By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – The late 1990s were good years for Vin Baker. He was a four-time NBA All-Star, and in 1997-98 he was named to the All-NBA second team. Among league forwards that season, only Utah’s Karl Malone and San Antonio’s Tim Duncan were rated above Baker.
Such is the price of success, it seems. When a once-flourishing career is waning, people want to reminisce about when it was better, if only to point out what an athlete was and what he is no longer.
Baker, though, doesn’t seem to mind. He, too, likes to remember the very best moments of an NBA career that was once bright and promising.
He wants it to come back.
“I still think I have the game to be an All-Star,” Baker said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I can be one again.”
As the Sonics embark on the 2001-02 season, which opens tonight in Sacramento against the Kings, perhaps no player will be watched more closely than Baker. This is not new, of course. Over the past three seasons, no Seattle player has been scrutinized – and criticized – more severely than Baker, whose statistical contributions have dropped to embarrassingly low levels.
A year ago, Baker established career lows for points (12.2 per-game average), rebounds (5.7) and assists (1.2). He was never close to being an All-Star, and for much of the season he wasn’t even a Sonics starter. When Paul Westphal was fired as Seattle’s head coach on Nov. 27, he pinned most of the blame on Baker.
In the offseason, the Sonics attempted to trade Baker, only to find that no other team was much interested in a player with a huge contract (five years left on a seven-year, $87 million deal) and a diminishing reputation. Which is why the 30-year-old Baker is back for his fifth season with the Sonics and his ninth overall in the NBA.
“(Last year) was a disappointment,” he said, “but in big way it’s helped me improve to be the person I am today. I think my character has changed with the things I’ve been going through in the last three years.
“When you’re on top and you’re an All-Star, you seem to think the world is for you. It takes like two or three years like I’ve had, where it seems like everything is going against you, to really appreciate your family and to really appreciate the other important things (in your life).”
On Monday, a smiling Baker was talking about his hunger – and he wasn’t citing the appetite that helped his weight soar the past few seasons. He was referring to his enthusiasm for the game and how that same passion had helped him trim his physique during offseason workouts.
“I love being out on the court,” Baker said. “There’s no place I’d rather be than on the court competing and trying to win basketball games. I love it. I woke up (Monday) morning at 6:30 and I felt like I was a rookie getting ready for practice to prepare for (tonight’s) game. That will give you an idea of how excited I am about playing.
“I’ve prepared myself physically and mentally to make a run at being an All-Star again this season. And as far as me believing I can be one, I certainly do.”
Needless to say, such statements delight the other Sonics. No one, save Westphal on his way out, has publicly lambasted Baker in recent years, but most have been frustrated and even angry with his often disappointing performances. And everyone – from his teammates and coaches to the fans at KeyArena – knows that Seattle needs an excellent season from Baker to join the list of contenders in the NBA’s Western Conference.
“We need for Vin to play as he’s capable of playing,” said Sonics coach Nate McMillan. “We need for him to rebound and play both ends of the floor, and I think he’s definitely capable of doing that. I think we all know Vin has the potential of putting up big numbers on the offensive end. I’m more concerned with wanting him to concentrate more defensively. I think if he works on the defensive end of the floor, his offense will come.”
“I’m going to do whatever I can to get him back,” said guard Gary Payton, perhaps Baker’s best friend on the Sonics. “(I’ll do) whatever he needs. If we need to give him the ball a little bit more, then that’s what we’re going to do. And where it starts is (tonight). If we can get him to come out and have a good game, I think he’ll be back on track.
“And if he can get off to a great start (this season), it’s going to be a lot easier for a lot of us on this team.”