SOMETHING WAS TERRIBLY WRONG and SuperSonic guard Gary Payton sensed it. Even though his team had a 2-0 lead in the playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, Payton had an ominous feeling about how things were going. He even told a friend, "I think we're headed for an early vacation."
To those on the outside looking in, the SuperSonics were as straight as could be. They had stomped the Nuggets twice in the Coliseum. They were headed to Denver, with a chance to close out the youngest team in pro basketball, a team that should have been running scared.
Instead, it was the other way around. On the inside, trouble was beginning to seep through the cracks. And Sonic point guard Gary Payton was developing a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Wasn't nobody ready to play," Payton recalled. "(Stuff) just blew up. Everything started jumping off after Game 2. Everybody just changed. I couldn't even tell you why. Everybody acted like we were losing the series. When we were 2-0, everybody was acting like we were down 0-2. Everybody around the team was like that. Everybody. They were like, `What's wrong with us?' "
Something was terribly wrong. Payton sensed it. His friend and representative, Eric Goodwin, recalls Payton saying, "I have a bad feeling about how this series is going. I think we're headed for an early vacation."
The Sonics suffered the biggest upset in NBA playoff history when they lost the first-round series to the Nuggets. Since then, Payton has essentially insulated himself from the outside world, mulling the reasons, feeling depressed and angry. And listening to the criticism, much of it directed at him.
After a period of silence since May 5, Payton addressed the issues during a frank and animated interview at his Bellevue-area home.
Aware that many want to assess culpability, Payton said, "Don't blame Coach. Blame the five players or the 10 players. We were the ones on the floor. We were the ones who had to play.
"We lost," he added, bitterly. "There were a lot of expectations, and we (bleeped) up. I don't know what to do."
Payton said he believed a series loss was nearly inevitable after the Sonics took a 110-93 drubbing during Game 3 in Denver. He said he made a last-ditch effort to fire up the club afterward, but rankled many of his teammates. Co-captains Nate McMillan and Sam Perkins encouraged Payton to vent his frustrations, according to witnesses.
"I went in there and said, `This is full of (bleep), the way we came out and played. Everybody has a problem on their shoulders, and we should just be out there playing,' " Payton said. "Everybody's looking at me like, `Damn, why's he going off?' The reason I'm going off is because I saw the way we were playing, and that we were going to get beat in the series.
"I said that from the git. I told my friends before Game 4 and before Game 5 that I felt we were going to lose. There wasn't anybody there. We had no chemistry. Nobody was playing. Then all this stuff was getting out that we were fighting each other. And we were doing this and we were doing that."
It was no wonder. The most publicized development of the series, a tiff between Payton and Ricky Pierce, had occurred before and during halftime of the Sonics' 97-87 victory in Game 2. Pierce has publicly blamed the squabble on a disagreement over Payton's ball distribution, but Payton's account, largely substantiated by teammates and other witnesses, paints a more convoluted picture.
With the Sonics on their way to a 50-37 halftime lead, Pierce broke off a play, tried to make a one-on-one move, but was stripped of the ball. Soon after, Payton told the team, "Let's run the offense." Taking umbrage, Pierce told Payton that since he dominated the ball, it was his responsibility to get Pierce more shots.
During a timeout shortly after, the argument escalated. Pierce was pulled from the game during the break and, believing Payton had influenced the substitution, became incensed. Heated words were exchanged during the walk back to the Sonic locker room, where teammates told the two to stop bickering.
Payton and Pierce did not come close to blows and were not forcibly separated, as has been reported in other accounts, Payton and other Sonics say. The two met in Denver before Game 4, and Payton said he thought the matter was behind them. He said he was shocked at revelations that Pierce had longstanding problems with the way Payton ran the Sonic offense.
"If Ricky had a problem with me taking too many shots, he should've said something earlier," Payton said. "It was that way all year long. I led the team in shots. In Game 3, I only had six shots.
But that was no big thing to me. Like I said, since he's been on the team, Ricky's never said anything negative to me about the way I played.
"That stuff between me and Ricky (in Game 2), I didn't even trip off that after it happened. I let it go."
Pierce declined to elaborate on what happened during the playoffs, and didn't return phone calls after the series was over.
Payton also denied a report in the Tacoma News Tribune that he and Pierce went at it again after Game 5 and had to be separated. Payton called the report "ridiculous," because he was taken straight to the Sonic training room to have his badly swollen right foot examined. Shortly after, he was taken to a local hospital for X-rays.
Payton said the pressure late in the series had been almost overwhelming. And the incident with Pierce in Game 2, no matter how seemingly minor, served to fuel the frenzy. By Game 5, the Sonics were as tight as britches after a buffet.
Early in the third quarter of that decisive game, the Sonics went up by 11. Even after Payton stole the ball from Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and raced down court for a layup that put Seattle ahead by nine with 2:47 left in the third period, the Sonic point guard said he felt "nothing."
"Even when the game went into overtime," Payton said, "I wasn't confident we were going to win.
