By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 12:05 AM
Rashard Lewis has always been able to stay below the radar, even while signing a contract that made him among the highest-paid players in the league and making major contributions on a team that reached the NBA Finals. So Lewis's debut with the Washington Wizards was exactly what one would expect from an unassuming former all-star who eschews the attention.
Lewis came off the bench during a timeout late in the first quarter of the Wizards' 87-80 loss on Wednesday to the Chicago Bulls, unable to receive an appropriate introduction or an ovation from his new fans. And he was perfectly fine with sneaking into the game.
"For the first game, yeah, kind of slide in easy," said Lewis, whom the Wizards acquired on Dec. 19 in exchange for Gilbert Arenas. "I'm a quiet person. You ain't going to see me hooting around, jumping around yelling and screaming. I like to go out there, get the job done, go home, kick my feet up and relax."
He even arrived in Washington as almost an afterthought, with Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld not answering one question about Lewis when he announced that the Wizards had traded Arenas, the former face of the franchise, to the Orlando Magic. In some respects, the Wizards traded the class clown for the teacher's pet, as Lewis was a favorite of Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy, who often spared the 6-foot-10 power forward his sharp criticism.
"Rashard, to me, is as good a professional and as good a team guy as anybody that I've been around in this league. I don't think there's anybody who is willing to sacrifice his own personal stuff for the good of the team more than Rashard has," Van Gundy said. "He never complained about anything. Number of shot attempts went down in his time here. He was only interested in winning games and helping out his teammates. For a coach, when you have somebody like that, you have a great, great appreciation. Washington is having one of the absolute best professionals in this league."
Magic General Manager Otis Smith lured Lewis away from Seattle with a six-year, $118 million contract in the summer of 2007, hoping that he would provide some complementary scoring for Dwight Howard. Lewis made one all-star team, helped the Magic reach the conference finals twice and the NBA Finals in 2009, but his production and role within the team decreased each season that he was in Orlando.
"We had so much talent, so many scorers, somebody had to sacrifice," Lewis said. "Everybody can't take 15, 20 shots. I did what I had to do to win ballgames. At the end of the day, I guess it didn't work."
Lewis, 31, is the second-highest paid player in the NBA this season, right behind Kobe Bryant. For his entire time in Orlando, Lewis had to constantly hear about how he was overpaid. The pressure sometimes consumed him, according to league sources. But in Washington, Lewis is actually seen as providing some long-term salary cap flexibility, as he is guaranteed just $10 million in the 2012-13 season and the Wizards have removed Arenas's salary from the books in 2013-14.
When asked if he felt free of the weight of having to live up to his contract, Lewis said, "Not necessarily. My job is to go out there and play basketball, try to win ballgames. Regardless of how many points you score or rebounds you grab, we're going to go with what helps the team win, and that's what I did in Orlando."
Hedo Turkoglu, who re-joined the Magic as part of the team's massive roster overall, said Lewis was "huge" during Orlando's run to the Finals. "Great teammate. I wish I would've been playing with him again, but those are things that I really can't control," Turkoglu said. "I just wish him the best. He deserves to be in a good spot."
"When I talk about Rashard, the thing I always say, he is definitely a man. There is no question about that. He don't have a whole lot of BS in him. He's a straightforward shooter as a guy," Smith said. "I think Rashard had a lot of good basketball left, but the way our team was structured and shaping, the opportunity to move him for Gil made sense for us."
Lewis found out about the trade while he was taking a pregame nap in preparation for the Magic's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. He had heard rumors that morning that he might be dealt, so when his phone rang repeatedly, Lewis already had a hunch that he was gone.
"I most definitely was surprised by it," Lewis said. "But we was playing up and down at the time [and] when an elite team is not playing well, they are going to look to make moves to look to try to make the team better."
Lewis said he dealt with the disappointment of moving from one of the best teams in the East to one of the worst by avoiding his phone and playing around with his two young children, Gianna, 3, and Rashard Jr., 5 months.
"Bad as the news was, playing with my kids is what put a smile on my face. That blocked it out a little bit," said Lewis, who was traded for the first time in his 13th season. "I always try to think positive, even when it's the worst day in your life. You've got to think positive and look forward to your future. I got traded that day, but I said, once this day is over with, I'll be fine."
After scoring eight points in his first game, Lewis was appreciative that the trade allowed him return home to his native Houston for the holiday season, with the Wizards set to complete a back-to-back set in Texas beginning on Sunday against San Antonio and then the Rockets. Lewis brought up with him to Washington his two kids and fiancee, Giovanni Fortes, and they all currently reside in a hotel. Teams can provide hotel stays for up to 45 days after a trade, but Lewis is hoping to find a place sooner than later.
"I think the toughest thing is doing everything on the fly, on the move," Lewis said. "You've got to not only learn the scheme, offense and defense, but finding a place to stay, moving your family. Getting your clothes out here, a car to drive, learning how to get around the city. It's just a million things, the small things, but basketball won't be as hard as all the other things you've got to do to get yourself situated."