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Tuesday, June 16, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Westphal Meets In Oakland With Sonics' Walker, Payton -- Guard, Coaching Front-Runner Discuss Concerns

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Paul Westphal, the leading candidate to replace George Karl, has moved one step closer to becoming the next Sonic coach.

According to a source in Phoenix - where Westphal lives - Westphal flew to Oakland yesterday for a noon meeting with Gary Payton, General Manager Wally Walker and Payton's agent, Aaron Goodwin.

Walker has said that Payton - whose hometown is Oakland - will hold weight in the decision for the next Sonic coach. Last week, Payton said the three coaches he would like to play for are Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, Charlotte assistant Paul Silas and Chicago's Phil Jackson.

Wilkens is under contract with Atlanta through 2,002; Silas is the second leading candidate for the Sonic job, and Jackson hasn't decided if he will coach next season. So it made sense for Walker to set up a meeting between his star player and his leading candidate.

Payton hasn't had any meetings with any of the other coaching candidates: Silas, Bob Hill and Sonic assistant Bob Weiss. Payton is already familiar with Silas, who grew up with Ray Goodwin, the father of Payton's agents. One reason Payton met with Westphal, the source said, is to address certain issues which arise with Westphal's name.

Phoenix fired Westphal in 1993, apparently because of his inability to control Charles Barkley, which caused a split among the team, led by Kevin Johnson and A.C. Green. Another issue which hasn't helped Westphal -- in a league with an overwhelming majority of black players -- is his friendship with ultra-conservative Rush Limbaugh, who has made racist remarks.

Westphal is also the leading candidate for the coaching vacancy with the Clippers. If Los Angeles offers him the job now, that would push Walker's hand. A source close to Clipper owner Donald Sterling said he hopes Silas gets the Sonic job so that Westphal would be forced to accept the Clipper job.

The Sonics waited for the NBA Finals to conclude to make a push at Jackson. However, Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, said his client still hasn't made up his mind about whether he will coach next season. Walker has set a tentative deadline of May 24 -- the NBA draft -- to name a coach. Jackson is set to fly to Europe at the end of this week; and Walker isn't expected to wait if Jackson remains disinterested.

The source in Phoenix said that in late May, Westphal met with Sonic owner Barry Ackerley and Walker in Palm Springs, Fla. Westphal flew into Seattle two weeks ago to have a formal meeting with Walker. Last week, Walker met with Payton to brief him about the coaching search.

Note

Aaron Williams has decided not to exercise his option to become a free agent, which makes him a Sonic next season. The power forward had until last night to make his decision. His agent, Franklin Martin, said a possible lockout and Williams' affinity to Seattle were factors. Williams will earn $500,000 next season.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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