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Vin's last chance? Hardly likely.
Vin's missing ingredient?
You would say this is a last chance for Vin Baker. Only there will probably
be at least two or three more last chances after this. Baker is still 6-11 and
250 and played on a Dream Team once. People still remember the kid he once was
with the Bucks, the one who sometimes reminded you of a young Karl Malone.
People still can't forget that the Sonics once paid him the maximum, over
$80million for seven years, one of the dumbest contracts in the history of the NBA.
But the Sonics had made a big trade for him - in the deal where Shawn Kemp,
another former star on the way to blowing his career, ended up in Cleveland -
and couldn't bear to think that the overweight stiff they saw in the strike
year of 1999 was anything other than an aberration. So they gave him all that
money. It means that Baker stole big for a long time, first in Seattle and then
with the Celtics. Now the Knicks get him off the waiver wire, on the cheap, the
Celtics having cut him because they say Baker failed to live up to his
contract when he stopped showing up for work.
Baker and his representatives and the NBA Players Association say this has
all happened because Baker had gone off to address his drinking problem, and
that after he did, the Celtics wouldn't take him back because they wanted to get
out from under his stupid contract. The debate about that may continue for a
Baker does seem to have a drinking problem. So you hope he can lick it the
way a lot of other star athletes have. But drinking has never been the only
problem for Baker, in all the years since he left the Bucks. Here, for instance,
is a problem just as serious:
A total lack of accountability, no matter what he says in public. That has to
change now, or he has no chance here.
Another problem for Baker? The bigger the pressure on him, the smaller he
plays. It is a tough thing to say, but true. He was fine at a small program like
the University of Hartford, where he could rack up his numbers and nobody
could stop him. He was fine in those early years with the Bucks. Ask the Knicks.
They used to see him at his best when he came into Madison Square Garden. Right
away, people would start talking about what it would be like for the Knicks
to get Baker someday.
Then he got all that money from the Sonics. He was asked to deliver every
night. And that is exactly the kind of pressure Baker has never been able to
handle very well.
Now he gets the pressure of the Knicks and New York and the Garden and a
playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Maybe he is a new man. He always says he
is. Maybe it will all be better for him in New York than it was in Boston, or
Seattle. You root for it to be better the way you root for him to get into
recovery with his drinking. But at this point in his career, in his life, you have
Baker cried yesterday when he talked about coming to the Knicks, and what
this opportunity means to him and his family. He cries a lot. He used to cry in
Seattle and promise to work harder and be a better player and a better person
and then he would go out the same night and be lucky to get a single rebound.
The guy who was going to be the next Karl Malone.
He hasn't just let himself down over the past five years. He's let teammates
down, he's let coaches down. And has never gone back to anybody afterward and
apologized. When he'd get yanked from a game in Seattle, on nights when he
gave the Sonics nothing, he'd never talk about his own lousy performance. He'd
just say, "Go ask the coach why." As if it was the coach's fault that Baker had
become this slow, this overweight, this kind of cautionary tale about how
guaranteed contracts in sports can end up a disaster. For years, all Baker has
done is talk a good game. And try to get people to feel sorry for him.
New York is now supposed to be a terrific situation for him. Boston was
supposed to be a terrific situation for him, a couple of hours from where he'd
become a star at Hartford. It is too easy to say that this is only about his
drinking. There is more going on with Baker, and has been for a long time.
A lot of people, Patrick Ewing included, came back out of shape when the 1999
season finally started. No one was more out of shape than Vin Baker. Nothing
has been the same for him since. The Celtics thought all he needed was a
change of scenery. Now Isiah Thomas believes the same thing.
At least he doesn't cost much anymore. And understand: There will be a few
nights when Baker comes off the bench and scores and rebounds and dazzles you
with possibilities. Maybe it will be more than a few nights. Maybe he can still
be what he was in Milwaukee. If not, the only place he will ever lead the
league is in excuses.
Originally published on March 13, 2004