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The Hustler
L. Jon Wertheim
December 20, 1999
The surprising Sonics are taking their cue from brash Gary Payton, who had blossomed into a team leader as well as the best all-around guard in the game
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December 20, 1999

The Hustler

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

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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

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 éminence 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, Pay-ton 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."

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