A couple of weeks ago, Gary Payton and Vin Baker were having lunch, talking about the upcoming season and Baker’s ongoing jitters.
Baker admitted he had a case of nerves about being the new guy on the block, the guy who was supposed to replace Shawn Kemp, in the lineup and in the hearts of Seattle’s fans.
He was feeling a little like the next center fielder after Ken Griffey Jr. might feel. Like he was the next James Bond or the next Batman.
It doesn’t matter that Baker is a four-year NBA starter, three-time all-star and a member of the upcoming U.S. world championship team.
He’s still human. He understands the opportunity this team presents for him. And he understands the obligation.
He is expected to help the Seattle SuperSonics win the West. He is expected to be dominant in the low post. He is expected to make this city forget Kemp.
The jitters are as natural as his next breath.
“It’s just being comfortable with the whole idea of being with a new squad,” Baker said after the Sonics’ 118-94 romp over the Houston Rockets Tuesday night. “Learning where I should be on the floor. How aggressive I should be. How aggressive my team wants me to be. That’s basically the jitters.
“I think they’ll go away soon. There was so much hype surrounding the trade. It’s only human nature to have some nervousness.”
It’s refreshing to hear a professional athlete admit to a case of the nerves; admit to being human.
And it was even more refreshing to see the way Baker opened the game.
He posted up Charles Barkley on the Sonics’ first trip down the court, spun into the middle of the lane and dropped a soft jump shot over Barkley.
The Sonics made a point to get the ball to Baker. He made a 15-footer over Barkley, then beat the Rockets down the court and finished a fast break. He stole a pass, dribbled baseline-to-baseline and flew in for two.
Baker had 12 points in the first quarter, on his way to 20 points, five rebounds and three steals. It was a night that felt like the trailer for a blockbuster movie.
“After the Dallas loss, Coach (George) Karl talked to me about being a little more assertive,” Baker said. “I had found myself being a little tentative out there offensively. It was kind of easy for me to get in a mind-set to come out tonight and be more assertive offensively and get myself going early.
“I kind of used the theory that I’m either going to get off early and go to work, or it’s going to be a bad night for me.”
You get the feeling watching Baker that there is much more there than you’ve seen. He is a much better postup player than Kemp. A better ballhandler and better decision maker.
He has a downy jumper and can shoot over everybody. And his defense is better than advertised. The best of Vin Baker is yet to come.
“Y’all haven’t seen nothin’ out of Vin Baker yet,” Payton said. “Vin Baker’s going to give you guys a lot more than what you’re seeing right now.
“He’s a great ballplayer. He hasn’t gotten the nervousness out yet. I think, by about next month, he should be in the real flow, knowing people and then you’re going to see the real Vin Baker. This has only been three games. Wait until we play about 60 together.”
He isn’t Shawn Kemp. He won’t dominate “SportsCenter”. He won’t bring down the house with rim-hanging slams. He will be subtler and a better fit.
He will show up on time. He will be professional. After playing in college at Hartford and in the NBA with the Bucks, this is Baker’s first chance to be with a winner. This is his first run for the roses. This isn’t something to trifle with.
“I’ve always been a competitor and I’ve always been a winner in my heart,” Baker said. “I think, for me, I just have to find my place on this team. My teammates have encouraged me to be aggressive. I just have to get more comfortable with it.
“After being in a situation like Milwaukee, I have to learn to be more assertive and I think tonight was a big step in that direction. I think I’m just touching the surface of how much I can help the team. I know what I can do so much more. I think I can be three times as good as I was tonight.”
This win showed that last Saturday’s home-opening loss to Dallas was an early season anomaly.
This win was an example of what the Sonics can be, when Payton, Detlef Schrempf and Baker are on their games and Dale Ellis comes off the bench like an instant energy bar.
Baker sat at his locker and looked around the room - Schrempf, Sam Perkins, Jerome Kersey, Payton, Ellis, Hersey Hawkins. This is the kind of talent he has waited a basketball lifetime to be a part of.
“This is a dream come true for me,” said Baker, who turns 26 this month. “It’s a funny feeling, even on the floor, to have a Detlef Schrempf and a Gary Payton with you.
“You always have that confidence that any of these guys - Hersey, Sam - can take over the game at any time. That’s a great feeling for me.”
The feeling should only get better.
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