By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Practice had ended and the Seattle SuperSonics were gathered near midcourt for some parting words.
Usually these final remarks are delivered by Nate McMillan, but now Seattle’s head coach was not to be seen. The man in the middle of Wednesday’s team huddle was guard Gary Payton.
”Gary was just basically telling us that we need to keep working together and working hard,” said Seattle’s Desmond Mason. ”He was saying that (Tuesday’s loss to Sacramento) was just one game of 82 and we have plenty more games left. We can’t let this game get our heads down.”
Imagine that. Gary Payton, the voice of reason.
For most of his first 11 NBA seasons, Payton has distinguished himself both as a superb athlete and as an often ill-mannered fellow. He has been an infuriating presence at times, not only to the media, but even to his own teammates. Anyone associated with the Sonics over the last decade knows that Payton belongs with the league leaders for crass, ornery and downright disagreeable outbursts.
Safe to say, he has never been the most beloved fellow in Seattle’s locker room.
Now, though, the new NBA season has produced a new Payton. Though still feisty and combative as a competitor, he has become noticeably more courteous, patient and, dare we say, pleasant off the court. At the suggestion of McMillan and new Sonics owner Howard Schultz, Payton has adopted a more statesmanlike persona, which is surprising in itself.
He also seems to be enjoying it, which is even more astonishing.
We’re not just talking media relations, which has never been a Payton strong suit. More important to the Sonics, he is making a noticeable attempt to instruct and counsel the team’s many young players.
There was a telling moment during Wednesday’s workout, the last before tonight’s home opener against the San Antonio Spurs. Two of Seattle’s young big men, Olumide Oyedeji and Art Long, followed some intense physical contact with an exchange of angry words. Payton listened for a few moments. Then, in a calming voice, he said, ”Let it go.”
This from a player who was previously in the middle of most verbal practice altercations.
”He had a presence last year in his leadership, but I think this year he’s stepping up and doing it more,” Mason said. ”He’s setting a tone, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Him stepping up and showing that leadership is big for everybody.”
When Payton talks, Mason added, ”you have to listen. He’s been playing 12 years and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s not going to tell you anything wrong. He wants to win too much.”
”He’s a team captain and he has to funnel us in the right direction as far as getting us to get the job done,”’ said new Sonics center Calvin Booth. ”He’s one of the best players in the NBA. And when somebody like that talks, he commands attention.”
Payton ended the practice by chatting with the media. He has talked to the press for several consecutive days – another remarkable turnabout.
There was a time, he said Wednesday, when he avoided being identified as a leader. ”I thought Nate (a onetime teammate and a Payton mentor) was a great leader. We had a lot of other guys on our team who were older and had been in the league a lot longer than I had, like Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. I thought they were the guys who should lead this team and be more vocal. As a young guy, I didn’t think that was my role. My role was to stay on the floor and play hard.
”But now I’m the oldest. I’ve been in the league for 11 years and I’m going on my 12th year. Some of these guys have only been in (the NBA) for two or three years, and most of them listen to me. They understand that I’ve been through this.”
Though he has taken particular interest in youngsters Long, Jerome James and Earl Watson, Payton will offer advice and encouragement to anyone. After addressing his teammates in the huddle and before he spoke to the media, Payton stood together with forward Rashard Lewis. Though Lewis is Seattle’s other co-captain, he is also just 22 years old. For several minutes, Payton talked and Lewis listened.
Some of this change in demeanor may be due to McMillan, who urged Payton ”to let down your wall” during a summertime meeting.
”I think what he means is that I should let people get into my world and relate to me,” Payton said. ”Sometimes when I get on the court, I get my face on to be a basketball player and I don’t want to be anything but that. But now being older, and being with these young guys, you can’t just be in your own world. I have to let them come into my world to let them see what I’m doing. And it’s been working.”
People have said a lot of nice things about Payton during his long and successful career, but on Wednesday Mason uttered a rare bit of praise.
”Gary,” he said, ”is a great guy.”
Like we said, imagine that.