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Sunday, October 31, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Baker, Fast On His Feet Again, Eager To Shake Off Dismal Year

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

It was a simulated game of five-on-five without the most scrutinized Sonic this season.

There would be enough time for Vin Baker to learn Coach Paul Westphal's new plays.

Instead, sweat whipped down Baker's contorted face as he sprinted up and down the court.

No Sonic has spent as much time getting in shape as much as the 6-foot-11 power forward.

During the preseason, Baker averaged a team-high 32 minutes as part of his conditioning. Baker then underwent a postgame ritual on the StairMaster.

For someone who gained more than 20 pounds last season, it's been hell. It's what Baker must go through to overcome a hellish season.

"I feel like once I put my body through work, there's no one who can guard me at my position," said Baker, who is down to 262 pounds after entering camp at 270. "It's just like my favorite athlete of all time, Ali, said when he lost his title: `All I have to do to win my title back is die.'

"And that means all you have to do is get in the gym. And that's all I have to do to be an All-Star again. Get in here and die. And I've been dying."

When Baker is in condition, he is one of the league's premier big men. He was an All-Star in four of his first five seasons.

When Baker was overweight last season, he was one of the league's least productive starting forwards, averaging 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds.

"He's come a long way," Westphal said. "There's good reason to expect him to have a real good year. But I think he can play even better than he's playing. He's been working so hard. And we've been pushing so hard."

Forget Baker's preseason numbers, like the 31-point outburst against Chris Webber and the Sacramento Kings, and the game-winner capping a 21-point night in Wednesday's exhibition finale against the Vancouver Grizzlies.

The best sign for the Sonics - and an ominous one for opponents - is that Baker is regaining his quickness.

"That's always been one of Vin's strengths," Westphal said. "There's a lot of 6-11 guys. But he can be successful against them because of his quickness. If you take that away from him, it makes him more ordinary."

According to teammates, the moves that went in slow motion have begun to fast forward to the Baker of two seasons ago, when he led the team in field goal accuracy (54.2 percent).

"He's starting to get slippery and elusive like he was during his All-Star years," said Jelani McCoy, Baker's backup. "Going one way, coming back and going back that same way he came.

"His whole game is based on his quickness and his elusiveness. I remember they used to call him the man of a hundred moves. So if he can't move quick and get to those 100 moves, he's going to struggle."

Baker is still not in tip-top shape. On certain defensive stands he conserved energy while leaving the rebounding and shot-blocking to McCoy or Horace Grant. And sometimes Baker didn't go up with the ball aggressively, and his shots were blocked.

"I'm about 90 percent right now," Baker said. "The 10 percent is all timing."

But the Sonics are pleased Baker has improved his conditioning, and expect it to continue entering the regular season. This preseason Baker has shown signs he could return to All-Star form.

"He's almost where he wants to be," said Grant, a natural power forward who will play center alongside Baker. "He needs to be a little more aggressive. But the last couple of preseason games, you saw the Vin Baker of old: There's no one guy who can stop him; you have to double-team him.

"So I don't think there's a question, he'll be an All-Star."

That's what Seattle paid for this summer when it signed Baker to an $87 million contract for seven years. The gamble is not whether Baker has the talent but whether he remains in good condition. And the franchise partly protected itself by including weight incentives in the contract.

During the summer, the Sonics flew Dwight Daub - the team's strength and condition coach - to Baker's hometown of Old Saybrook, Conn. The Sonics also have hired a nutritionist who develops diets for Baker from foods of his liking.

During Baker's heyday with the Milwaukee Bucks in the mid-1990s, he weighed 255 pounds. He hopes to reach it this season.

"Last year, my mind was ready to play but my body wasn't ready to play," said Baker, who averaged a team-high 16.5 points on 56.2 percent shooting during preseason. "So it's such a big difference when your body is ready to play and your mind is ready to play. Because now, I'm doing things like I was doing two years ago. And it feels much better."

A sleeker Baker should benefit from the new rules cutting down on clutching and grabbing around the perimeter. With the threat of his outside touch, Baker can drive by opposing forwards who come out to defend him.

Exploiting the new rules against the Kings' Webber on Tuesday, Baker scored 31 points on 14-for-20 shooting to lead the Sonics to a 133-128 victory.

"Before the Sacramento game, I was telling all my people, Vin is starting to get slippery again," McCoy said. "He's starting to move on his feet."

Afterward, the media wondered: Did this mean Baker has returned to form?

Baker has been scrutinized like a battered stock: How much do you tip the scales at this week, Vin? How did Baker practice today, coach?

"I know the microscope will be on me this season," Baker said. "I think I prepared myself."

Baker has handled it gracefully. But when Payton was asked about his friend's monster game, the point guard lashed out.

"What do you expect from him? Shoot!" Payton said. "He's been an All-Star for four years. Damn. He only had one bad year. I never thought he lost it. He's going to do this all the time. You guys are making a big deal out of it. I'm not. I know this dude can do this every night.

"He did it in Milwaukee. He was averaging 20 and 10. So why are you surprised? He should be able to do this every night."

Baker is considered the key to the Sonics this season. But if things go as planned, he won't have to score 31 points for the team to win.

With Seattle's run-and-gun style, Baker probably won't average 14 shots as he did during the 1997-98 season, when he led the team in scoring (19.2 points per game).

Because the Sonics are a small team, Baker must improve his rebounding and shot-blocking. On offense, Baker needs to be a low-post presence, especially in crunch time.

"One important role for me is when we need a bucket, I think my teammates have gotten confidence in me," Baker said. "Whether I've touched the ball four or five times, I feel like I can deliver."

For example, in the exhibition finale Baker swished a jumper in a half-court set to give the Sonics a 95-94 victory over the Vancouver Grizzlies.

Afterward, he was cheered by teammates as if he had won a playoff game. One reason for the emotional reaction is that Baker is well liked by teammates.

The worst part of Baker's hell wasn't physical. It was being ridiculed about his weight, bearing the blame for the Sonics missing the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, and reading about his sorry season.

"Just the whole negative experience that it was last year, it's not hard to get on the StairMaster and reflect on how negative things were," Baker said. "A lot of people kick you when you're down. Well, I don't want to be down anymore. And how you get back is, being in shape and letting your game do the talking. And I think I've put myself in that position."

Baker was sweating from riding the StairMaster while teammates changed into dress clothes.

For Vin Baker, the only way to escape from hell is through it.

Note

The Sonics have placed three players on the injured list to start the regular season: Lazaro Borrell (tendinitis), Emanual Davis (sprained finger) and Chuck Person (right heel).

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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