The NBA celebrates NBA 75 roster players almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Gary Payton, the eternal All-Star, mainly with the Seattle SuperSonic. This column, from NBA Insider Dave D’Alessandro, appeared in the February 4, 2000 issue of The Sporting News and noted that Payton’s fickle personality was only part of the package.
You can’t question Gary Payton’s greatness, you can’t question Gary Payton’s desire, but even his most ardent fans must admit this: Gary Payton isn’t well connected.
Superstars generally have good reason to start an insurrection, but Payton’s fight with Paul Westphal last week was so futile that it ran along the borders of the surreal. He was probably given the all-out shots, although many of the finer points were missed because Seattle was on its first day of a newspaper strike, not the smallest of breaks for this dysfunctional basketball family.
The madness here is in the details.
It all started during last week’s win over Dallas, when Westphal decided to equalize the Mavericks’ smallest lineup, benching both Patrick Ewing and Vin Baker early in the fourth period. During a timeout, Payton suggested that Westphal return the greats to the game. The coach made his own suggestion at the time, which everyone agrees that he delivered in the most peaceful way he could make it sound when he addressed a player who wouldn’t shut up.
“You play,” Westphal told him, “I train.”
So Payton, whose tone of conversation in the heat of battle is as soft as that of a usurer, left the group and began to curse his trainer. Nothing new there. He has even done it with the coaches he liked. And nobody gives it much credit: that’s GP, they all say. And when GP feels that he has a part of himself exposed, a part that was vulnerable or weak, which in his mind is usually the same, he cannot handle it.
Payton’s Great Paradox: There’s a raging aura of strength around him, as if equating giving in to dying.
Of course, Payton’s camp later tried to spin it around and suggest that Westphal say, “Shut up and play.” Uh huh. That, at least, would justify Payton’s tantrum, and maybe even Payton’s threat to hit Westphal, which is something he’s done before (against the Lakers last season).
What’s surprising is that Westphal, clearly the adult in this story, promoting no agenda other than winning, put the point guard back in the game a few minutes later, and Payton helped win it. That didn’t stop Payton from going to Westphal after the game, uttering the usual nonsense about how his coach tried to make him look silly, and how he “told me something bad, which I think is bad, and he won’t.” disrespecting me like that. “
The next day, Westphal decided to suspend Payton for one game, a decision made with the blessing of GM Wally Walker. Westphal told the tearn in the strangest place: on the bus, just before he left the team hotel in San Antonio on his way to the Alamodome for morning practice.
Challenging Payton in a confined space is not the best way to preserve his life expectancy. Usually it is better for you if you put a small continent between you and the boy, if you plan to insult him twice in 12 hours. So Payton made noise again, refused to get off the bus, and some teammates and assistant coaches convinced him to leave.
That’s where this story takes its sharpest turn. Payton asked Westphal if they could meet up after he returned from target practice, the coach complied and the hour-long conversation went so well that Westphal immediately reinstated him.
“I told Gary the last thing I was going to do before that meeting was lift the suspension, there was no option,” says Westphal. “But I thought the meeting was so productive that there was really no problem left to justify the suspension, so I lifted it. Punishment is not the problem for me. The problem is that things are as they should be.” “
Skillful move, huh?
He was almost as skilled as the one he did on November 6, minutes after a loss in Orlando. Westphal heard a cacophony of voices from Sonic (mostly Payton and Vin Baker) cursing him just as he was standing outside the locker room. Westphal walked in and announced – “as bad as a heart attack,” he said later – that he would resign immediately if his players thought he was the problem. “Now go to a meeting and decide,” he told them.
Payton, as the neighborhood bully whose bluff had just been thrown, refused to ask for such a vote. “No one will ever say that Gary Payton fired a coach,” he growled, promising he would play hard for Westphal until management (oh please, please) flipped the switch.
After this latest pow-wow, Payton was even more conciliatory. “There were many things that were not understood and we resolved many things,” he says. “I just want to win basketball games. So from now on, I’m just going to come here and play basketball and let the coach be the coach.”
“Just a flash on the radar screen,” says Westphal, radiating satisfaction.
Actually, just a problem in Payton’s brain. For GP, basketball is more fun (heck, life is more fun) when you treat it as a series of urges. Payton has always advocated for this philosophy. Sometimes, it’s your impulse to throw free weights at a teammate you don’t particularly like. Sometimes he likes to be late for practice, or hit a coach, referee or teammate. Long ago he came to the conclusion that it was his world, and those in its orbit had to be careful.
Barring a miracle, Westphal won’t last all year; in fact, it’s surprising that it lasted last week, given that the Sonics were rocked by 27 against the Spurs the night of the near-suspension.
Dwane Casey or Nate McMillan will take over and inherit the constant bickering and insubordination that define the team that Gary Payton has shaped in his image.