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Originally published February 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 20, 2005 at 4:45 PM

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NBA

Rashard Lewis: A star comes of age

From a teary-eyed 18-year-old on draft day in 1998 after slipping out of the first round to a veteran playing in his first NBA All-Star Game today in Denver, Rashard Lewis has come a long way in his seven years growing up in Seattle as a Sonic.

Seattle Times staff reporter

There's the view.

That's what initially attracted him to this place with the modest entrance tucked beneath lush, green trees. Big bay windows out back overlook Lake Washington and an ample dock. The yacht and Jet Skis are coming, he promises.

For now, it's enough to stand along the shore and gaze into the distance. From here, Rashard Lewis can stare into the past and the future.

This day, like many, ends with him in the backyard playing with his four dogs. Well, actually, he has just one dog, a pit bull named Pac Man, but he's keeping his girl's pit bull and kennels two other pups.

It's nearing 5 o'clock, and the winter sky is clear and uncommonly bright. To the left, multimillion-dollar estates line the lakeshore. To the right, just beyond a bustling Interstate 90, the snow-capped peak of Mount Rainier rises along the horizon.

He loves this view. The view means the climb was worth the struggle.

It has taken him seven years to reach this point, from 1998 draft-day disappointment to All-Star. The tearful teenager who sobbed while the television cameras rolled is now the 25-year-old caretaker of the Sonics.

Today

Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen represent the Sonics as Western Conference reserves at the All-Star Game in Denver, 5 p.m., TNT

Look at him now. He is all grown up. Still a bit shy and reserved, but not at all like he was when he arrived in Seattle. He's still not entirely comfortable in the spotlight but continues to distance himself from his peers and disprove pre-draft scouting reports that said he would amount to no more than a serviceable role player.

When he takes his place alongside the NBA's best players at the 54th All-Star Game today in Denver, Lewis will drift back to that day when every team, including his beloved hometown Houston Rockets, broke his heart.

"I still think about that day all of the time," he admits. "I don't know why. I'm happy what I'm doing now and where I'm at. I'm happy being in Seattle, but it just something about that draft day.


ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Sonics forward Rashard Lewis laughs while doing his radio show on KUBE 93 FM. Lewis is a guest DJ every Saturday night when the Sonics are at home and not playing.

"You know I was just a kid. I was just 18 years old, excited about being drafted to the NBA. I felt like all of Houston was watching me. My high school was watching me. I think they had a draft party at my coach's house. I'll never forget that day, being in the green room with my family and my agent.

"As my name was getting passed, I couldn't even take it no more and I had to leave and go to the restroom because I didn't want nobody to see how hurt I was. So I started crying in the restroom while nobody was around."

He cried a lot that year. He sobbed on the phone while lamenting to family members about a rookie season in which he felt isolated from his veteran teammates and rarely rose from the bench.

Without the benefit of a normal training camp before the lockout-shortened season, the Sonics didn't fully understand what they had in their second-round pick, the 32nd player chosen. Lewis hadn't worked out for the Sonics before the draft and once the season abruptly began, he was at the end of the bench. He played in 20 games, 145 minutes all season.

"The way we grew up, the way he grew up, was all about family, which is why everyone was hoping he'd get drafted by Houston so he could be around his family," says Kiah Johnson, his brother and confidant. "Rashard went to Seattle pretty much all by himself and he had to grow up pretty much all by himself in a new and strange place."

If there's a surefire plan to nurture a teenager in professional basketball, then somebody needs to copyright it and market it to the NBA. LeBron James notwithstanding, the preps-to-pros projects struggle initially.

As a rookie, Kevin Garnett wallowed in obscurity, Kobe Bryant was booed in the playoffs and Tracy McGrady languished on the sideline for two years in Toronto.


DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lewis looks at photos commemorating his 50-point game in Japan last season.

