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 men 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'; 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 man 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.