Happy Days Not only are the Sonics winning big, but--surprise!-- they're also enjoying themselves

February 09, 1998

Given the turbulence among the Seattle SuperSonics during the
past few years, it seemed unlikely that the team had any
surprises left. Following Seattle was a lot like watching
Melrose Place--you got the feeling the soap opera had been so
outrageous for so long that it could no longer top itself. But
even those who thought they had seen it all from the Sonics must
have raised their eyebrows this season when they saw point guard
Gary Payton knitting and playing shuffleboard with residents of
a senior citizens' home, forward-center Sam Perkins in a bedtime
pillow fight with three kids, and guard Hersey Hawkins
scrambling on the floor for candy from a pinata at a little
boy's birthday party. Granted, those were scenes in a series of
lighthearted commercials made to promote the Sonics' local
telecasts, but the team has also been presenting a real-life
image that fans probably never expected to see: Behold the
Sonics themselves, happy at last.

We don't blame you for doing a double take. It's hard to
recognize the Seattle players when they're smiling. But here
they are, with hardly a hint of dysfunction: no greedy star
demanding a trade, no bickering among teammates, no label as
playoff chokers making them tense and wary of outsiders. At
week's end the SuperSonics' 36-10 record was the best in the
NBA, but that's not the point; Seattle has a habit of putting
together gaudy regular-season records. This season the Sonics
have done it with some familiar weapons, such as Payton, who
through Sunday was third in the league in assists (8.8 per game)
and fifth in steals (2.35) and remains one of the NBA's most
complete point guards, and small forward Detlef Schrempf (16.3
points and 7.1 rebounds), who's having one of the best seasons
of his 13-year career. But Seattle also has some new ammunition,
most notably power forward Vin Baker, who at the end of last
week led the Sonics in scoring (20.0 points) and rebounds (8.1),
and swingman Dale Ellis, a reserve who led the league in
three-point accuracy (49.4%). During one nine-game stretch Ellis
made 24 of 29 treys.

The biggest difference, however, is that the Sonics, having
traded moody forward Shawn Kemp for the affable Baker, are no
longer a house of cards. They're more like a brick mansion.
"We're solid now," says Hawkins. "We don't have those
distractions threatening to bring us down like we've had in
other years. I can't remember the last time I was on a team on
which things went so smoothly, but I know it wasn't in Seattle."

Evidence of the more relaxed mood is everywhere, from the way
coach George Karl and his players threw a football around after
a recent practice to the way the Sonics linger in the locker
room, signing autographs for kids and joking with reporters. In
the past it wasn't unusual for Seattle players to bolt after
games to avoid media questions designed to take the team's
emotional temperature. Perhaps the clearest sign of change is
that Seattle's concerns revolve around on-court issues. The
players are a bit worried about their rebounding--at the end of
last week the Sonics ranked last in the league, with 38.9 boards
per game--and Karl wouldn't mind seeing Seattle get involved in
a few more close games to better prepare his players for the
postseason. That's trivial stuff for a team that used to have at
least one crisis a year. "It's boring," says Karl, tongue in
cheek. "The only problem is that sometimes the coach messes up
and starts talking about his salary."

Karl, who is in the last year of a contract that pays him $3
million this season, is unhappy with Seattle management's
refusal to discuss a new deal until the end of the season, and
he has said that if and when the Sonics try to re-sign him, he
"won't come cheap." But this issue isn't likely to affect
Seattle's performance. It's like a paper cut to a team that's
used to internal bleeding.

The three-way trade in late September that brought Baker from
the Milwaukee Bucks--while Kemp went to the Cleveland Cavaliers
and the Cavs' Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill were sent to
Milwaukee--has helped all three teams, but the Sonics have to be
considered the biggest winners. In getting Baker, a 6'11" power
forward and five-year NBA veteran, Seattle president and general
manager Wally Walker pulled off a coup. In one move he unloaded
Kemp, who had vowed never to play for Seattle again because he
was dissatisfied with his contract, and strengthened the Sonics'
championship potential.

On the court the Baker-Kemp exchange is more or less a wash
(box, below). Both players are All-Stars. Baker is the superior
passer, but Kemp is better at filling the lane on the fast
break. Baker makes fewer turnovers in the low post, but Kemp is
more spectacular. In the areas that have nothing to do with X's
and O's, however, the Sonics are clearly better off with Baker.
He sang the national anthem before a home game in December,
accompanied by the choir of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church,
from Old Saybrook, Conn., where his father, James, is a
minister. Kemp, on the other hand, was so often tardy for games
that there were times last season when the Sonics wondered if he
would even show up before the anthem. "The big thing is that Vin
is a man of responsibility," says Karl. "He's a man of quiet
character. The negative of last year has now turned into a
positive."

