Chris Webber, 32, is a towering 6-foot, 10-inch star forward with the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. He's also an avid collector of rare books and letters and other artifacts of African American history. Among other things, he owns a rare 1773 first edition of Phillis Wheatley's book Poems on Various Subjects, the first book of poetry ever published by an African American. Webber recently spoke about his collection with BusinessWeek Online Contributing Editor Thane Peterson. Here are edited excerpts.
Why focus on collecting African American historical material?
This is the only thing I collect. I grew up in the inner city of Detroit and was only around one type of people, racially and economically speaking. I wanted to go to high school in the inner city, but my mother, who was a teacher, thought that I could get a scholarship to the Country Day School, one of the best schools in the country, a college preparatory school.
By going to school there, and by having them be my friends and going to their houses, I met people from every ethnicity imaginable, and I saw how a lot of them took pride in their history. It wasn't a racial pride. They just held their traditions close.
When I had the chance to collect pieces, I wanted to collect pieces from black history I could pass down to my children so they could learn to hold their traditions close. Because I think we -- and I mean people of all races -- are kind of losing a sense of what our forefathers have done for us. Also, I love to take the collection around to schools and use the pieces to start dialogues that way.
What pieces do you really favor?
The book by Phillis Wheatley. I like to tell the story of how she had to go before John Hancock [and other prominent citizens] and recite passages from the book because they didn't believe a black woman could write those pieces. I also have a postcard from Malcolm X to [the writer] Alex Haley.
In the movie Malcolm X, Malcolm X went to Mecca and he sent back a postcard to Haley with a photo of a monkey saying, "You know it's funny that in some parts of the world the black man doesn't get as much respect as a monkey." That usually clicks with children because they've usually seen the movie, and it starts a lot of conversations. And I like anything from Frederick Douglass because when he died, his house was burned with many of his pieces in it [so they're rare].
Are there new pieces you'd like to go after?
Definitely. I'd like to collect things from W.E.B. Dubois [the author, civil rights leader, and sociologist who lived from 1868 to 1963]. I also really love [novelist] Maya Angelou, and I've love to get something from her. I'd love to cover every area, from sports to entertainment to scholars.
So, you plan to really expand the collection.
I do. It just started off as things to hang in my house. But when I got the Phillis Wheatley I couldn't keep it at my house because it needed to be temperature controlled. Now, I expect to get a lot more pieces.
What about sports? What sorts of things would you like to collect?
Oh man, I have so much stuff from Muhammad Ali. I got to meet him and take pictures with him. He is definitely my favorite. But I'd love to get things from Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson. I've been looking for stuff from [boxer] Jack Johnson. I have a signed book from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sports is going to be one area I concentrate in.