Lewis is able to smile and laugh as he tells that draft-day story because his tale has a happy ending, which isn't to suggest his career is nearing the end. Barring injury, he's approaching the midpoint of his playing days, but without question, these are heady times for someone who became the first high-school player taken in the second round to be named an All-Star.

"The funny thing is, if drafted today, he would never get to the second round and he might not make it out of the lottery," says Wally Walker, the Sonics president and CEO who selected Lewis. "In just seven years, the draft is entirely different than it used to be."

Lewis was one of 10 finalists for the Naismith prep boys basketball player of the year at Elsik High in Alief, Texas, along with Al Harrington, Tayshaun Prince and Stromile Swift. Lewis averaged good numbers (28.2 points and 13 rebounds), but at the time only a handful of players had successfully taken the preps-to-pros leap.

With a little help, Lewis can recite the names of the 31 players selected before him and he has no problem at all rattling off the three players Houston selected.

"Michael Dickerson, Bryce Drew and Mirsad Turkcan," he says. "And the Sonics took Vlade (Stepania) in the first round."

It still burns. He believes men representing the Rockets made him promises, which is why he and his mother attended the draft in Vancouver, B.C. It's why he wore an expensive suit and why he couldn't hide his disappointment when his name was finally called.

"You can't help but think about all of that stuff now at a time like this," he says. "You think about how you got from there to here and man, it's crazy. So many things could have happened differently."


BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lewis takes a shot against Dale Ellis in his rookie season. Lewis played just 145 minutes and 20 games that year. Today he is on the All-Star roster for the Western Conference, along with teammate Ray Allen.

The cornerstone of the Sonics might have been Desmond Mason, slam-dunk champion from Oklahoma State who could leap out of a gym. Or Vladimir Radmanovic, a sweet-shooting Yugoslavian who reminds many of Detlef Schrempf.

"We've said all along that we needed two All-Stars and one of them had to come from the draft," general manager Rick Sund says. "We had three guys in Rashard, Desmond and Vlade and it was just a matter of seeing which of those guys could mature the fastest."

Lewis' maturation was stunted along the way. The wiry, 6-foot-10, 215-pound small forward sat behind Schrempf as a rookie. When Schrempf left in 1999, Lewis believed he'd become a starter, but the Sonics signed Ruben Patterson to a three-year deal.

Lewis played sporadically, but showed enough promise to warrant a two-year extension and a starring role during the 2000-01 season. Soon after, his life dramatically changed when Patterson became embroiled in a sex scandal that precipitated his trade to Portland and when the Sonics fired Paul Westphal and elevated assistant Nate McMillan to head coach.

In so many ways, McMillan, who began coaching the year the Sonics drafted Lewis, is the perfect mentor for him because their lives are eerily similar.

Though they would hate to admit it, both are company men, having spent their entire NBA careers with the Sonics, while nearly having that association severed on several occasions. Lewis had two opportunities to walk away from the Sonics, but each time he signed multiyear extensions. The Sonics once traded McMillan, but that deal was voided.

They are family oriented men from the South reared in predominantly black churches. They're loyal to their kin, distant from their fathers and each has lost a family member within the past year.


DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Lewis takes in some television in the master bedroom of his Mercer Island home, former residence of Vin Baker.

McMillan recently dealt with the passing of his mother, while Lewis lost a brother last season.

And they were forgotten basketball players taken in the second round who have had to prove themselves time and time again in the NBA.

McMillan, who carved out a respectable 12-year career, but never played in an All-Star Game, is affectionately known as Mr. Sonic. He still likes to call Lewis "Young Fella," a nickname given to Lewis years ago.

"I can only imagine what it's like to put that jersey on and be in that (All-Star) locker room," he said recently. "It's something I wanted, but that didn't happen for me."

Lewis thought he reached the pinnacle of his career in the summer of 2002 after signing a seven-year, $60 million contract, which allowed him to fulfill a lifelong dream. He immediately purchased a lavish home for his mother, then bought another one for his twin sister. He has two of his own, one in Houston and one on Mercer Island.

