HANG TIME WEST – Hall of Famer Gary Payton was so down on himself as a player and so frustrated with the coaching situation in Seattle early in his career that he came close to retiring after his rookie season, he told NBA.com on Wednesday.
“I was thinking about it,” Payton said in a phone conversation from his home in Las Vegas. “I was like, ‘What am I out here for? This isn’t even what I want to do. I’m not happy.’ I didn’t want to do anything….”
Payton played well enough in 1990-91 to be voted second-team All-Rookie, but the 7.2 points and 6.4 assists for a 41-41 team that finished one place lower in the Pacific Division than the season before was not up to the standards he set for himself as the No. 2 pick in the draft. It was being the starter without getting true starter’s minutes, though, that truly bothered him, the 27.4 minutes per that led him to feel a lack of support from coach K.C. Jones.
Owner Barry Ackerley convinced Payton the SuperSonics believed in the young point guard, agent Aaron Goodwin and Payton’s father told Payton to give it time, and so he returned rather than retire or try to force a trade. Jones was fired 36 games into the next season and replaced by George Karl. And when that change included Tim Grgurich coming as an assistant, Payton would meet his destiny as one of the great two-way guards in history.
“If we wouldn’t have changed coaches,” Payton said, “I would have probably said, ‘Yo, you know what? I want to end this. I don’t want to do this anymore because I’m not happy.’ If they would have stayed with the same coach, I would have probably just shut it down. They would have tried to trade me or I would have told them I don’t want to play there anymore.
“I went to my agent, I went to my father, I just said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m good enough to play in this league. I’ve got a coach who wants to play me in the first and the third quarter. He has no confidence in me.’ They told me the same thing. ‘You’ve got to stick it out. You’ve got to be the guy who you’re supposed to be. You’re tough. You’re this.’ My father was like, ‘Are you crazy? If you quit, I’m gonna get in your (body).’ Stuff like that. He’s like, ‘It’s going to be better. You’ve got to dedicate yourself to it.’ As soon as coach Grg came there, I changed my whole mentality. I went back to the guy that I was at Oregon State and the guy that I was in Oakland, California (his hometown).”
Karl and Grgurich, who would become a familiar pairing as one of the most-respected head coaches and assistants in the NBA, lasted through 1997-98 while winning four Pacific Division titles and the 1996 Western Conference crown. Payton stayed until Feb. 20, 2003, when he was traded to the Bucks and reunited with Karl.
Payton retired — actually retired — after the 2006-07 season, following a championship with the Heat, nine All-Star appearances, nine consecutive spots on the All-Defense team, one Defensive Player of the Year, and two Olympic gold medals. His first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame was announced in February. Payton will be officially enshrined with the Class of 2013 in ceremonies Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass.