THE TEARS RASHARD LEWIS CRIED when he was drafted into the NBA almost two years ago were not simply tears of joy. They were also tears of relief, of pain, and of gratitude that the ordeal was finally over. Then eighteen, Lewis was arguably the best high school basketball player in the country. As a senior at Houston’s Alief Elsik High School, he was named a McDonald’s All-American and the MVP of the Magic Johnson Roundball Classic, a prestigious all-star game for high school athletes. Though Lewis could have played for almost any college he wanted, he made the risky and controversial decision to seek his fortune in the NBA. “Even back then I knew I could make it,” he told me recently. “All I needed was a shot.”

In June 1998 he flew to Vancouver to attend the nationally televised draft along with twenty or so other top young players. If he hadn’t thought he’d be drafted high, he wouldn’t have attended — the risk of humiliation would have been too great. But Lewis had spent time working out with the Rockets and by all accounts had impressed their coaching staff. He says he had been given assurances that he would be taken with one of Houston’s three first-round picks. For the Rockets, having three picks in the first round was sort of an embarrassment of riches; it wasn’t a stretch to think they would spend one on a hometown favorite. Lewis’ upside was a vast amount of potential: A six-ten forward, he jumped out of the gym, had a nice shooting stroke from the outside, and played smart, fundamental basketball. But almost as important was his maturity. His coaches raved about his considerate, generous personality almost as much as his talent. Lewis’ downside was his inexperience and willowy, undeveloped body, which could leave him suffering in a brutal league that wants instant results from its players.

As the draft proceeded, Houston’s first pick went to a guard from Arizona, and the second went to a shooter from little-known Valparaiso. When Houston’s last pick of the first round came a few minutes later, Lewis and his family braced themselves. The word came down from the podium: Mirsad Turkcan, from Turkey. Suddenly everything changed. Pick after pick went by, and with each one the television cameras focused on Lewis, the last undrafted player present in the arena.

Then came the second round, which is completely different territory. First-round draft picks are guaranteed three-year contracts, but second-round picks are promised nothing, not even a spot on the team. Finally the announcement came — the Seattle SuperSonics took Lewis with the third pick in the second round — and with it the tears. Afterward, Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich said that Lewis was the fourth player on his list; if the other three hadn’t been available, Lewis would have been playing in his hometown. Instead he was shipping off to a place he knew nothing about with no guarantees. “If this doesn’t get the message across to them, nothing will,” said the NBA’s director of scouting about high schoolers who are thinking of skipping college.

The issue of high school players’ entering the NBA draft has been a hot topic of sports pages across the nation, especially since the high-profile meltdown of Dallas Maverick rookie Leon Smith. Unlike Lewis, who has been guided by a strong mother, Smith was abandoned by his parents and bounced from one foster home in Chicago to another. A huge star in high school, he decided to turn pro against the better judgment of many NBA experts, and the Mavericks acquired him. But things turned sour. After a series of incidents — which began with a refusal to run laps at a practice and led to numerous confrontations with Mavericks head coach Don Nelson — the nineteen-year-old Smith attempted suicide last November. His downfall was a bucket of cold water for those who had been so dazzled by straight-to-the-NBA sensations Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have become megastars both on the court and off. “It would be unfair to call Leon a poster child for anything but Leon,” NBA commissioner David Stern told The New York Times. “All of these men are individuals. But I remain convinced, in a broader context, that we need to disincentivize players who have other options from coming into the NBA too young.”

To see the story in such extremes, though — that a young player can only become either a Kobe Bryant or a Leon Smith — is to miss the down-to-earth hopefulness of a story like Lewis’. With the pain of the draft behind him, he lives comfortably in Seattle, has a two-year contract worth $700,00, drives a Lincoln Navigator, gets decent playing time, and is spoken of with affection by his teammates and coaches, who agree that the sky is the limit for him. A college degree is still something Lewis would like to have (he plans to begin summer classes in either Houston or Seattle in the future), but he decided to put his real passion first. “If I spent three or four years in college,” he said, “when I got out, I wouldn’t be nearly as good as I will be after three years in the NBA.” And then there’s the question of money. Lewis could easily be a millionaire many times over by the time top college players his age are just getting ready to enter the draft. But his mother, Juanita, says money was never the issue. Even as a freshman in high school he said he was going straight to the NBA because of his love for the game. “He always knew what he wanted,” she says, “and he worked so hard to get there. He stayed out of trouble and just played basketball.”

