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Whatever happened to the combustible Gary Payton? With Seattle clinging to an 88-85 lead in the final two minutes of a recent game at Indiana, Payton threaded a pass to Desmond Mason under the basket, only to see the second-year swingman fumble the ball out-of-bounds. In years past Payton would have unleashed a tirade. This time he merely snapped his fingers and turned back upcourt, and the surprising Sonics held on for their third win on a four-game road trip.
After 11 abrasive seasons in Seattle, Payton's transformation to Mr. Nice Guy has been sudden and shocking. "In the past Gary would let his competitiveness override his intelligence," says teammate Vin Baker. "He was always the best point guard physically; now he's become the best point guard mentally."
Payton's career hit bottom last season when he was held responsible for everything from the firing of coach Paul Westphal (one week after he and Payton had had a heated confrontation during a game) to the Sonics' failure to make the playoffs for the second time in three years. Suddenly the Sonics' franchise player was the subject of trade talks. This year Payton is getting credit for leading an overachieving team—10 players have fewer than four years' experience—that's challenging for one of the three Western Conference playoff spots that are likely to be up for grabs.
Payton's transformation is in part the product of a partnership with coach Nate McMillan, a 37-year-old former assistant who was Westphal's interim replacement and was given a four-year deal in March. "This is his team," says Payton, "and I've got to obey."
Payton and McMillan go back to 1990-91, when McMillan was the Sonics' starting point guard and Payton was the team's high first-round draft pick. Not only did McMillan willingly cede his spot, but he also became Payton's trusted friend and adviser. McMillan reminded him of their history last summer when he asked Payton to take responsibility for his teammates. "Nate and I went down the roster, and I'm the oldest guy on the team," says the 33-year-old Payton. "I had to be the one to adjust, and that's what I did."
Their partnership has hit a few bumps, though. Last season, following a loss two months into McMillan's tenure, he and Payton argued in the locker room while the rest of the team watched. After a sleepless night McMillan suspended Payton for a game, ending his streak of 356 starts, at the time the longest by an active player. Both seemed to learn something from the incident. Although he and McMillan still have disagreements, Payton says they resolve them in private. "I know I can't come out and say things to him in front of the other players," Payton says.
"I don't think people held their ground with Gary in the past," McMillan says. "I was honest with him. I told him if changes couldn't be made [in Payton's attitude], then the organization would make changes."
As trade rumors swirled, Payton put out an extraordinary statement to Seattle fans on the eve of the June 27 NBA draft, declaring he had never asked to be moved. "Please understand I have no problems with Seattle management and would like nothing more than to finish my career in Seattle," the statement read.
Star players tend to become off-court leaders as their on-court production declines. Payton, however, refuses to see himself as an old man. He was averaging 23.0 points (12th in the league), 9.2 assists (third) and 41.9 minutes (fourth) at week's end. His continued dominance is taking pressure off Baker, the former AU-Star who slumped noticeably last year, and forward Rashard Lewis, 22, a budding star who's years from leading a team.