The Hustler The surprising Sonics are taking their cue from brash Gary Payton, who has blossomed into a team leader as well as the best all-around guard in the game

December 20, 1999

Regardless of what the roster might say, a player doesn't
officially join the Seattle SuperSonics until point guard Gary
Payton beats him in a game of pool. Call it a rite of Northwest
passage: Payton invites the newcomer to Jillian's Billiards
Club, near the Sonics' practice facility, or to his mansion in
the Seattle suburb of Factoria for a game of eight ball. It's a
casual affair until Payton suggests they liven things up with a
friendly wager. Once the money's on the table, Payton assumes
his on-court persona. A scowl darkens his face, his goateed jaw
juts halfway to Spokane, trash spews from his mouth. "Then it's
bang-bang-bang," says Seattle forward Vin Baker. "Before you
know what hit you, G doesn't have any balls left on the table,
and your hard-earned cash is gone."

From taking his unsuspecting teammates' money in pool to zipping
a pass on the break to flicking a ball loose on defense, Payton
does almost everything at warp speed. You can't hurry
professional maturity, however, and Payton's growth as an NBA
superstar has spanned the better part of a decade. It has been a
gradual and, at times, painstaking process, but the finished
product is a sight to behold. In the prime of his career at 31,
Payton has arrived as the standard-bearer of this post-Jordan
era. Payton bridges the divide between the savvy-but-shopworn
stars like Karl Malone, Reggie Miller and David Robinson and the
flashy-but-callow group led by Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and
Stephon Marbury. Bypassing the obvious choice, Tim Duncan,
Charles Barkley recently anointed Payton "the best player on the
planet."

Owing largely to their point guard, the Sonics were 15-6 through
Sunday, well on their way to exorcising the demons of last
season, when they failed to make the playoffs for the first time
since 1989-90. Payton's play has been typically stellar. At
week's end he was averaging 22.2 points, 9.0 assists, 6.3
rebounds and 1.9 steals. But his willingness to embrace the role
of Seattle's eminence grise has been just as vital to the team's
early success. "We've always had a lot of veterans, guys like
Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins and Hersey Hawkins, who were
leaders," says Payton, the lone Sonic left from the 1995-96 unit
that lost in the Finals to the Chicago Bulls in six games. "Now
that they're not here, I understand that this is my team, and
I'm taking that role dead seriously."

Over the summer Payton urged team president Wally Walker to
restock the roster with players who complemented his feisty
style. Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf, Dale Ellis, Olden Polynice,
Billy Owens and Don MacLean were sent packing, replaced by
warhorses like forward-center Horace Grant and guard Vernon
Maxwell, who have five rings between them, as well as
slash-and-burn swingmen Brent Barry and Ruben Patterson.
Overnight the Sonics became a team loaded with attitude, their
deliberate style supplanted by a frenetic attack that averages
100.1 points, 5.1 more than last season. Payton set the tone
this summer when he flew his new teammates to his Las Vegas home
for outdoor workouts in the desert heat. "Gary's come of age,"
says McMillan, now a Seattle assistant. "He gets in guys' faces
when he has to, but he's also leading by example. When I think
back to how he was earlier in his career, let's just say he's
grown by leaps and bounds."

Payton has come a long way from the blowhard he was in his
rookie season, when he said breezily, "Players like me and Magic
only come along once every decade" (never mind, for the moment,
that he happened to have been right), and from the hothead who
turned ugly in the 1994 playoffs, during which he and Ricky
Pierce suggested using firearms to settle a locker room dispute.
"The book on Gary used to be that he was talented but was so
intense that you could rattle him and throw him off his game,"
Sonics coach Paul Westphal says. "He still has the edge, but he
knows how to control it."

His wife, Monique, and their three children have been steadying
influences, but Payton believes his new maturity is owed to no
epiphany. "You don't just come in and say, 'Bam, I'm mature; I'm
the leader,'" he says. "It took time for me to grow into this
and learn how to talk to certain players and how to handle
certain situations."