I met Lewis on a rare sunny January day in Seattle. Wearing gray sweats and futuristic-looking basketball shoes, he had just come from a mandatory team meeting with an NBA representative. “It was about taking care of yourself and planning for the future,” he told me. With a face defined by high cheekbones and narrow, almond-shaped eyes, he projects an athletic sleekness. Most who know Lewis describe him as a particularly quiet and shy character. And he remains close to his family, despite his schedule. During our conversation, he studied his cellular phone to see if anyone had called during practice. Lewis keeps in daily, sometimes hourly, contact with friends back in Houston.

“Seattle’s a nice town, but Houston will always be my home,” he told me, acknowledging the difficulty of his move to a city in which he never expected to live. His rookie year was complicated by outside factors. The season started late because of the lockout, and when it finally began, Seattle endured more than ninety days of rain in just four months. “It was very difficult with the lockout and all,” said Lewis, who had ample time to question his decision to turn pro. “And my first year out here was kind of lonely because I didn’t know many people.”

But the pitfalls one hears about in connection with the life of a star athlete — the pressure to win, the loneliness of the road, the downside of fame — never seemed to threaten Lewis. He had avoided alcohol and drugs in high school and committed his life to basketball. Even now, he’ll sometimes go out with some of the other players, but at the age of 20, he’s content just to drink soda. His home life revolves around hanging out with friends from the team such as his roommate, Rick Harshman, 22, or Jelani McCoy, 22, who was drafted by Seattle with the pick following Lewis. And their favorite pastimes, which include going to movies and playing video games, sound pretty tame compared with the lifestyles of other professional athletes who have made headlines for the wrong reasons. “Everybody looks out for him, being the youngest on the team,” says McCoy, “and everybody likes him because he’s got a good attitude.”

People close to Lewis give a lot of the credit for his successful transition to the NBA to Juanita, who works in nursing administration in Houston. She and Rashard’s father split up when Rashard, his twin sister, and two brothers were little. She raised them as a single mother until about six years ago, when she married Leroy Brown, an accountant at Apache Oil in Houston. To hear her tell it, Rashard was always such a good kid she never had to do that much. “I’ve never had to worry about Rashard — except for how he eats,” she says. “But I’m working on him. He will still call me from the grocery store and ask me how to fix steak and potatoes.” To hear Rashard tell it, she was a tough figure. “My mother was always involved in my life,” he says with a subtle grin. “She let me do what I wanted but made it known what she thought was best.”

“I know it’s a cliché,” says Jerrel Hartfiel, Lewis’ coach at Alief Elsik, “but he really is as good of a person as he is an athlete. I’ve never coached anyone like him.” Everyone you talk to repeats the nice-guy refrain to the point that Lewis himself seems to have internalized this characterization. He told me that the older members on the team look out for him “because I’m such a nice guy.” If only he weren’t such a nice guy on the court. The one criticism the Sonics have of his game is that he needs to be more aggressive. When I saw him play in Seattle, he hesitated to go inside, opting instead to look for his outside shot. “He has all the skills,” says Sonics assistant Nate McMillan. “He can shoot the ball, has a nice touch, long wingspan, great jumping ability. He just has to learn to handle the ball a little better and toughen up. He has to be more physical. That’ll come, but the sooner the better.” Signs show that it’s sooner. In February he scored a career high, knocking down 21 points against the Phoenix Suns in just 24 minutes. Three days later he was even more dominant. Playing in Dallas in a game that marked Dennis Rodman’s debut as a Maverick, Lewis stole the show. With his mother, stepfather, and sister in attendance, he went inside for most of his points, once outdueling Rodman for a rebound and then getting fouled after making the put-back. Lewis finished the night with 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 34 minutes.

As his game grows by leaps and bounds, at the end of the season he should reap the rewards, when his contract with the Sonics expires. Lewis will be a restricted free agent, which means that Seattle will have the opportunity to keep him by matching any offer another team might make. “He will definitely get another contract,” says Carl Poston, Lewis’ agent. “I doubt that Seattle will want to lose him, I can tell you that. But other teams will be interested in him as well.” He’ll also be in line for a significant raise, a salary more in line with what a high first-round draft pick — the pick Lewis thought he should be — would get. But for now, Lewis is most interested in developing his game. “I’d like to get more playing time, show them what I can do,” he told me. Time should give him what he wants. “His stock is on the rise,” says teammate Horace Grant, who won three NBA championships with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. “This kid is going to be an all-star someday.”