four? Doesn't he have like 10 points this quarter?" Most don't realize the exact number of points but the noise slowly escalates with every made basket and pretty soon everyone is standing up and cheering at full volume as word spreads. Eventually random strangers are high-fiving and celebrating together. The excitement level matches a Roy/Lillard buzzer beater, except it's the third quarter of an 8-point game against Utah.
Social theroists probably have terms for this collective group psychology and what it does to make us feel like part of a community, but on a rudimentary level it's just fun. Moments like Martell's 24 point quarter are memorable and give the crowd an experience that stands out. They give fans a story to tell when someone asks why they keep going back to Blazers game. The surprise also provides escapism - nobody is worried about how much they're paying the babysitter while watching Webster score 24 points in 10 minutes.
And the unexpected element is crucial to this equation. It's easy to go into a playoff game between the Warriors and Cavs and expect something spectacular to happen - the level of talent on the court almost guarantees it. But explosions like Webster's show that any regular season game can become a classic, even if Brandon Roy is going to miss the second half. In short, the career nights from role players supplement interest in the games by reminding viewers that a team can be worth watching even if they don't have a superstar in the lineup. The result is fans chase these moments. You want to watch as many games as you can because you never know when Andre Miller is going to score 52 points again.
Ultimately, moments like Martell's 24-point quarter are what keep fans coming back. It's the reason why we continue to watch Tuesday night games in December, or commute to the Moda Center in the Portland rain. Most nights are going to be mundane, but on any given day something spectacular can happen. Webster's career likely ended this week, but his random explosion against Utah eight years ago will continue to be a reminder of how role players keep fans invested, and why we DVR every game.
Tell us about your favorite Martell moment or random role player explosion in the comments below!
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