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Tuesday, October 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Burying the Hatchet

Seattle Times staff reporter

Vin Baker started looking for a home in Connecticut and told his real-estate agent to sell his Bellevue property.

The Sonics and three other teams had agreed in principle this summer on a complicated trade, with Seattle sending its power forward to the New York Knicks for Patrick Ewing.

After Baker put himself in a New York frame of mind, the deal fell apart.

Feeling rejected and betrayed, Baker was reluctant to return to the Sonics, and even asked that they revive the trade.

But with Seattle opening its NBA season tonight on the road against the Vancouver Grizzlies, Baker is enthusiastic about the season.

"Things happen in life," he said. "And they don't always happen for the best or for the worst. But as a professional and as a Sonic, I have to get over it and continue playing, and that's where I'm at.

"I'm going to give 110 percent for Coach (Paul) Westphal and my team. I feel like we're going to be a great team, and that's behind me. I don't think about it anymore. It's really behind me."

Baker's 180-degree change of heart took place over the past three months after talks with members of the Sonic organization. The most influential voice belonged to teammate Gary Payton, while both trained and played at the Sydney Olympics. Because Payton is close friend of Baker's, the point guard served as a personal counselor.

"Being so close to Gary and him being my big brother helped me tremendously," Baker said. "And us spending the whole summer together helped me a lot. He said, `You're in great shape. You're the best I've seen you in two years. Come back and play.' "

Payton also reminded Baker that after the point guard was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 draft, his struggles spurred trade talks. Payton proved his critics wrong by becoming a perennial All-Star.

The trade for Ewing - excluding Baker - was another salve for the power forward. Playing with the first true center in Baker's seven-year career offers an exciting prospect.

Also, he viewed the failed trade as another shot at redemption after two mediocre seasons.

Before the trade, Baker had regained the conditioning - and quickness - that provided an edge over other power forwards during 1997-98, his first season with the Sonics, when he averaged 19.2 points and 8 rebounds.

"I feel like I have another opportunity with this city and with this organization," Baker said, "one that I wouldn't have had if I got traded. I don't want to leave this situation feeling as good as I feel about myself now.

"I want to come back and rectify the situation I put this team through the last two years."

Nate McMillan could identify with Baker's initial feelings of rejection because of a similar experience in 1990. A few days before training camp, then General Manager Bob Whitsitt essentially traded McMillan and Xavier McDaniel to Cleveland for John "Hot Rod" Williams.

But the trade didn't become official because Williams, who had a no-trade clause, refused to play for the Sonics. Because the near-trade took place during the exhibition season, McMillan didn't have much time to return to the right mindset.

"I had to come into training camp a week later and face Bob Whitsitt and Bernie Bickerstaff and those guys, who had told me that there wasn't anything going on," McMillan recalled. "You do feel rejected, but you have to be professional. You're still getting paid.

"You have to understand that it is a business, and they are going to make business decisions. I didn't have a month like Vin did to overcome what was going on. I had a week to get my mind ready."

Since then, McMillan has had his number (11) retired after playing his entire 12-year career with the Sonics and now is one of Seattle's assistant coaches.

"It's a perfect example of how something like that happening doesn't have to be a negative," Westphal said.

Baker's 360-degree range of emotions - Seattle, New York, Seattle - began in May after the Sonics lost in the first round of the playoffs. Baker worked out in Old Saybrook, Conn., with shooting assistant Steve Gordon and Dwight Daub, strength and conditioning coach.

In July, Baker suggested that he and Daub join the Sonic summer-league team in Long Beach, Calif. Climbing Sand Dune Park - whose steep hills jut out at 20-degree angles - helped Baker shed pounds.

A few weeks later, Westphal visited Baker in Connecticut to watch the forward play in a summer tournament. Baker used the opportunity to further mend his strained relationship with Westphal. But soon after, the Sonics had a secret meeting with Ewing in Washington after the center included them as one of eight teams he would play for.

When Baker got a call from General Manager Wally Walker, telling him that the Sonics had traded him to New York, Baker cried.

"I felt that I had worked so hard," Baker said. "I wasn't really working hard for another situation. I was working hard for this situation. So it really hurt me."

But soon after Knick President David Checketts and General Manager Scott Layden visited Baker in Connecticut, Baker was eager to become a Knick. He would have a fresh start, play closer to his family on a championship-caliber team and, perhaps most importantly, join a team that wanted him.

"After a while, it looked like a good situation," Baker said.

So when the trade fell through, Baker wasn't thrilled about remaining a Sonic. The organization was quick with damage control. The next week, Westphal visited Baker in Hawaii at the Olympic team's training camp.

"I just told him the truth about things," Westphal said. "We said we never wanted to unload him. We explained the deal to him, but we were glad it worked out the way it did and that he's back here. And that we think it can be the best thing for him."

Although Westphal explained that the Sonics hadn't been shopping the player, Baker held animosity toward them for weeks.

Baker crossed his fingers, and wished for the Sonics and Knicks to revive the trade. And early in training camp, Payton admitted that Baker probably had lingering feelings of resentment.

"I'll be the buffer," Payton said. "Everybody needs to be on the same page this year where we're talking to each other. If we talk to each other and get everything out, we'll get on the court and you'll see frustration there."

The best evidence that Baker is pleased to remain a Sonic is his renewed willingness to play defense and alter his game because of Ewing.

During the Olympics and exhibition season, Baker has looked different from last season, when he took off defensive stands because of a lack of conditioning.

Now, Baker is challenging - and blocking - shots at a rate similar to his career-best average of 1.4 during the 1996-97 season.

"I feel really good," he said. "I don't feel like I've been this quick in about two to three years. I feel like I'm really quick right now."

And Baker has shown open arms to Ewing. During a timeout at the final Sonic exhibition game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Baker put his arm around Ewing in an affectionate manner.

"We have a great team," Baker said. "I feel like I'm a big part of it; obviously part of the big three. Every night I come on the floor, I feel like I can lead this team in scoring or rebounding.

"That's probably not going to happen every night, but that's what I go into the game figuring."

Although trades falling through are rare in the NBA, Sonic Vice President Billy McKinney has experienced two other failed deals during his 12-year career. As a Piston executive, McKinney traded Sean Elliott to Houston. The second one involved Olden Polynice to Sacramento. Both swaps had to be rescinded, but all parties involved reconciled.

"Part of that has to do with the communication a player has with the organization," McKinney said, "and the relationship he has with people prior to that happening."

But Baker's case was colored by his relationship with Westphal, which had seemed to reach irreconcilable differences late last season. And no matter how much time they spent away from each other during the summer, further clashes loomed once training camp began.

Instead, Westphal and Baker have rekindled their relationship and have shown no signs of animosity.

"Westphal and I are going to have a great relationship," Baker said. "We've talked about everything we've needed to talk about as far as moving forward. He only wants the best for me. And I want the best for this team. So right now, we're on the same page."

Baker knows that things could have been worse.

"His attitude has been absolutely sensational," McKinney said. "It's almost as if nothing ever happened this summer."

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

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