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Sunday, May 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Percy Allen / NBA reporter
That burning intensity that blazed so bright on so many gloomy Seattle winter nights seems all but extinguished now.
What happened to Gary Payton?
His L.A. dreams have turned into a Hollywood nightmare. His trademark scowl has been replaced by a frown. Payton is pouting. He looks like a petulant little boy and, quite honestly, it's difficult to watch for those who remember him for what he used to be.
Say what you will about Payton, but he has never been one to lose graciously. He hated defeats, which is probably why it's a good thing he's no longer a Sonic.
He couldn't stomach anybody not giving as much as he did, and he verbally blasted anyone he believed wasn't pulling his weight.
But look at him now. He doesn't yell at opponents or teammates like he used to. He's quiet. Almost too quiet. Something has changed.
Los Angeles does this to people. For years, folks have rushed to California in search of gold, real estate or fame. They go there to chase their dreams and, after a short time, they leave disillusioned and disappointed.
Payton appears to be both.
His posture has changed. He is no longer defiant. He appears nonchalant about his surroundings, as if he doesn't know he's playing the worst basketball of his professional life on the NBA's biggest stage.
Perhaps he doesn't know he's re-writing his legacy with every turnover, every blown defensive assignment and every angry glance toward Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
We will lose sight of the brilliance of the Spurs, the magnificent coaching performance of Gregg Popovich and the unwavering dominance of Tim Duncan.
All that will be remembered of this series is Tony Parker's unflappable play, Shaquille O'Neal's inability to shoot free throws and defend the pick-and-roll and the Payton-Jackson spat.
"I don't have to be on Gary's page; he has to be on our page," Jackson told reporters on Monday. "That's one of the things that we know."
Payton has become marginalized. He is no longer a leading man, which isn't a surprise since he is playing alongside Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and O'Neal. But it's difficult to make a case that he's even a member of the supporting cast anymore.
In the previous series against Houston, Payton had difficulty containing Steve Francis and was benched during the fourth quarters of many games.
After Los Angeles dispatched the Rockets 4-1, Payton, who averaged 8.4 points in the series, believed he would be able to shine in the next round.
So far, Parker has outscored him 50-11.
The numbers don't tell the whole story, but there's no denying that Payton is no longer the "The Glove." Writers in Los Angeles have mockingly referred to him as the "Oven Mitt."
What's happening to Gary Payton?
"I'm just going through it," he said. "I can't talk to him (Jackson) now. I've just got to play and hope things work out."
We've seen this from Payton once before. The year was 2000, and it was during the few weeks before the Sonics fired Paul Westphal. Payton had mentally tuned out Westphal after a series of disagreements.
Payton said he was committed to his teammates, but his play deteriorated. He just didn't look like he cared, a big departure for someone who has now missed just seven games in a 14-year career.
Payton is saying and doing the same things now.
He looks old. Tired. Defeated.
Payton left a lot of money, as much as $12 million, on the table so he could chase a championship. He convinced Malone to do the same, and now it appears as if their pursuit has come to an end.
They are two games from being eliminated and most likely dismantled.
The gossip on the backlots of L.A. says that, if Jackson returns as coach, Payton (who can opt out of his contract) and Bryant (who will be a free agent) will walk away. And if they're gone, chances are Malone, who has been hinting about retirement since his mother died last year, will call it quits as well.
And what would happen to Payton? Where would he go?
He has burned his bridges with the Sonics, and it would be inconceivable to believe that he would want to return here anyway. And few teams are in the market for a 36-year-old point guard in the twilight of his career.
Payton's NBA days are dwindling.
This may be the closest he'll ever get to a championship, and all he has done is contribute very little leadership, score 11 points and pout.
That's not the Gary Payton I remember.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com
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