Sunday, February 13, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Payton feels at home in Oakland

Seattle Times staff reporter

OAKLAND - Gary Payton received a key to the city Friday from Mayor Jerry Brown, and then Payton went to the unveiling of the new weight room he bought for his alma mater, Skyline High School.

And every few minutes his wife, Monique, called on the cellphone to remind him of her fashion show later that night.

"I had to cancel something," Payton said, smiling, "because my wife would have killed me if I didn't make it."

With today's NBA All-Star Game in his hometown, Payton has had a full schedule.

But first things first: a home-cooked meal from mom.

Annie Payton served his favorites of fried chicken, yams, cabbage and corn bread.

"It was good," said Payton, rubbing his fat-free stomach. "Same as always."

And same as his basketball skills, which he refined while growing up on 41st Street in East Oakland.

The Payton family put a coat hanger on a tree outside their home so Gary could play from sunrise to sunset, and he often played with neighbors on the blacktop at nearby Jefferson Elementary.

So the moves that have made Payton one of the NBA's best players can be traced to this city.

Even his motormouth, which he got from his oldest sister, Sharon.

"She was one of the mouthy ones," said Payton, the youngest of five children. "I used to watch her a lot, and see her on the streets beat up on boys. I hung out with her a lot, and it (her mouth) rubbed off on me."

On Friday, Payton attended a family gathering - or was it a family union?

"He's got so many relatives, we can't count them all," Annie Payton said with a hearty laugh her son inherited. "They must be on his daddy's side, because I sure don't remember them."

Payton looked comfortable back home with his extended family. But his place among the NBA family was trickier to judge.

Of course, with career-high averages of 23.1 points, 8.6 assists and 6.4 rebounds, Payton is one of the best guards in the NBA.

"I know when Michael (Jordan) was on the court, he (Payton) only trailed Michael," Laker legend Magic Johnson said. "Now, it's his world, his show. Night in and night out, he produces."

Payton doesn't quite fit into the category of aging stars (Karl Malone, Pat Ewing and David Robinson). On the other hand, he seems light-years from new-millennium stars such as Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson.

Payton makes his sixth consecutive appearance in the All-Star Game. But he won't start for the first time in three seasons.

Kobe Bryant starts, though he missed 15 games because of a broken right hand. Although it's part popularity contest, the All-Star Game also signals the NBA's order of star power: The league ads for the annual event featured action shots of Bryant, Iverson, Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal.

"That's the way the NBA wants to market," Payton said. "They pick a guy who has a flashy game, which he (Bryant) does. He is a scoring machine; he is flashy. It's just like Allen Iverson. Flashy. You got Vince Carter. Flashy. He can dunk.

"(The NBA) wants somebody to take over for Jordan. That's all it is. Us conventional guys, who come down and do the job but don't have any flashiness in his game, they don't want to market us."

Even as a kid, Payton wasn't flashy. But the child with the body fat of lettuce stood out for his basketball skills and durability.

The baseline spin move that defenders know is coming yet can't contain had its roots at the Oakland Neighborhood Basketball League.

Al Payton coached his son on a peewee team called the Jefferson Cobras, which traveled to various cities on the West Coast. Al Payton was called "Mr. Mean" - which appears on his license plates - and was meanest to the team's best player, Gary.

No wonder his son has a reputation for meanness.

"He got it from me," Al Payton said proudly. "You gotta be tough for them to know where you're coming from."

He isn't surprised his son has missed only two games in a 10-year NBA career (one because of a suspension).

He tells a story about when Gary was 12, and their team made it to the championship. Gary had dislocated his thumb, and he was forced to wear a cast from his knuckles to elbow.

He wanted to play so much he chewed the cast near the wrist area. Gary begged his father to let him play. Al granted his son's plea after wrapping the remaining cast in foam.

And Gary ended up scoring 27 points to help win the championship.

It was two fewer points than Payton scored against the Bucks on Jan. 29, when he appeared to suffer a season-ending injury at KeyArena. During the second quarter, Payton's right knee twisted like a pretzel as Buck guard Sam Cassell fell on it playing defense.

