Rashard Lewis convinced the Magic he was worth major money. Now he’s convincing the fans.
It was only eleven years ago when NBA teams passed on Rashard Lewis in the first round of the ’98 draft. They didn’t seem to think he had the potential to a make a major contribution to their respective teams. Nowadays, that isn’t the case. Teams are scrambling trying to find ways to keep Lewis off the ball and away from getting into his rhythm. Today, the two time All-star has the chance to lead his Magic team into the promise land. Who would have imagined that this 32nd overall pick would be in this position? I’m pretty sure Lewis had the idea.—Franklyn Calle
by Russ Bengtson
It’s probably the first thing you thought of, so we’re gonna get it out of the way first. Yes, this summer Rashard Lewis signed a contract that will pay him in excess of $120 million over the next six seasons. This for a guy who’s never won a championship, never won a scoring title, never averaged 25 (or for that matter, 23) points per game, never led the League in a major statistical category. He’s played in 16 career Playoff games and all of 14 minutes of one All-Star game back in 2005. There was a prevailing opinion over the contract (he re-signed with the Seattle Supersonics with the understanding he’d be dealt to the Orlando Magic), and that opinion was, Uh…what? There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth, much like that which followed Kevin Garnett’s signing his own then-unprecedented $121 million deal in the fall of ’97. This time around the ink wasn’t even dry before people were calling it one of the worst signings ever. After all, Rashard isn’t Kevin Garnett. Or Kobe Bryant. Or LeBron James.
But how about we try something different? Instead of worrying about what Lewis isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.
Admittedly, this takes some examination. Heading into his 10th NBA season, 28-year-old Rashard Lewis is still something of an unknown quantity. Funny to say that about a “max” player, but it’s true. Playing on the West Coast for a team that made just three Playoff appearances since ’99 will do that to you. Unless you’ve got League Pass, your Rashard sightings have been limited to YouTube videos and the (very) odd SportsCenter highlight. He hasn’t even appeared in a sneaker commercial. Oh yeah, he did have a 50-point game once.
Of course, Rashard knows this. He knows that, despite averaging 20 ppg over the past three years, many casual fans may have never even seen him play. That when the names of straight-outta-high-school players are brought up, it’ll be KG, LeBron, Kobe, Tracy and Jermaine, not him. He knows that this year represents a new beginning.
“I felt like I was lost playing in Seattle,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t know me as an NBA player and didn’t know my game. I still feel like right now I’m a great player in the League, but I feel like an underground king. I gotta continue to show people out there what type of player I am, and I think that’s what keeps that fire burning inside of me. It’s always somebody out there sayin’ somethin’, that I’m not deservin’ the contract that I have or I’m not gonna take the team to the level that they need to go to, and that’s OK because I feel actions speak louder than words, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
He hears all of your questions and has every intention of answering them.
“It’s fine, because I feel like I’ve proven myself from when I’ve come into the League until now—you can look at my resume; it shows that I’ve improved every year that I’ve been in the League, and now that I’ve learned a lot over the past eight, nine years that I’ve been in the League, I have no problem proving it again,” Lewis says.
Proving he belongs is nothing new to Rashard Lewis. He entered the ’98 Draft as a skinny kid out of Houston’s Alief Elsik HS, sure in his conviction that his hometown Houston Rockets would select him with one of their three first-round picks. When the NBA invited him to sit in the green room, reserved for those pretty much guaranteed to go high, he accepted. Then he arrived, suited up right and waited.
The Rockets selected Michael Dickerson at 14. Bryce Drew at 16. And Mirsad Türkcan at 18. It’s worth noting that none of them are even still in the League. Rashard stayed in the green room, eventually left alone, tears running down his face, as the first round clicked over to the second. Finally, with the 32nd overall pick, the Seattle Supersonics plucked him from the national TV frying pan. Only to throw him straight into the fire.
First, there was the lockout, which delayed the start of the “’98-99” season until February of ’99. Then there was the matter of the Seattle weather. “Actually,” says Rashard, “I think that year it broke a record for how many days it rained in a row.”
