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Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | October 19, 2006
If all goes according to plan, sometime this spring Seattle SuperSonics forward Rashard Lewis will walk on to the court to start a game and it will be the 526th of his career. With that, Lewis will leapfrog Shawn Kemp for fifth place in franchise history in games. When he came to the Sonics in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft, Lewis was inevitably compared to Kemp. Neither had ever set foot on an NCAA floor, but both had enough talent to be highly-touted draft picks. Now, more than eight years after he was drafted, Lewis stands with Kemp and the other legends of Sonics history on the franchise's 40th Anniversary Team.

"I wrote him a little note before the season," says Sonics President and CEO Wally Walker, who held the title of general manager when the team drafted Lewis. "My perspective on that was it's hard for me to believe that he's already been here eight full years. That puts his tenure up amongst the longest of all time for the Sonics. He's turned into a great player. He has a chance to be one of the greatest of all time to wear a Sonics uniform."

"I have the most history on this team. I feel like Seattle's the mother and I am the son of this city."
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
Of the 15 players who played with Lewis during his rookie season - the lockout-shortened 50-game 1998-99 campaign - only three others remain in the NBA. One teammate, Detlef Schrempf, is now an assistant coach for the Sonics. And only one player, Lewis, remains on the Sonics roster. Fellow All-Star Ray Allen is second in Sonics tenure to Lewis, and Lewis played four and a half seasons in Green and Gold before Allen was traded to the Sonics. Only five active players have played more than Lewis' eight years for their original team.

"Me and Ray were talking about this on the bus the other day, that I'm the guy that's still here from that old team," says Lewis. "I've been here the longest - he may be the oldest, but I have the most history on this team. I feel like Seattle's the mother and I am the son of this city."

By now, the story of Lewis and the 1998 Draft is legendary. The expectation, both in the media and around the league, was that Lewis' hometown Houston Rockets would take him with one of their three first-round picks - well before the Sonics first pick, 27th overall. The team had seen Lewis play in prep All-Star games, but Lewis declined an invitation to work out in Seattle.

"When he wouldn't come in to visit with us," says Walker, "we made the assumption - which is usually true in most of those circumstances - that he had a promise well in front of where we would draft. We didn't really know, but given the fact that they had three picks and he was from there, we made that assumption."

Instead, the Rockets picked three players - Michael Dickerson, Bryce Drew and Misrad Turkcan - who are out of the league, and Lewis tumbled. Needing a center, the Sonics took Vladimir Stepania (also out of the league) in the first round, then went best player available in the second round to take Lewis and UCLA big man Jelani McCoy with consecutive picks. Lewis had been invited to attend the draft in Vancouver, and he was the last player left in the Green Room for players and their families. TNT's cameras captured tears in Lewis' eyes. The same emotion was evident off-camera.

"He was still stunned, both on the phone conversation and when he got to Seattle," recalls Walker. "He was really quiet to begin with, then the way that whole thing had come down."

The Sonics brought Lewis down from Vancouver the day after the draft to introduce him to Seattle and his new team. Less than a week later, the NBA locked out its players. Lewis could have no contact with the Sonics, though he credits this time with allowing him to work on his own to get ready for a shortened season that began in early February.

When the Sonics finally began camp, Lewis joined a team with four starters 30 or older. The Sonics had won three straight Pacific Division titles. Their focus was on winning, not developing young talent. Lewis felt out of place in the locker room.

"When I first got here, I was with a lot of older veterans at the time and I was real young," says Lewis. "It was a scary situation for me because I wanted to stay out of the way, didn't want to step on anybody's toes and just let those guys do those thing and play my position.

"You're with these guys night in and night out. You're with these guys every day - you're in the plane with them, in the hotel with them. I was with them during team functions, but after team functions, I was lonely by myself. Jelani McCoy was another rookie that was with me, but at the same time he was still older than me."