Fans cringed watching the replay on the big screen. Three teammates had to carry Payton away. But as they entered the locker room, Payton instructed them to let him go. He returned, and finished with 29 points, 12 assists and zero turnovers.

"I was thinking he was gone for the year," recalled Sonic Coach Paul Westphal. "I mean, I couldn't believe it. That body is just amazing how it can bend and take punishment and come back for more."

When Payton came back to his hometown for the All-Star break, it rekindled memories he will never forget.

Payton is still a high-strung player, but he has cleaned up his act since starring at Skyline High, located 10 miles from East Oakland. But Payton's family petitioned the school to waive its zoning requirement and allow Gary to attend.

He received approval largely because of his basketball skills. But that didn't prevent school officials from kicking him off the team his sophomore season.

Payton started fights, cut classes and - surprise - yelled at teachers. After Mr. Mean heard about one too many misdeeds, he burst into his son's math class one day and snatched Payton from his seat.

"First, he told the teacher he had to talk to me for a minute," Payton recalled. "He hit me upside the head a couple of times. I went back in there crying in front of all my friends. They knew what happened.

"I didn't want the guys always teasing me after practice or after school that, `His daddy came over there, and got him again.' "

Al Payton said, "Gary wanted to go to class and be a comedian. Because he was a basketball player, he didn't think he had to do anything else. I went in there and told his classmates, `I'm going to show you all that he's not a little man, he's a little baby.'. . . That was that.

"Even in college, all anyone had to do was say, `I'm going to call your father,' and Gary would straighten right up."

But Payton never would have reached his hoop dreams without the discipline of his father. Gary Payton has become a Seattle icon, with his face plastered on billboards in the Emerald City.

But this season, Payton's career-best performance hasn't reached prime-time TV yet. Following a 25-25 record during the lockout-shortened year, the Sonics weren't scheduled to be on national television this season.

It's one reason Payton's name gets left out in talk about Jordan's heir apparent.

"I think he (Payton) is the best player in the world," Rocket forward Charles Barkley said earlier this season. "I'm not just saying that. I've said that before. He's never really gotten the credit that he deserves being . . . in Seattle. His team has never won a championship."

Payton's best shot at a championship came in 1996, when the Sonics went to the NBA Finals and lost to the Chicago Bulls.

But if there was a missed chance, Payton said, it was in 1994 when the Denver Nuggets shocked Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. It was the first time in NBA history that a top-seeded team lost to the No. 8 seed. Payton believes that Sonic team was championship-caliber.

He said he never felt so low after a basketball game, except once while a junior at Skyline.

His team, which included Sonic Greg Foster, had the ball and the lead in the final seconds. But Payton dribbled it off his foot, and the other team scored to knock Skyline out of the playoffs.

"That was tough to swallow," Payton said in "Confidence Grows," his recent illustrated book for children. "I learned, however, I have to take the good with the bad. Sometimes, you're the hero; sometimes the goat. For me, I'll take either one. If the game is on the line, put the ball in my hand. I'm not afraid to lose."

Payton wasn't always fearless in his Oakland days.

When Payton appears in public, he is often with Marty White and Trevor Pope, beefy childhood buddies who serve as bodyguards.

Payton's entourage is as large as any in the league. But part of the reason, Payton says, stems from growing up in his one-story, three-bedroom home. The one that still has "Payton's Place" on a sign in the porch.

Back then, both of Payton's parents had more than one job, and his siblings worked. So most weekdays, he returned from school to an empty home.

"My parents would call to check on me, but I was still alone," said Payton, who was born in the West Oakland projects before moving to East Oakland at age 5. "I'd lock all the doors. I'd turn on all the lights. I'd turn the TV on, and have the telephone close by.

"My imagination ran wild sometimes if I heard strange noises. I faced that fear everyday by myself. I still hate to be alone."

Payton doesn't have to worry today about being alone. He's back home.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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