SEATTLE – Nothing is more sleep-inducing than an NBA exhibition game.
On second thought, yes, there is – an NFL preseason game.
But having not seen the Sonics since last spring, you felt as if you should check them out at least once before they started playing games that count, if for nothing else than to see if the old guy they got to play center can still get up and down the court.
And, yes, he can. Not swiftly. But swift has never been Patrick Ewing’s game.
This is Ewing’s game. In the opening moments of Wednesday night’s practice game against the Sacramento Kings, he expertly used his 7-foot, 255-pound body to back in for an easy two-pointer against the Sacramento Kings’ 7-1, 260-pound Vlade Divac.
Then, at the other end of the court, he used his 747 wing span to swat away a Divac shot.
This is Ewing’s game. When the Sonics’ Jelani McCoy missed the second of two free throws, Ewing and the Kings’ Scot Pollard battled for the rebound. Some battle. Ewing grabbed it away like Pollard was a 5-foot-11 guard rather than a 6-11, 265-pound center.
This is Ewing’s game. He had the ball at the free-throw line with an open shot. But he patiently looked around to see what other options might be developing and there, sneaking in along the baseline, was Ruben Patterson. Ewing fired a perfect pass, Patterson shot and missed a layin, but was fouled.
This is Ewing’s game. Kings all-star forward Chris Webber went to shoot late in the half and Ewing put a good deal of body on him. The referee stood with his whistle silent in his mouth. Webber squawked that he was fouled. Ewing loped towards the other end of the court, a self-satisfied, “got-away-with-one” expression on his face.
That’s what 13 years in the NBA will get you. It’s what Vin Baker was talking about in the locker room before the game.
“He’s a great player,” Baker said, “and great players get respect from the officials.”
Great players also get respect from their teammates. Patrick Ewing gets respect from everyone on his new team – even the self-important, all-star point guard, Gary Payton.
It seems as though coach Paul Westphal designated Payton, Baker and Ewing to mete out fines for minor rules infractions. One day Payton and Baker came late to practice. There to greet them as they walked into the locker room was Ewing – with his arms extended and his palms up. The tardy duo slapped his hands and said, “You got it, big fella.”
The Big Fella is making his presence felt. “With Patrick,” Baker said, “you see what a real star is.”
There is his approach to the game. He brings a work ethic to practice that is unmatched.
There is his bigness in the locker room. “He’s kind of like a father in the house,” Baker said. “If anything goes wrong … “
He didn’t complete the thought. He didn’t have to. It’s understood. Patrick takes care of things.
“He lays down the law,” Baker said.
As in “pay your fines right here, boys.”
It’s that kind of example that makes young players sit up and take notice. It’s that kind of example that makes all players respect Patrick Ewing.
It is the large shadow he casts and the ability he has that will make the Sonics a better team than they were a year ago, if – and this is a huge if – he can stay healthy. So far, so good.
The 38-year-old Ewing is averaging 25 minutes a game in the preseason, but Westphal would like to increase that to 32 minutes when the regular season begins. The old knees have put in hundreds of miles over the years, but as long as they get him up and down the court, you can expect nothing but an all-out effort once he gets into position to bang.
Baker is almost giddy to have Ewing as a teammate for now he can vacate the post and move back to power forward. “It’s the first time in my career I get to play my natural position,” he said.
Baker hasn’t measured up to his abilities the last two years. First, he was out of shape. Then, last year, he suffered from depression.
There can be no more excuses for lame play. He is teamed with one of the greatest centers in NBA history. He has an up-and-coming small forward in Rashard Lewis. He is back at his old position.
No more alibis. Baker must come up big this season.
He has had a good summer. He has a gold medal from the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
“It’s been a long year,” he said, “but it’s been a good year.”
The gold medal is the second best thing that’s ever happened to him. “Right behind having my son,” he said.
The importance of the medal didn’t really hit Baker until he got back to the United States. He was sitting in a restaurant in the airport in Los Angeles with the medal around his neck when people started coming over wanting to get an up-close look at it. “I took it off and let them hold it,” he said.
Has he weighed it? “No, but it’s heavy,” he said. “And it’s real gold, I’m convinced of it. It’s the real deal.”
Only one thing could top the gold medal.
“That’s to stand out there in the middle of the floor,” he said, “and hold an NBA championship trophy.”
That’s Patrick Ewing’s dream, too.
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