Then there was also the matter of not playing much, and being the younger-than-most rookie on a team led by veterans Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf. “I was young and I was quiet and didn’t know nothin’ about the NBA, I was steppin’ into a man’s league but didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Rashard says. “Gary also helped me out with my transition because he was a hard-nosed guy. Obviously I was young, I didn’t know too much. But he was one of those guys that stayed on top of young guys, and he, you know, if it was cussin’ us out or makin’ us work hard, whatever it was it lit a spark under me. He put that mean streak in me; he made me be aggressive when I got on the floor and got me giving 100 percent.”
That was the beginning. Over his first couple of years in Seattle, Rashard went from wallflower benchwarmer to starter to star. Then Payton was traded to Milwaukee for sweet-shooting two guard Ray Allen. Young Rashard’s basketball training would now become complete.
“When Ray came to the team, that was the year I made the All-Star team,” Lewis says. “He’s the one who taught me little things about the game, of how to be consistent throughout the entire year, and it’s not just puttin’ up numbers but it’s the little things off the court that’s gonna help you be successful throughout the 82-game season—and that’s eatin’ proper, takin’ care of your body and getting your rest at night. He knew I had the talent and the game to compete with these guys and to be an All-Star, but it was the small things that I was missing.”
The little things helped. Rashard was an All-Star and a wonderful complement to Allen (with a similarly beautiful stroke from outside). But the Sonics were in constant turmoil. Over Rashard’s entire tenure, the best center they ever had was Jerome James. They never found a true replacement for Payton at the point. And the chaos on the court carried over into the front office.
“The whole time I’ve been there, throughout my career, it’s been the same way with the changing of coaches, new owners, GMs,” Lewis says. “It’s always changin’, and there’s no stability when you’re always changin’. And when you’re trying to create a family, that family has to grow together.”
Rashard grew, there’s no doubt about that. He entered this off-season as the Sonics all-time leader in three-pointers, and top five in points scored and minutes and games played. He had every intention of opting out of the last two years of his contract, but even with the chaos surrounding him, he wasn’t sure whether he’d leave Seattle. That is, until the day of the 2007 Draft, when they traded Allen to Boston for the rights to Jeff Green.
“Ray was obviously my right-hand man; me and him were trying to hold that team together as much as possible,” Lewis says. “We was goin’ out tryin’ to find guys that could help us win, but when they traded Ray, I knew they was headed in a different direction and that’s a direction that I didn’t want to go in.”
So here it is the middle of September. Rashard Lewis sits in his new home in Isleworth, FL (Shaquille O’Neal and Tiger Woods are neighbors—he actually met Woods when touring the neighborhood), where he lives with his girlfriend and their seven-week old daughter. A summer of change leading into a fall of new starts.
“Oh yeah, it do feel like a second beginning,” Lewis says. “It feels like a new era. My jersey number’s changed, I’m in a whole new situation with a whole new team, we have a new head coach. I feel like I’m starting all over again.”
That’s what the Orlando Magic are hoping for. They finished 27th overall in points per game last season, led by Dwight Howard’s 17.6 per. Lewis, 6-10 with a Splenda-sweet stroke (he’s got a higher career field goal percentage than Tracy McGrady or Kobe) averaged 22.4—along with 6.6 rebounds. The thought is that Rashard will take pressure off the big man and give point guard Jameer Nelson another target.
“I’ve been around Rashard Lewis a lot this summer,” Nelson says. “He fits right in. We have a team where everybody loves everybody and we try to help each other. His mentality fits that.”
Nelson flew the entire team to his hometown Philadelphia to bond and work out shortly after Rashard joined the roster in July, and the whole team has been together in Orlando since right after Labor Day. This is why Rashard thought Orlando was the best place for him to be. “I’m a veteran in years, I’ve been in the League, but it seems like I’m right with these guys in age,” he says. “It’s a good group of guys, and there’s no egos on the team. And I feel like you have to have a family atmosphere, you have to trust in each other, in order to be successful throughout the season.
“Seeing these guys win championships, especially Dwyane Wade and then you have the Spurs that dominate every year, I wanna be in that position to where I’m tryin’ to compete for a ring also. And I feel like I can do that coming down to Orlando.”