Take his relationship with Baker, who last season suffered a
crisis of confidence and endured the worst year of his career.
Payton didn't help matters when he called Baker an "out-of-shape
crybaby" at a heated practice last April. Best of friends off
the court, Payton and Baker both downplayed the incident, which
could easily have divided the team. This season Payton arrived
at training camp vowing to "pump Vin up" and make sure the
28-year-old Baker returned to his All-Star level of play.
Through Sunday, Baker's production was up over last season in
almost every department. "Part of being a leader," says Payton,
"means knowing who you can go after and who you should pat on
the butt."

Consider, too, the game at Vancouver last month, when Seattle
got the short end of a string of dubious calls and trailed the
toothless Grizzlies by 16 points in the fourth quarter. Rather
than follow the example of Baker, who was ejected and had to be
restrained from going after the refs, Payton told his charges to
disregard the officiating--in the characteristically un-PG
parlance of GP: "F--- the motherf------ calls!"--and kept his
head, orchestrating a stunning 110-108 victory.

With each season Payton has added to his game, which is a
brilliant mixture of efficiency and subtlety. He can go months
without dunking, he lacks the killer crossover of other top
point guards, and even when his jumper goes in, it's not easy on
the eyes. Barry goes so far as to call Payton's style "kind of
junky." Yet Payton is the rare noncenter who can dominate
without taking a shot; when he's on the court, the other nine
players pay him constant attention. "The NBA tries to be about
flash," Payton says. "But real fans recognize the guy who makes
things happen."

Like a pool shark on a hot streak, Payton is capable of dropping
in points in bunches, especially when he uses his deceptively
strong 6'4", 180-pound frame to post up opponents and then slips
deftly around them for a finger roll. But he is more effective
in the role of playmaker, drawing the double team and then
delivering the perfect pass--a Seattleite dish, as it were--to a
cutter or an open shooter. "Gary makes the game fun," says
Barry, "because he knows how to make all of his teammates better."

Yet Payton, an all-defensive first-team selection for six
straight years, may be at his best when opponents have the ball.
Surely the league's only player who routinely throws head fakes
on defense, Payton is a master at juking as if to double-team,
then dropping back like a free safety to intercept a pass. "I
think one reason he's so frustrating to play against is that he
gets it done on both ends," says Maxwell. "He scores on you and
then turns right around and starts playing some of the best
defense in the NBA."

Perhaps because skills like shrewdly running the break and
sealing off passing lanes fly beneath the highlight-show radar,
Payton is not fully appreciated, even at this stage in his
career. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown coached Payton at
the Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico last summer.
Though he had seen Payton play innumerable times, Brown still
walked away with a heightened regard for the player who, in all
likelihood, will direct the next Dream Team. "As good as I
thought he was, he's better," says Brown. "As good a defender as
I thought he was, he's better. As tough a competitor as I
thought he was, he's tougher."

Payton has a competitive fire that rages fiercely enough to
trigger four alarms. Maxwell recalls that in his earlier days,
whenever he was about to play the Sonics, he would tell his wife
to write a check to the league office because it was a given
that Payton would goad him into a technical foul. When Seattle
faced Houston in a preseason game, Payton turned on the charm
for Rockets guard Steve Francis. Before the opening tap he
planted a mocking kiss on Francis's cheek and whispered in his
ear, "Here we go." For the duration of the game, Francis was
besieged by a hail of sweet nothings--"punk-ass rookie bitch"
being the lone printable one--every time he touched the ball.
Says Seattle center Greg Foster, a teammate of Payton's at
Skyline High in Oakland, "For as long as I've known Gary, he's
been getting a mental edge like that." Sure enough, Francis made
only 4 of 15 shots and committed six turnovers.

"I'm always gonna be talkin'," says Payton, the league leader in
technical fouls last season. "It's nothing personal, but it's at
the point where if I change, people will say, 'Oh, he's soft
now.' That ain't never gonna happen like that."

With Payton, any game of cards, any shooting drill, any
PlayStation encounter invariably becomes a challenge to his
manhood. "You can see two ants crawling down the street, and you
ask Gary, 'Which one is going to win?'" says Payton's former
Seattle teammate David Wingate, now a reserve for the New York
Knicks. "If his ant loses, he'll mess around and try to find
another one that he can get back into the race with. That's his
personality. That's what gets him going." Adds Baker, "Sometimes
I think the concept of double or nothing was invented especially
for Gary."

