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Friday, November 16, 2007
GP feeling free, retirement plans 'kind of definite'

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

How is it possible that one of the loudest mouths to ever step onto an NBA court could walk away in silence?

Maybe it's because, for all of the talking Gary Payton did in his career, he never was talked about as much as a man who ranks 21st all time in points, sixth in assists, third in steals and eighth in games played should have been. Although he hasn't quite sailed off into the sunset yet, he's at the dock with the ropes untied, easing into retirement and sounding unlikely to change his mind.

"It's kind of definite," Payton said of his plan to retire.

"I'm hanging, relaxing. That's all. Before the new year comes, I'll make a decision on everything. I'm just hanging with the kids and the family."

He spends his time in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and his hometown of Oakland. And he doesn't find himself missing the NBA life.

"I've been doing it for 17 years," Payton said. "I don't have to get up every day, practice, travel … ups and downs with the coaches."

The topic of coaches seems as good a place as any to start off this GP career retrospective.

"If I had to rate 'em, George [Karl], Phil [Jackson] and then Doc [Rivers]," Payton said.

Gary Payton
GP isn't officially retired, but he's certainly enjoying his time off.
Noticeably absent: Pat Riley, his coach for two years in Miami, one of the all-time greats. Riley, after all, was the coach when Payton won his long-awaited championship with the Miami Heat in 2006.

"Well, ohhh-kay, that don't mean nothing," Payton said. "It just so happened we won a ring with him. He ain't my favorite. [It's] a lot of things. I really wouldn't want to go into it. I put the relationship before everything. As far as a relationship, George was the best. Doc was next."

People who remember Payton's one season with the Lakers might be surprised to hear him rank Jackson among his three favorite coaches. Payton wasn't a good fit in the triangle offense and he spent most of the last few playoff games brooding on the bench while most of his minutes went to Derek Fisher.

"We weren't clashing," Payton said. "Phil never got into any screaming matches. He decided he didn't want to play me, because of what he was hearing or seeing. I don't think he was making the decisions at the time. It was never me and him [getting] into it. I'm talking the relationship, him being cool knowing you were a veteran, being in the league long as I was, giving me that type of respect."

Payton probably got more respect from coaches than he did from players or fans. Karl would tell you Payton should have won a Most Valuable Player award at some point in the 1990s. That's when the Seattle SuperSonics were winning 60 games routinely and Payton, one of the league's top lockdown defenders, was known as "The Glove." He was also a 20 ppg scorer, an underrated player in the low post and a great distributor.

We didn't see Payton as much because he was tucked away in the Pacific Northwest during his prime years. And Payton doubts you'll see someone like him come down the pike again.

I done did it all. If I go back it's because I want to have fun and we're going to do something and win basketball games. I wouldn't go to a team and groom a team and be a grooming guy.

-- Gary Payton

"You know why?" he asks, and ready or not you're about to get a long answer.

"I don't think we play basketball the same as when we started. It's a lot of young guys. Basketball has turned into an offensive-minded situation. They don't play on both ends. They don't play defense. When I was playing, it was me playing both ends of the floor, playing offense, playing defense and I gave the ball up with assists. It wasn't like me doing one thing, scoring 25 and having three assists and one steal. I was guarding the best player and getting 25 and having eight assists, and three-four steals.

"I haven't seen a guy like that yet. Bruce Bowen is capable [defensively] but he's not the offensive threat, the go-to guy."

I'm surprised Payton even mentioned Bowen in comparison to him, because nobody else would. Has anyone reminded you of Payton since his heyday? Not even close.

What made Payton so special was that he just willed his way to success. He couldn't overwhelm anyone with athletic ability. Oh, that skeletal body was stronger than people expected, but he wasn't about to soar over people for dunks and rebounds. Payton would beat people mentally, because he understood the game.

If you wanted to see a master at work, tenacity over talent, you should have seen him go at Kobe Bryant at the Forum in Kobe's early days. Payton used to wear him out, giving him lessons that certainly fueled Bryant's rise to the top of the league. Payton's strategy, he once confided, was to "get street on him." Give him some Oakland.

Payton would let you hear it all night. He might have been the most voluminous talker in NBA history. He could overwhelm a shootaround with movie reviews, dominate a pregame locker room with NFL analysis and, of course, provide a soundtrack to games with a steady stream of trash talk.

Payton's sessions could be so overwhelming that teammate Michael Cage once told Sports Illustrated: "When you're done, you just want to go find a library or something, someplace totally silent."

(When he wasn't talking, Payton could convey just as much emotion with his facial expressions, like in this edition of the sublime Nike Fun Police commercials.)

Gary Payton and Michael Jordan
Payton didn't back down from anyone, even His Airness.

It seems as if trash talking -- quality, creative smack -- is a lost art, gone with Payton and Reggie Miller. Something else that might become extinct: pro basketball in Seattle, now that new owner Clay Bennett has filed an application to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

"The fans are great up there [in Seattle]," Payton said. "Beautiful. You should always have a team up in that area. It's a football city, baseball city, basketball city. It's a city where people can live and grow. If you're a family guy, you want your kids to be there. I think it's going to be heartbreaking if they lose their basketball team."

Although he went on to Milwaukee, the Lakers, the Celtics and the Heat, his favorite team will always be the '95-96 edition of the Sonics. Of all his years of throwing alley-oops to Shawn Kemp, that was the one group that made it to the NBA Finals.

They got ambushed by the 72-win Chicago Bulls squad, down 3-0 before they knew what hit them before winning a couple of games to at least salvage some pride. But just when they were figuring out how to play at that level, the series was over. And the Sonics never made it back to the Finals.

"They broke up the team, because George got into it with the owner, Shawn started complaining [about money]," Payton said. "They should've just held off. Just like the Laker team [when he was there in 2004]. They should've stayed together one more year."

Sometimes staying too long in sports is just as bad as ending things too early. I don't know if I could stand to see another season of Payton not able to beat out Jason Williams for a starting spot, or not locking down opposing point guards the way he did in his "Glove" days. It's probably for the best that Payton sounds satisfied, with no need to hang on and chase a last bit of NBA glory.

"I've done everything," Payton said. "All-Stars, Olympics … The only thing I haven't done is win MVP of the league. There's nothing else I haven't accomplished. Getting another ring? It would be nice, but it's not something I hadn't accomplished.

"I done did it all. If I go back it's because I want to have fun and we're going to do something and win basketball games. I wouldn't go to a team and groom a team and be a grooming guy."

He sounds like he prefers the options afforded by his current lifestyle: "Not getting up and going to practice, where [instead] I could be at home, taking my wife to a concert or playing Santa Claus or something like that."

So don't expect Payton back in a uniform. But come December, you might want to be ready for a trash-talking Santa.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.