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ON BASKETBALL

Time so far not on his side

Baker would most like to play a role

The pregame sermon was titled, "Christmas Presents or Presence. You Choose." Vin Baker, the preacher's son, wants both.

More than anything, he'd like playing time, because he still feels he can be a presence if given the time and opportunity. In Boston, he got the opportunity and couldn't keep it. In New York, he can't even get the opportunity on what charitably could be called one of the weakest front lines in the Eastern Conference. He's not trying to crack the Big Three.

Baker returned to Boston last night for the first time since the Celtics waived him last Feb. 13. (His last game as a Celtic was Jan. 18, 2004, against the Spurs.) He hasn't exactly been making New York fans forget Dave DeBusschere or Charles Oakley. He had played 13 minutes in the previous five games, 11 coming in the blowout loss at home to Dallas Tuesday.

"He's worked very hard," said Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens. "But Nazr [Mohammed] is playing really good. What [Baker] has done off the court is impressive. He's helped Nazr, Sweets [Mike Sweetney], and Trevor [Ariza], guys who are ahead of him. He's been a real pro."

Baker talked openly and even wistfully about his brief Boston experience, one that came to a crashing end last winter when he couldn't control his drinking. The Celtics terminated his contract, then, after the players' union came to Baker's defense, a buyout was arranged. Baker signed with the Knicks for the remainder of the season and re-signed over the summer for two years and $7.35 million.

While he took a couple shots at the Celtics organization in October ("I think they were waiting for the ultimate demise") he was Mr. Diplomacy before the game last night. He even exchanged a hug with Danny Ainge on court while warming up.

"I wanted to come here and be the Vin Baker of old," he said, talking about last season, when he had acknowledged his alcoholism, had lost weight, and looked rejuvenated. "I felt like I got off to great start [last season] but things happened physically and, what I went through, it was unfortunate."

He said he holds no grudges against anyone here and, in fact, misses the locker room across the hall.

"I've got a lot of friends over there in that locker room," he said. Oddly, probably the best of those friends, Gary Payton, wasn't in Boston with Baker. "I miss it over there. I miss the guys over there. But I'm trying to put the things that happened last year behind me and move on."

Baker said he had no clue as to how he would be received or how he would be perceived by the Boston fans. When he did make his first appearance, with 2:34 remaining in the first quarter, he was booed, lustily. In five first-half minutes, all he managed was a foul. He didn't get off the bench in the second half.

Those same fans generally saw Baker last season as a sympathetic, if flawed, character. It was in Boston where the alcoholism that had been destroying him for years finally came to public light. But there also was no better feel-good story last year at this time after Baker had opened up about his problems and appeared to be recovering. Soon thereafter, however, he suffered repeated relapses that eventually led to his departure.

It was a very public fall from grace and it was a sad, sad story. When the Knicks signed him in April, you had to wonder: How could he be ready to play NBA basketball so soon after relapsing in Boston? There have been no known problems since he joined the Knicks, and Baker said last night, "I have a great support group around me in New York with Mr. [Charles] Dolan, [the owner] with Isiah [Thomas, the president of basketball operations]. The organization and my teammates have been great."

We'll never know what would have happened had Baker been able to stay sober in Boston. Remember him at the beginning of last season? The winning hoop at Indiana? Among the league leaders in field goal percentage? Scoring 24 points on Halloween in Memphis in a last-second Celtics win? Unfortunately, those are the few. He played 37 games for the Celtics last season and, in most of them, he was underwhelming.

"In a way, I'm very disappointed I didn't get a chance to [finish] playing in Boston the way I started off last year," he said.

The Knicks have committed to him for two years (the second year of the contract is at his option) and he would like nothing more than to make it work. So far, it hasn't. There's really no other way to put it. When Mohammed, Sweetney, and a second-round rookie (Ariza) are playing ahead of you, there has to be a message there.

"I'm no different now than I was last year [at this time]," Baker said. "I still feel I can be productive and help this team. I feel like I can get on the floor and do some good things."

You want to believe Baker and yet few seem to share his belief, let alone his optimism. His coach clearly doesn't. He's now an official journeyman with one momentous journey. He'd like to think there's still time, and a chance, for a happy ending. 

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