"I've never seen guys play the way they played that game. It was like we were all out there, not knowing what to do. We were scared. I felt the same way. All of us. I got real paranoid. In fact, I panicked.
"I said, `Damn, we ain't got nobody that's going to go at (Dikembe Mutombo) and make him do anything.' We had one person on the whole damn team that will go against him, and that's Kendall (Gill). He was the only one willing to try to dunk on that dude and make things happen."
Payton's own capacity to make much of anything happen in Game 5 still is a mystery. Early in the first quarter, he tweaked his right foot while landing after a jump shot. Payton chose not to reveal the injury to his team, until he couldn't take it anymore and asked to be removed with 35 seconds left in overtime.
The injury has been reported by the team as a sprain, but no one knows the severity of it, not even Payton. Goodwin said doctors recommended that Payton have the foot placed in a walking cast, and have a CAT scan, but Payton refused.
"None of that's going to do any good," he said, defiantly.
"I thought I was cool," Payton added, speaking of Game 5. "I didn't really feel it at first. Later it started swelling up. I didn't want to take my shoe off, because it felt like a bone down there was sticking out. But it was the last game of the season, we were losing and I wanted to play.
"I ain't got no excuses about what happened. (Robert) Pack was getting busy."
Pack, Denver's backup point guard, had a career day, hitting for 23 points in Game 5. He'd started his rampage during Game 4 in Denver. Near the end of regulation, he stripped Payton of the ball while the Sonics were trying for a game-winning shot.
"Pack just made a great play," Payton said.
Like many, Payton agrees that the weaknesses that led to the Sonics' undoing were present all season. He even agreed with critics such as Bill Walton who argued that the Sonics couldn't use their all-out pressure to win a championship.
"Like the dude said, you play a team five or seven times straight and that ain't going to work," Payton said. "You have to surprise them sometimes. That's why we didn't have any steals. They (Denver) weren't letting it happen. Sometimes we have to switch up, go away from the trapping. Sometimes we have to play it straight.
"We had Derrick (McKey) last year. He made a big difference in that he could guard big people, forwards and guards. And Derrick was basically controlling the defense. When Kloppy (Bob Kloppenburg, defensive coordinator) would tell him to put on a press, Derrick would say, `(Bleep) that, stay the way we are, we're going to be all right.'
"We didn't have that this year. Me and Nate were into pressuring up and getting all the steals, and we weren't really thinking about that."
Payton stressed he wasn't stating a preference for McKey over Detlef Schrempf, for whom McKey was traded just before the opening of the regular season. He, in fact, praised Schrempf as the only Sonic "who played (well) on a consistent basis in the playoffs." But, echoing the sentiments of many Sonics, Payton said McKey provided valuable intangibles, the most valuable of which may have been his ability to bond his teammates.
McKey used to have barbecues and other gatherings at his house, according to Payton, and the whole team would show up. Payton said he tried to do the same this season, but only four or five players came. And, "they were always the same four or five guys," he added.
The Sonics have changed that much.
"We weren't on top, and we had motivation," Payton said of the team that went to the seventh game of the Western Conference finals last year. "We had determination, and we just played. Last year's team didn't give a damn. People said we couldn't win because we were young. This year, people put all this on us, all the attention and all the pressure. And people started getting jealous of each other."
One of Payton's main offseason objectives will be determining how to better lead. His critics maintain Payton's attitude is a major obstacle. Last Sunday, for example, NBC's Peter Vescey remarked that Charles Barkley's assertion that Payton be considered a league MVP candidate caused friction on the Sonics, and led Payton to take himself too seriously.
"Why would that make my head blow up?" Payton asked. "It was a good compliment, but I was realistic about it. There was no way I was getting no MVP over those two guys (Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson).
"I don't give a damn about MVP. I don't give a (bleep) about all-league. I said before the season that I wanted to make all-defense and I did, so I'm happy. I want only two other things - a championship and defensive player of the year."
Payton says he has been following a list of requirements George Karl laid out to help him become the team's leader. Payton was asked to work hard during the summer to improve his game, spend more time in the locker room with his teammates and be more serious on the floor.
And while he has does those things, Karl criticized him for not practicing hard, and Payton agrees.
"I'm not a practice player," Payton said. "I've been that way a long time, and it's hard to change. I have to step it up in practice and try to do more. But he wants me to be there, happy and joyful all the time. That's not going to happen.
"Hey, George shows up in a sour mood, and we don't trip off that."
Payton's goal still is to "be like John Stockton," and he says he would like to assert himself as the team's leader. Yet, he believes much of the team is not ready to embrace him.
"I think it's because I'm younger," Payton said. "There's no respect. I have to get the respect of the older guys, and I don't know how to do that."
That's just one issue that Payton has pondered, and will continue to ponder throughout an offseason that will be longer than expected.
It might get worse before it gets better. Payton knows that. For now, he's riding out the storm in Seattle.
"I'm not going home for a while," he said of the possibility of returning to California. "I know how my partners are. They're just waiting on me. I'll have more trouble in Oakland."
Judging by the past couple of weeks Payton has had, that's hard to imagine.