Life and times of Potapenko
By Percy Allen Seattle Times
MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Vitaly Potapenko, left, missed 49 regular-season games last season.
Even now — several months removed from those frantic final moments in what would be the last game of the season — it all seems so vivid.
Without much prodding, Vitaly Potapenko closes his eyes after yesterday's training camp workout and just like that, the Sonics center is reliving the decisive play in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.
His voice, a low rumble, gains speed and the words tumble out in a heavy Ukrainian accent. His thick fingers trace circles in the air, diagramming the no-win scenario that tormented him throughout the summer. "Here is [Manu] Ginobili," Potapenko said, using his right index finger. "He's lanky. He can go through cracks. And here is Duncan, my man."
Potapenko draws a line with his left index finger as his eyes search for understanding. "I'm in the middle, you see. I'm in the middle with Duncan, but I see Ginobili get through, so I go to cut him off. But maybe I overcommitted a little bit. Maybe I should have just stayed with Duncan and let him [Ginobili] try to make a shot. "But I was thinking about helping. Sometimes I'm helping too much on defense. I don't know. Maybe I should have stayed with Duncan. But then ... yeah. I should have stayed with Duncan." He knows his actions led to Ginobili flipping a brilliant pass to Duncan, who converted it into a winning layup that gave the Spurs a 98-96 win and knocked the Sonics out of the playoffs.
He knows how close Seattle was to upsetting NBA champion San Antonio, but that's the thing about Potapenko — he doesn't second-guess or play the what-if game.
To do so is a waste of time, he said. He is 30 years old — the oldest Sonic on the roster — and entering his 10th season in the NBA. He has seen it all. During his career, he has been a reserve in Cleveland, a starting center with Boston and played both roles in Seattle.
When he first arrived to the Sonics as part of the July 2002 trade that sent Vin Baker to the Celtics, many wondered if he'd ever play again after tearing his left ACL months earlier.
But during the 2003-04 season, Potapenko, who had been one of three centers on the roster along with Calvin Booth and Jerome James, ended the season as the starter. He was playing the best basketball of his career and entered last year's training camp as the starting center.
"At that point, everything is wonderful and going great," he said. "I finally felt like I was back. The knee was fine. I was fine and fitting in and we were moving forward to having a great season."
The Sonics had a great season, while Potapenko played just 33 games after breaking a bone in his right hand in the preseason finale against Portland.
James stepped in and went on to have Potapenko's dream season. It was James who starred in the first round of the playoffs and was lauded by the national media. And it was James who landed a $30 million deal this summer from New York. Meanwhile, Potapenko languished at the end of the bench before making a brief appearance in the conference semifinals. In Game 3, he provided just enough resistance on Duncan to stave off a potential winning shot during a Sonics victory. In Game 6, Potapenko went from hero to goat.
When free agency began, many teams simply did not have enough information on him. It had been more than a year since he'd been part of the rotation and he finished the season averaging just 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds.
The Sonics were the only team calling his cellphone and they urged him to finish what he started. He signed a modest two-year deal worth $6.3 million and is back where he started.
"It was very hard last year," he said. "I'm not going to lie. It was difficult. The injury thing, that happened and you tell yourself that you do what's best for the team. I understand what [former coach Nate McMillan] was doing and he didn't want to change anything after the guys got off to a good start."
Unlike past years, Potapenko isn't expected to receive much of a challenge for the starting position from reserves Robert Swift, Mikki Moore and Johan Petro.
Coach Bob Weiss talks about him nearly as prominently as he does starters Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Luke Ridnour. Potapenko's ability to convert the midrange jumper should prove to be a lethal weapon on pick-and-roll plays with Allen.
"Honestly, I'm not thinking about starting or anything like that because I know how quickly all of that can change," Potapenko said. "It looks good for me right now, but ... [he bends down and knocks three times on the wood floor at the Furtado Center] I've been here before."