Sunday, April 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NBC's words fire up Baker

Seattle Times staff reporter

Teammates told him, "No, don't do it." But Vin Baker was moving toward the big television in the Sonic locker room yesterday, lurching for the picture of his face and the words of the biggest basketball brains NBC could provide.

They were talking about him; talking about disappointment and the wasted investment the team had made throwing $87 million his way.

Still, even as the rest of the Seattle players whispered "turn it down," Baker stepped in front of the screen, placed his fingers on the volume control and pushed the knob up.

An hour remained before Game 3 of this playoff series with Utah, and the men on the television were slaughtering Baker much the way this city has the last few weeks. And still he wouldn't move.

In the minutes before the game that could come to define his career here, he wanted to hear everything that was being said about him.

"I just wanted a little extra motivation," the power forward said after the Sonics extended the series to a fourth game. "The adrenaline was flowing, I just wanted something a little extra."

Every day the story becomes about him, good or bad. Watching his performances the last several days has been like monitoring the stock market - big lows followed by strong recoveries. Five days ago, he had 10 points and six turnovers in a Game 2 loss. Yesterday, with the venom of Peter Vecsey still ringing in his ears, Baker dropped 15 points and 10 rebounds on the Jazz. It was like two different players.

Which is why it's been so hard to understand the situation.

During the game, the NBC announcers were saying, "You can tell this crowd just wants Vin Baker to do something good." In their pregame studio, the hosts were saying he was a waste of money.

Based on evidence from the last few weeks, both were justified in their words.

Baker knows.

Just in the past week he talked about coming out too strong, not strong enough and, finally, yesterday he said he felt exactly right.

Yesterday, he said he realized he wasn't shooting well so he decided to replace the inconsistency with aggression.

"If your shots don't fall like they should, I felt I could go to the offensive boards and make a difference," Baker said. "It's a confidence booster when you are struggling. It's an easy solution when you're struggling. Offensive rebounds are just as important as shooting. That's what I tried to do today to get everything back."

He wound up with a game-high five offensive rebounds and this is a good start toward getting his game back together. But he remains the lingering story line of this series.

Down the hall, former teammate Olden Polynice dressed in a nearly empty Utah locker room and sighed when he heard Baker's name. He has been reading the papers, watching the television sports shows. He is shocked at how much Baker's name has arisen, how everything is so different.

Last year, they were Sonics together, and they would sit and talk on the road, chatting about life and religion. Polynice wears a "What would Jesus do?" band on his wrist. Baker is the son of a preacher. So Polynice finds it upsetting to hear the words "alcohol" and "depression" being linked to his ex-teammate.

"It's unfortunate," Polynice said. "But it takes a real strong person to come out and admit there is a problem and seek help. A lot of guys go through things and don't do that. He's just got to keep his head up and keep progressing.

"He's a good person. I don't think he's changed since Milwaukee and he was considered a good citizen then. There's just some things he's got to get a handle on and it's not about basketball. Basketball is going to come and go. I see these things being said about him and I saw no evidence of it when I was here last year."

The Jazz center finished dressing and began to head out of the locker room. He said he spoke a few times to Baker on the court and thinks of the player as a friend. Whatever has been going wrong, he said, he wishes for Baker's sake it takes care of itself.

"You know when Vin came here it was all, `Whoo, whoo, Vin Baker,' now you're all over him," Polynice said. "But this isn't about basketball for Vin. This is about him being right with himself."

Yesterday, with the television blaring his name and teammates begging him not to listen, Baker was right with the world. He said he wants it to last.

The rest of the Sonics said they want it to last.

Only time will tell.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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