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The First Timer
Michael Bamberger
May 04, 1998
Making his long-awaited postseason debut, Vin Baker gave the Sonics a quick lift, then saw how quickly foes can adjust in a short series
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May 04, 1998

The First Timer

Making his long-awaited postseason debut, Vin Baker gave the Sonics a quick lift, then saw how quickly foes can adjust in a short series

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The start of Game 1, the first playoff game of his career, was 10 minutes away, and Vin Baker was already exhausted. This was last Friday night at KeyArena, the Seattle haven for gourmet beer and go-go basketball. His SuperSonics teammates were hanging out in front of their bench, sipping water, checking out the crowd and the dancers and the opposition, coolly focusing their thoughts and energies, winding down the way veterans do before a big game. George Karl, the Seattle coach, the grand master of casual, was in a back room, slipping out of his sweat suit and into his game suit. He was about to coach his 85th playoff game. His starters—most of them, anyway—knew all about springtime basketball. Hersey Hawkins was about to play in his 59th postseason game, Gary Payton in number 75, Detlef Schrempf in number 87 and Jerome Kersey in number 101. Then there was Baker—five years in the NBA, four All-Star Games but no money games. He was sitting on a cushioned folding chair, sucking air through his mouth, which was dry, staring blankly at the blank scoreboard above him. He was spent by his own nervous energy, waiting for a new chapter in his life to begin.

He had been acting wacky for a while. Earlier Baker had laid out his 6'10" body on top of the NBA PLAYOFFS logo painted on the court as if to embrace it, celebrating his arrival in the postseason. When a team discussion turned to the Sonics' first-round opponents, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Baker prefaced his remarks by saying, "Now we've all been here before...." Sam Perkins, preparing for his 119th playoff game, turned a cocked head toward his teammate and said, "Say what?" The whole team was amused. They all knew that after each of Baker's first four years in the league, atoning for no sins but temporarily stuck in a basketball purgatory called Milwaukee, he had returned to his family home in Old Saybrook, Conn., feeling too sullen even to watch the first-round games on TV.

Now he was about to play in one. The arena went dark and the starters were announced, and suddenly Baker found himself revitalized. His first quarter unfolded as if in a dream. Eighteen seconds into the game, Baker tossed in a 16-footer, and Seattle led 2-0. A little later he hit a 13-footer. Then a dunk. Then another. A layup. Then a 19-footer. A 21-footer was the topper. By the end of the first quarter, Baker had scored 14 points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot, and the Sonics led the Timberwolves 34-21. The rest of the game—which Seattle won 108-83—was played out of respect for custom. In truth, the game was over after those first 12 minutes. Some people figured the best-of-five series was, too. After all, the most important question, it seemed, had been answered: Yes, Vin Baker can play postseason basketball. He finished Game 1 with 25 points and 12 rebounds, 5.8 points and four boards above his season average. He got postseason game.

That's what his teammates were saying afterward. "If Vin plays this way, we're going to win games easily," Payton said. In the stands Baker's mother, Jean, was shrieking with delight. His father, James, a preacher and auto mechanic, was under doctor's orders not to travel because of chest pains, so he was back in Old Saybrook, watching the game on TV and celebrating his son's victory alone with potato chips and soda.

Vin Baker was also restrained. He knew one game proved nothing. Afterward Flip Saunders, the Minnesota coach, said, "With the Sonics, you pick your poison. If you defend the three-pointer, you give up Baker." Baker knew the truth in that. "I don't want to think everything is going to go like this, because it's not," he said late Friday night.

Sunday night at KeyArena, the Timberwolves pulled a fast one: They put two guys on Baker. Every time he got the ball, he was swarmed by Tom Hammonds and Stephon Marbury or Kevin Garnett and a very angry Stephon Marbury, who felt, he said, that his team had played so poorly in Game 1 that his "manhood got tested." For Baker, Game 2 was a blur of changing, charging faces, flailing arms and rapid-fire passes back out to the wing. Baker played 39 minutes—on Friday night he had played only 28—but attempted just six shots, finishing with eight points and nine rebounds.

Saunders had called it. In the first game the Sonics were 5 for 21 from treyland. In the second they were 8 for 25, but Saunders had chosen his poison well. The Timberwolves won 98-93. Early on Monday morning, the teams flew to Minneapolis, knowing their season had at least two more games in it, one on Tuesday, one on Thursday, both at the Target Center. The "if necessary" Game 5 would be played on Saturday at KeyArena.

Late in the second game Baker found himself back on a cushioned seat on the Seattle bench. This time his mouth was shut and his eyes were glued to the floor in front of him. He was suffering, and you could only sympathize with him because he is such an exceedingly nice man. In the stands Jean Baker was slumped in her chair, her hair sagging a bit from the humidity generated by 17,000 disappointed people. Back in Old Saybrook, James Baker sat alone in front of the TV, his potato chips and sodas laid out before him, ready for the modest victory party that never got started.

Late Sunday night everybody had a theory about Vin Baker's second postseason game. Payton felt that Baker had not been aggressive enough. Karl thought he had been too selfless, passing out of the double teams rather than trying to muscle his way to the hoop. Baker himself offered no novel theories, and he made no excuses. He said he'd have to look at the tapes of Game 2 and make adjustments for Game 3. Find opportunities. Find holes. Be aggressive, be assertive. He didn't sound worried. He sounded as if he had been playing playoff basketball all his life. The question remains: Is Vin Baker a playoff player? The evidence after two games was inconclusive.