"His first year I think was a tough year for any rookie," remembers Schrempf, one of those veteran teammates. "It was a lockout season, we struggled, it was ugly. It was not, I think, an ideal situation to come into, but he handled himself pretty well at that time. He just kind of sat back and watched and learned what he had to do."

With the help of one of his good friends, whom he brought from Houston to live with him in Seattle, Lewis survived the season off the court. On it, he went to work improving his game with the help of two Sonics assistants at the time, Dwane Casey and Nate McMillan.

Rashard Lewis recently sat down with David Locke for a lengthy interview that touched on his development on and off the court, sharing his wealth with his family and much, much more Locke also blogged about watching Lewis grow up.
"He was one of the best I've ever seen at going through a drill, listening to a coach and incorporating what the coach taught him immediately into his game," says Walker. "His footwork, you could see potential, but it wasn't there yet. His stroke was not there yet."

"I want to give a lot of credit to Nate McMillan and Coach Casey," Lewis says. "They stayed on me every day, they worked on me every day, they talked to me every day. I guess they knew what I was going through. They didn't say much; I didn't tell them, but I guess by the look on my face they knew. Those guys really built the type of player that I am today."

The type of player Lewis is emerged in spurts during his first few seasons in the league. He became, at the time, the youngest starter in Sonics history early in his rookie campaign when then-Coach Paul Westphal opted to start him at shooting guard instead of his natural small forward position to create mismatches for opponents. Lewis held his own before the team got healthy and he returned to the deep bench.

One early sign of stardom was apparent during the summer after Lewis' rookie season.

"I remember the Boston Summer League that summer," says Walker. "It was the first time he had played in summer league. Dwane was coaching. We brought in Ruben (Patterson) to play in the summer league before we even signed him. Dwane decided to bring Rashard off the bench for the summer-league team, just to fire him up. His last game of the summer league, he was either 11-for-12 or 12-for-13 from the field, was clearly the best guy on the floor. I said, 'Okay, he's got it now.' He just responded to the competition."

Patterson would start ahead of Lewis for most of the 1999-00 season, but Lewis continued to make his talent evident. He went for 30 points and 12 rebounds at Dallas in February and had 28 points and 11 boards against Toronto in March. Lewis broke into the starting lineup for good just before the playoffs and was the team's second-leading scorer in the series, averaging 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

"I still sit at night and think about going into the second round as this young kid who came out of high school."
Noah Graham/Getty Images
For Sonics FSN play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Calabro, that series was the turning point. "I think that's when Rashard realized, 'Hey, there are people here who are depending on me,' and really took up the cause," Calabro says.

Sonics KTTH play-by-play broadcaster David Locke looks forward a couple of seasons to November 2002. Lewis bounced back from missing two late shots in the Sonics previous game to score 37 points, including two big buckets down the stretch, in a win at Washington.

While the path hasn't always been smooth, Lewis has had plenty of highlights since establishing himself as a start. His 50-point night in Japan against the L.A. Clippers in October 2003 made him just the fourth player in Sonics history to go for 50 points in a game. Then, there was the culmination of it all, Lewis' first All-Star selection during the 2004-05 season.

Like the growth of a child, the development in Lewis' game has occasionally been too subtle to notice on a day-to-day basis. Step back, however, and it's clear the Lewis that arrived in Seattle a quiet 18-year-old and the confident 27-year-old All-Star who now plays for the Sonics have little in common. Once criticized for his inconsistency, Lewis scored double-figures 72 times in 78 games last season. Once reticent in the locker room, Lewis is now co-captain and elder statesman.

"Working over the years with Coach Casey and Nate, nobody ever really thought I would be in the position I am today," Lewis says. "By working so hard, I made the All-Star Game in Denver. I still sit at night and think about going into the second round as this young kid who came out of high school."

Sonics fans have seen the development every step of the way. And it's not over yet.

"I've grown and I've continued to grow every year and I'm still growing and I feel I've got a lot to learn," says Lewis.

"The best is yet to come," adds Walker. "He's really good now and he's going to get better from here."