"This is my favorite," he says while touring the grounds. "You can't get nothing like this in Houston, not with the water and all. That's why I like this place in the summertime when it's warm.

"Not just this place, but the city. Most definitely it's like my home now. Houston is where I was raised and that's where my people are at and I just like the heat and humidity there, so that will always be like my first love. But in a sense, I've grown up in Seattle and what do they say? Home is where you live. So this is home, too."

His house used to belong to Vin Baker before the Sonics shipped him to Boston. At the time, Lewis had a townhouse in Issaquah when he offered Baker $4 million for the waterside property.

Admittedly, it is too big for just him. Five bedrooms and 8,500 square feet. So much is undone or in the process of being decorated. Lewis gives his mother, Juanita Brown, carte blanche to do whatever she wants with the place, but there are a few items he can't live without.

He adores the gigantic television that rises out of a marble slab in his bedroom. That was Baker's, as was a fresh-water aquarium in the dining room. Four arcade games and a pool table adorn the game room; however, Lewis isn't much of a billiards player.

"This is just my place to chill out," he says.

So much of Lewis remains hidden behind these walls. He is a homebody, he says, but not a recluse. He isn't married — although he's dated someone for a couple of years — doesn't have children, but constantly surrounds himself with his family to fill the empty spaces. Whenever they visit, they stay for weeks at a time and tend to gather in the kitchen, where Brown dispenses down-home cuisine.

Lewis invited his childhood friend, Travis Eskridge to live with him while Eskridge attends classes and plays basketball at nearby Bellevue Community College.

If Lewis isn't with Eskridge, then he's with Pac Man, a constant companion who rarely leaves his side when he's at home.

Every so often, the Sonics forward will venture into the city with teammate Reggie Evans, but he prefers late-night movies to all-night clubbing. He'd rather speak to church groups or classrooms than to churches and school assemblies.

During a shopping spree for nearly 100 children staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle, an apartment complex near Children's Hospital for patients afflicted with various medical conditions and their families, Lewis bonded with the kids, while chatting politely with their parents.

"If I had to choose, then I'd rather just hang out with the kids and do little things with them because they seem to appreciate that more than anything else," Lewis says. "You could give a bunch of money and not show up, but that's not my thing."

He has a lot of 'things' these days. He has a thing for pit bulls. He has a thing for words like "most definitely," which he says to accentuate a point and "little momma," a term of endearment for friends. He has a thing for expensive cars, Japanese swords and gangster movies.

He has a thing for home security — surveillance cameras relay flickering images to monitors stationed throughout the house. Lately, he's developed a thing for iPods and music. Every Saturday night when the Sonics are at home and not playing, he'll appear as a guest DJ on KUBE 93 FM.

But his main thing these days, other than winning, is establishing himself as a part of the fabric of the NBA.

The problem with Lewis, however, is that he has been a fluid concept on the national scene. He is immensely likable, self-assured, and never self-important.

This may be the toughest thing to accept about him. He does not do self-promotion. He's averaging 20.3 points, a career best, and 5.5 rebounds, although he says his success is a product of hard work and his teammates' unselfishness.

But in an All-Star Game that glorifies individual accomplishment above camaraderie, Lewis, a rookie to these politics and pageantry, has a quiet disposition that often gets overlooked.

"In the grand scheme of things, that's not necessarily a bad thing," Sonics and All-Star teammate Ray Allen says. "Rashard has made it this far in large part because he's grown every step of the way. This is just another step.

"He shouldn't be shy. He has no reason to. He's an All-Star now and he has to know that and believe that. Nobody can ever take that away from him."

For Lewis, who began his NBA career sobbing in a bathroom stall, the climb was worth the struggle. Should he ever have any doubts, he needs only to scan the view from the floor of the All-Star Game. From this vantage, his future looks clear and uncommonly bright.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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