By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – With Gary Payton and Vin Baker off somewhere polishing their new gold medals, the Seattle SuperSonics opened training camp Tuesday with the spotlight squarely on the team’s newest player.
Heck, even with Payton and Baker in the house, this would have been Patrick Ewing’s day.
“I think all of us were pinching ourselves a little bit,” admitted Seattle coach Paul Westphal after the workout. “He just looked so good out there.”
After 15 prosperous seasons in which Ewing delivered everything but a coveted NBA championship to the New York Knicks, the 7-foot center was sent to Seattle as part of a four-team, 12-team offseason trade that was the largest in league history. The transaction was monumental, and the Sonics are banking that Ewing will have a similar impact on the team’s fortunes this season.
After last season’s 45-37 finish and first-round playoff elimination, the Sonics wanted more size and muscle around the basket. They also sought someone who, in the heat of battle, could be a bit of a roughneck.
They got it all in Ewing.
“It’s so nice to have what he brings to the team,” Westphal said. “He’s just such a great player. … We couldn’t be happier.”
Ewing, who seemed strangely out of costume in Sonics green after all those years in Knicks blue, was joined at the spirited first practice by an odd collection of players. The group included Seattle’s returning youngsters, such as Rashard Lewis, Ruben Patterson, Brent Barry and Shammond Williams, plus top draft pick Desmond Mason. NBA veterans Pervis Ellison and David Wingate are in camp, trying to squeeze another season into their long pro careers. Also in camp are several free agents with virtually no chance of making the opening-day roster.
And then there was Ewing, who will enter the season as the league’s No. 14 all-time scorer (23,665 points) and No. 3 among active players behind Utah’s Karl Malone and Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon. Ewing is fourth all-time in blocked shots (2,758) and second to Olajuwon among active players.
Understandably, Ewing is looking forward to greeting Payton and Baker, who returned to Seattle Sunday after helping the United States team win Olympic gold in Sydney, Australia. The two were excused from camp for a few days “and right now they’re probably sleeping, which is what they should be doing,” Westphal said.
Ewing is also eager to put to rest all questions about his age.
“There have been a lot of negative things (in the media),” said Ewing, who is 38. “But it feels good to have somebody still see what I’m capable of bringing to a team and the help that I can give them.”
Then, with a puckish smile, Ewing said, “I’m like (heavyweight boxer) George Foreman. George won the title at, what, 44? I’m still a lot of years from that.”
Added Westphal: “I think he’s got a lot left in him physically. We had a three-hour practice and I’d say no one worked harder than he did.”
With Ewing at center, Baker and Lewis at forward, and the guard tandem of Payton and Barry, Seattle has a starting five that can compete with any NBA rival. Williams and the marvelously gifted Mason should be steady backcourt reserves. The concern is Seattle’s depth up front, which is heightened by Ewing’s history of injuries the last three seasons (during which he has played in just 126 of 214 regular-season games). Right now, the backups are third-year forward-center Jelani McCoy and free-agent center Ruben Wolkowyski of Argentina. Both are 6-10.
The Sonics have 11 players with guaranteed contracts and team president Wally Walker would like to start the season with a roster of 13. His options are to add one of the athletes currently in camp, pick up an unsigned free agent or one waived from another team, or arrange a trade. The latter scenario is the least likely, Walker said, “because we don’t have anybody we can or want to trade.”
“If the right veteran becomes available,” he added, “we have an open roster spot and we’ll have to take a look at that. We are not willing currently, and we don’t have any plans to change this, to offer anybody a guarantee to come here. But if they’re willing to come in and compete and win the job, then that’s great for them and for us.”
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