Former Huskies basketball player Spencer Hawes is entering his second NBA season and is a center on a young, talented Sacramento Kings team.
The Sacramento Kings are eating dinner at a plush Las Vegas steakhouse, one of those preseason, team-building nights, when a woman walks up to a player and asks for his autograph.
“Your performance in Beijing was amazing, Michael,” she says.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’d love to sign, but I’m not Michael Phelps,” Kings center Spencer Hawes tells her.
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The woman refuses to believe him. And his teammates, not about to pass an opportunity to tease him, play along with this case of mistaken identity.
“Come on, Michael, don’t be like this, give the woman your autograph,” one says.
“Yeah, come on, Michael, I know you’re cool, but sign the autograph for her,” another implores.
By this time the entire restaurant is watching and wondering if this guy they think is Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps is going to come off his high horse.
The similarity is amazing. Even at 7 feet, Hawes is a landlocked spitting image of the 6-4 Phelps.
But entering his second NBA season, Hawes is growing into his own celebrity. He is a center on a young, talented Kings team, a team in transition, maybe a year away from making noise in the Pacific Division.
Hawes had his best game as a professional on Thursday, with 25 points and 16 rebounds in the Kings’ 110-97 loss to Houston.
“I think last year it really hit me how much of a business this really is,” Hawes, who left Washington after his freshman season, said by telephone this week. “You’ll have a great game and you’ll think you turned a corner and then come back the next game, you’ll be on the bench and you just can’t understand it. … But you can’t let it get you down because your number can get called at any time.”
At several points in the season, Hawes talked with coach Reggie Theus about his uneven minutes.
“For me, I’ve always been a focal point and it was hard for me to get my head around a new role,” Hawes said. “And the mental aspect of the game comes into play tenfold from what it did before.
“I tried to shy away from talking to him [about playing time], but there was a point last year where I went to talk to him a couple of times. I was just trying to get on the same page with him. I wasn’t going in there yelling and screaming. I was just trying to get inside his head as to why I wasn’t playing.”
Theus broadly explained to Hawes that this was life in the league, that Hawes was a young center who had to slowly earn his minutes. He advised Hawes to stay ready.
Hawes’ playing time yo-yo’d last season. The 10th pick in the 2007 draft, he played in 71 games, starting eight and averaging 4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13.1 minutes a night.
“There were a lot of ups and downs in the beginning, certainly more downs that ups,” Hawes said. “But after the All-Star break, that’s when things started to turn for me. I got to start games at the end of the year and played against teams that still had a lot on their plates.
“We got to play spoiler, and I think playing well in those games really helped my growth and my confidence going into the offseason and into this year.”
A highlight for Hawes was beating the Lakers late in the year at Staples Center, with Jack Nicholson watching from center court.
“We surprised a lot of people that night,” he said. “It was fun and it’s still kind of weird to play in front of celebrities. It’s like you’re used to watching all those guys on TV and in movies and it’s just weird to have it the other way around. It’s like a flip-flop.”
In the offseason, Hawes worked at shrinking his body fat. When he recently was tested, his body fat had gone from the midteens to 9 percent.
“Last year, because I wasn’t playing a lot, my body fat went up and my strength wasn’t where I wanted it to be,” he said. “Toward the end of last year I put a lot of effort into that and into reshaping my body. I feel like I’m a lot stronger now. I’m running better and I’m jumping better that I ever have.”
Hawes will get his opportunities early this season, starting with the Kings’ opener at Minnesota on Wednesday. For at least the first five games, he will be Sacramento’s starting center while Brad Miller sits out a suspension.
“This is your chance to Wally Pipp him,” a former coach recently joked with Hawes. But the truth is, this is Hawes’ chance to make his case for more minutes.
“He [Theus] expects a lot from me in these games and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Hawes said. “I’m going to try to come in and light a spark and not allow any drop off from where Brad left off.”
At an exhibition game earlier this month in Portland, Hawes heard a fan yell an obscenity at him that was followed by a reference to Phelps.
He starts this second season in the NBA as just another young big man, still learning the game. But the day is coming when someone will see Michael Phelps in public and might yell to him, “Hey, Spencer!”
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org