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Friday, April 27, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Baker's game now just a shadow of former self

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You can almost see the end of Vin Baker in Seattle as if it were a game show.

Sonic President Wally Walker, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, dressed all in black. Baker part of a panel of Sonic players preparing to vote one player off the team.

Walker finally making the announcement.

"Vin Baker. You are the weakest link. Goodbye."

Baker has played his last game with the Sonics. Since the spring of 1998, everything that could go wrong in his career, has gone wrong.

Flash back to that May day in '98 in the cramped Sonic locker room inside the Forum.

The memory of Vin Baker slumped deep into his locker stall, a towel over his head barely hiding his tears, after he had disappeared in three consecutive playoff games against the Los Angeles Lakers, remains unforgettable.

The Lakers took away Baker's confidence in that series. They banged him and knocked him off the blocks; they double-teamed him and watched him force awkward shots and miss meaningful free throws.

After that series his career suffered a domino effect of disappointments.

Coach George Karl was fired and replaced by Paul Westphal. Baker and Westphal never found a common ground.

Westphal couldn't motivate Baker the way Karl did, although Westphal never stopped trying. He appealed to Baker's sense of pride.

He even appealed to Baker's Christianity, which Baker took as an insult and widened the gap between them.

The lockout of 1998-99 hurt Baker maybe worse than any other player this side of Mitch Richmond.

Baker didn't seriously work out during the lockout. His visits to the Bellevue Pro Club for ersatz practice sessions were few, short and unproductive.

He wasn't ready for the season. He couldn't make a free throw, which made him tentative in the low post. He never found his game.

Still, Walker signed him to an $87 million contract that ratcheted up the heat on Baker.

Vin Baker never has been a pressure player. He didn't come from winning programs, playing college ball at Hartford and beginning his NBA career in Milwaukee.

After he signed his most-generous deal, he faded like an old prom picture.

Baker partied too much. He feuded with Westphal. He gained more weight. And he lost the fire to play.

This season was the worst of his eight-year career. He averaged 12.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and shot only 42.2 percent - all personal worsts.

He was a lousy teammate. He sulked after he lost his starting role after Nate McMillan replaced Westphal. He didn't play through pain.

He didn't stand up and answer questions after poor performances. Instead he dressed and disappeared quickly into the night life.

And now the Sonics will try to unload him and the five years that are left on his $87 million deal.

(Once again, the Sonics are trying to get out from under a mistake.)

Baker's not a bad guy. He just became a bad professional. He lost sight of the work it took to stay at the top of his game.

As a member of the U.S. Olympic team, he spent last summer with players like Alonzo Mourning and Kevin Garnett, guys who haven't taken their talent for granted. But Baker didn't learn from the experience.

When he returned to Seattle, he was his old, uninterested self.

Baker still talks as if his name belongs in the same breath as Chris Webber's or Garnett's. But he is closer now to Oliver Miller than Kevin Garnett, which makes trading him a difficult proposition.

A few suggestions:

If a deal can be made with New Jersey for Keith Van Horn - if the Nets are that stupid - make it in a Meadowlands minute.

But if the deal is with Philadelphia for Matt Geiger, run from it as if it were a subpoena. Geiger has all of Baker's bad qualities and almost none of Baker's talent.

Teams should be wary of Baker, who still believes he can be a star. He now is a role player who is reluctant to accept his role. He is a sometimes-sixth-man, an inconsistent infusion of offense.

Baker is one of the saddest stories of the NBA season. All of that wasted talent, all of those shattered promises.

His low-post game, his ability to put the ball on the floor, the three-point range on his jump shot are all things the Sonics desperately need.

But Baker has become a large shadow of himself. He is done in Seattle. He was the weakest link.

Steve Kelley can be reached at 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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