O.K. Gary, you can play

  • FRANK HUGHES / The News Tribune
  • Wednesday, November 22, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By FRANK HUGHES

The News Tribune

SAN ANTONIO – In a decision that is sure to draw debate, the Seattle SuperSonics revoked the suspension they had placed on point guard Gary Payton on Wednesday morning, permitting him to play Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs.

The suspension/revocation stemmed from an incident during the Sonics’ 116-110 victory over the Mavericks on Tuesday night in Dallas. During a fourth-quarter timeout, Payton launched a verbal tirade on Sonics coach Paul Westphal. After the game, Payton made statements to reporters in the locker room about the coach and incident.

As a result, the Sonics suspended Payton before the shootaround Wednesday

morning. The News Tribune learned that Payton was upset with Westphal during the victory Tuesday because Westphal was going with a small lineup against the smaller Mavericks and keeping Vin Baker on the bench.

When Payton told Westphal that he should place Baker in the game and dump the ball to him in the post, Westphal told Payton, “You play and I’ll coach.” That prompted a harsh reaction from Payton in which he threatened to slap Westphal, told him to shut up and said he didn’t care if the team suspended him for the rest of the season.

General manager Wally Walker, in Hawaii scouting a college tournament, made several early-morning phone calls to get reports of the incident, then suspended Payton for a minimum of one game because, as Walker said, “It’s difficult to make the determination between stepping over the line and what is said in the heat of competition, but we definitely felt he stepped over the line.”

When Westphal and Walker initially made their decision to suspend Payton, Westphal, sources say, called Payton to Westphal’s hotel room to deliver the news. Payton refused to come.

So Westphal delivered the news on the bus in front of the team before the bus left for the morning shootaround. Payton, according to sources, began arguing with Westphal, at which point Westphal told Payton to get off the bus and fly back to Seattle.

Payton refused to get off the bus, sources say, so Westphal ordered the team’s trainer, Mike Shimensky, to call taxi cabs to take the players to the shootaround at the Alamodome. When that occurred, Payton got off the bus and scheduled a 1 p.m. flight back to Seattle.

Somewhere between the end of shootaround and Payton’s flight, he scheduled a meeting with Westphal to resolve the problem, which lasted 90 minutes. Then, just before the team bus left the hotel to come to the game, the Sonics announced a reversal of their decision.

The suspension was initially a minimum of one game based on meetings with Payton to gauge whether he understood the severity of his actions, and whether the issues with Westphal were resolved.

”I told Gary the last thing I was going to do going into that meeting was lift the suspension,” Westphal said. “That was no option. But I thought the meeting was so productive that there was really no issue left to justify the suspension, so that’s why I lifted it.”

Westphal would not discuss the issues he and Payton discussed, but he said he felt so strongly about their resolution that he is willing to risk looking bad publicly.

”Punishment is not the issue to me,” Westphal said. “The issue is to have things be the way they ought to be. I’m risking being viewed as backing off only because I think it is the right thing to do. It would be easier to sit here and beat my chest and say how tough I was. But it wouldn’t be right, given our conversation, to continue the suspension for punitive reasons only.”

Payton – who risked missing only the third game of his 11-year career had the suspension been upheld – appeared contrite.

”There were a lot of things that were misunderstood and we solved a lot of things,” Payton said. “As I say all the time, I am just a competitor. I just want to come out and win basketball games and we had a misunderstanding. So from now on, I am just going to come out here and play basketball and coach can do the coaching. I wasn’t trying to coach, I was trying to make a suggestion, and things got blown out of proportion and we (weren’t) on the right page. What I’ll do now is I’ll back up and just play basketball.

”Coach has to do what he has to do to win basketball games, and if he feels like the guys out on the floor are doing it, then he is going to have to go with the guys on the floor that he feels are going to get it done.”

It was a surreal scene at the Alamodome before the game, where local television reporters were conducting broadcasts complete with interviews with Spurs point guard Avery Johnson saying how fortunate it was he did not have to play against Payton. They had to cut into their live feeds to say that Payton had been reinstated.

Then, as the team warmed up on the court, Westphal called the players into the locker room 57 minutes before the game so Payton could issue an apology.

Afterward, Payton emerged in street clothes with Westphal to conduct an interview with the media, with Payton essentially issuing a public apology.

Payton said the incidents of the past days will not affect his play.

”I don’t think our team is going to be affected by this,” Payton said. “I don’t see why they should be affected by this. This is between myself and coach, and I don’t think it is going to affect their attitudes any different. They just need to go out and play hard. Once they see me go out and play hard, they will be fine.”

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