This near pathological aversion to losing helps explain why
Payton has missed only two games due to injury in his entire
career and why he's blown up at Westphal several times this year
for sitting him in the fourth quarter of blowouts. He claims he
gets his inner fortitude from his father, Al, a man whose
license plate reads MR.MEAN and who still calls to chastise his
son after watching Sonics games on the tube. Payton also credits
his upbringing in Oakland for instilling in him a copious
measure of badass. "No one gives you anything there," he says.
"You learned that you can be friends before the game and after
the game. But once the game starts, it's all about business. No
jive. That's Oak-town in a nutshell, and that's one reason I
love it and go back to visit every summer."

At first blush, anyway, Payton is everything Seattle is not:
brash, intense, in-your-face. But with Ken Griffey Jr. on his
way out of town and Alex Rodriguez likely to follow soon, now
more than ever the Emerald City is Payton's place. His snarling
face is plastered on billboards, his jersey is the most popular
piece of apparel not made of flannel, and an English professor
at Washington recently published a book, Black Planet, devoted
almost entirely to his infatuation with Payton. "I was in
Seattle for about a minute," says Barry, "and it was clear that
G's the man here."

Payton has returned Seattle's embrace. He has every intention of
finishing his career with the franchise that chose him second in
the 1990 draft and asserts that he's "real comfortable" in the
country's upper-left corner. While Payton cottons to neither the
coffee culture nor the rain-tapering-to-showers climate of
Seattle, a number of his friends have followed him there from
Oakland, and he loves nothing more than to invite his pals aboard
his 80-foot yacht, The Glove, and cruise Elliot Bay. "Because of
how I am on the court, people think I'm wild and crazy," he says.
"But really, I'm a kick-back guy, so Seattle suits me fine."

A five-time All-Star with a gold medal from the 1996 Olympics,
Payton has but one professional goal left to accomplish. Though
he's in the throes of the best year of his career, he knows the
meter's running. "I want that ring," he says, "and I honestly
think we have the guys here to do it."

Payton's undersized team prevailing in a conference that
includes the Spurs, Blazers and Lakers? The conventional wisdom,
to borrow a phrase, says "that ain't never gonna happen like
that." But as his Sonics teammates can attest, when the team's
hustler of a point guard vows to run the table, it's a bad idea
to bet against him.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN Fast Gary Many a Seattle newcomer has left Jillian's with a keener appreciation of Payton's intensity--and a lighter wallet. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Reflected glory After being remade in Payton's feisty image, the Sonics are soaring. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT MORA/NBA PHOTOS Driven Though he's one of the NBA's top scoring guards, Payton is even more deadly as a playmaker. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Charm school Francis took offense at being called a "punk-ass rookie bitch" by Payton in a preseason game.

Payton's Place

Since 1997-98 only Gary Payton has ranked among the NBA's top
five guards in the four main statistical categories. Here are
Payton's averages in that span and how they stack up against his
peers' (minimum 120 games).

PLAYER POINTS

Allen Iverson 24.3*
Michael Finley 21.7
Mitch Richmond 20.5
Gary Payton 20.4
Stephon Marbury 19.6

PLAYER ASSISTS

Rod Strickland 9.8
Jason Kidd 9.5
Stephon Marbury 8.5
Gary Payton 8.5
Mark Jackson 8.2

PLAYER REBOUNDS

Jason Kidd 6.4
Michael Finley 5.6
Nick Anderson 5.5
Rod Strickland 5.0
Gary Payton 4.9

PLAYER STEALS

Mookie Blaylock 2.38
Eddie Jones 2.29
Doug Christie 2.22
Allen Iverson 2.21
Gary Payton 2.18

*Stats through Sunday's games

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

"I understand that this is my team," Payton says, "and I'm
taking that role dead seriously."

"As tough a competitor as I thought he was," says Brown, "he's
tougher."

"Sometimes I think the concept of double or nothing was invented
for Gary," Baker says.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)