By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – For years, Gary Payton has been the durable of the Seattle SuperSonics, shrugging off the same injuries that send his teammates to the sidelines.
Now, it seems, Payton has company.
Seattle’s Desmond Mason was helped from the court midway through the first quarter of Sunday night’s game, putting no weight on a wounded right knee. It was the kind of scene that often forecasts a lengthy stay on the NBA injured list.
Instead, Mason not only returned to the game minutes later, he was instrumental in helping the Sonics to an impressive 97-83 win over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks. In 29 minutes of duty – all but five of those minutes after he returned in the second quarter – Mason was 8-for-9 from the field to finish with 16 points and four rebounds.
Seattle coach Nate McMillan, himself a gallant competitor in his playing days, was impressed.
“I don’t know if there’s a tougher guy on our team, a more competitive guy,” McMillan said. “He’s right with Gary as far as competing. He’s fearless.”
Mason was hurt while diving for a loose ball and becoming entangled with Milwaukee’s Anthony Mason. As he fell to the floor, the Seattle forward apparently banged the inside of his right knee on the court. As a precaution, Sonics trainer Mike Shimensky asked two teammates to assist Mason to the locker room.
“I said I could walk, but (Shimensky) wanted them to carry me,” Mason said. “So they had me come in and run a little bit in the hall, and I felt OK.”
The possibility that Mason might be seriously injured as he was being helped from the court “goes through your mind,” McMillan admitted. “But if he can move his limbs, he normally comes back. … You just love his intensity and his effort. If he stays healthy and if he continues to work, which I’m sure he will, he’ll have a good future in the NBA.”
Mason was just one of several Sonics to sparkle in Sunday’s well-rounded effort. Seattle scored the game’s first four points and never trailed, steadily building a margin that reached 24 points early in the third quarter. The Bucks trimmed Seattle’s lead in the final period, but never dropped the deficit into single digits.
All of Seattle’s starters scored in double figures. Payton led the way with 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Vin Baker, starting at center in place of injured Calvin Booth, contributed 19 points and seven rebounds, while guard Brent Barry chipped in 13 points and 10 assists.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, was playing without forward Glenn Robinson, the team’s second-leading scorer. Robinson injured his right (shooting) wrist in a game Friday in Portland and was in street clothes on the Bucks bench.
“Robinson is a big part of that team,” McMillan said. “He’s a go-to guy in the clutch when they need a basket, so they were missing a major part of what they do.”
Still, the other Bucks hardly resembled a team that had opened the season by winning nine of its first 10 games. Milwaukee, which lost all four games of this West Coast road trip, started the night shooting poorly – they made just six of their first 24 tries from the field – and never improved very much. Bucks coach (and former Sonics coach) George Karl, who sometimes uses volatile outbursts to inspire his team, could only watch this catastrophe with a weary, pained expression.
The evening, though, included one highlight for Karl. As he walked into the arena before the game, he was greeted with a long, loud ovation from fans who remember his many successes with the Sonics.
“Seattle is a great town,” Karl said, “and I’ll always be back to visit. Probably my kids will have a good chance of living here because they like it so much. The ovation was very nice, very warm and very kind.”