"Vin's always in a good mood," says Hawkins. "His personality
definitely fits the team chemistry better than Shawn's did."

Baker meshed easily with his new teammates almost from the first
day of practice. The only significant adjustment he had to make
was to Seattle's frenetic pace. The Sonics' trapping defense and
fast-breaking offense is a far cry from what Baker was used to
in Milwaukee. "I almost needed an oxygen mask those first couple
of days," he says. "In the East, running is an opportunity. In
the West, it's a way of life." But it didn't take him long to
get up to speed, and since then he has been everything Seattle
had hoped for. At week's end he ranked third in the league in
field goal percentage, and among forwards he was 10th in scoring
and 17th in rebounding.

His performance has been, in fact, exactly what Payton
envisioned last summer when he and Baker toured Europe on a Nike
exhibition junket and talked about the possibility of Baker's
being traded to Seattle. They spent much of the tour telling two
other players, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, how dangerous
the Sonics would be if Baker joined them. "Actually Gary did
most of the talking," says Baker. (As Baker has since
discovered, that's usually the case.) He and Payton have become
fast friends, nearly inseparable on the road, where they can
often be found at the pool table in the hotel bar, playing and
laughing deep into the night.

Their friendship is a sensitive subject for Payton, who remains
close to Kemp and doesn't want it to seem as though his old
friend was the cause of everything that once ailed the Sonics.
Still, Payton admits that his relationship with Baker is
different from the one he and Kemp had as teammates. That may be
because, even though Payton and Baker are co-captains, the
Sonics are clearly Payton's team. With Kemp this wasn't so
clear. "Shawn and I were close, but Vin and I are on a whole
different level," Payton says. "I never wanted this to be my
team. Maybe Shawn wanted it to be his team. But people shouldn't
lay everything on Shawn. Vin's my partner and Shawn's my
partner, and at the All-Star Game we're all going to hang out
together."

Everyone, it seems, wants to hang out with Baker. After a road
game against the New Jersey Nets in December, several Sonics,
including Payton and reserve swingman David Wingate, had plans
to venture forth from their New Jersey hotel to sample the area
nightlife, but Baker went out to dinner with his parents. He
didn't get back to the hotel until after midnight, but he found
his teammates killing time, waiting for him. They didn't want to
leave without him. During his short time in Seattle, Baker has
become the perfect complement to Payton as a leader. Payton
motivates his teammates by telling them in no uncertain terms
what they need to do, while Baker is an exemplary figure with a
certain amount of magnetism. "He's such a good guy, you don't
want him to be disappointed in you," says Wingate.

Baker's leadership skills may be the most underrated component
of his game. That's why Karl laughs at media speculation that
the volatile Payton could be a bad influence on Baker. "Somebody
said Gary was going to lead Vin down the wrong path," the coach
says. "That guy must not know Vin all that well. Vin's not a
follower. If anything, he's going to be the one leading Gary."

Together they could lead Seattle back to the NBA Finals, where
the Sonics lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games two years ago.
But that will happen only if Baker, who was never in a
postseason game in four years of college, at Hartford, and in
four seasons with the Bucks, adapts to the playoffs as quickly
as he's adapted to his new team. There's no reason to think he
won't, with a corps of playoff-tested veterans to lean on. "We
know what we're capable of," says Karl. "We know exactly who we
are when we look in the mirror."

For the first time in years, the Sonics have reason to feel good
about everything they see.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT Now that Kemp is gone, the fiery Payton is Seattle's undisputed leader on the court. [Gary Payton, Vin Baker, and three Los Angeles Lakers players in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Greg Ostertag, Vin Baker, and other in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO A SHOW OF HANDS As the Pistons' triple-teamed Grant Hill can attest, Baker (far right) has adjusted very well to the Sonics' trapping defense. [Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins, Grant Hill, and Vin Baker in game]

STATS ARE ONLY PART OF THE STORY

A comparison of the averages of Shawn Kemp with the Sonics last
season and those of his replacement, Vin Baker (right), through
Sunday reveals a pretty even trade--on the court.

PLAYER SEASON MINS PTS REBS FG% FT% BLKS TO

KEMP 1996-97 34.0 18.7 10.0 .510 .742 1.0 3.5
BAKER 1997-98 35.8 20.0 8.1 .539 .605 1.1 1.8

With Baker, the Sonics are no longer a house of cards. They're
more like a brick mansion.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)