Glove's pain, Sonics' gain

It's 3 a.m. and it's started again.

The intense pain shoots down Sonics guard Gary Payton's back, locking him up like some twisted torture machine. After minutes of trying to bear the fast-stiffening back alone, Payton begs in a groggy voice, "Babe, take me to the hospital!"

Yet, his wife of five years knows the routine.

Instead of starting the car, Monique Payton starts the massaging.

But this night it's not enough.

On March 25, Payton was shoved by Utah Jazz center Greg Ostertag and went flying out of bounds into the basket post. He was down for several minutes but returned to score 24 points during the Sonics' 106-92 victory.

The following night the pain struck.

Monique helped move her husband to their burgundy leather couch. Maybe they could get some sleep there. Gary had to play the Memphis Grizzlies the next day and Monique had to rise to prepare their three children for school at 7 a.m.

It didn't work.

She moved him to the plush beige carpet in the bedroom.

Gary, 33, still tossed in agony.

She stuffed pillows under his legs, his stomach, his head.

There was no relief.

"He was screaming, 'Take me to the hospital,' " Monique said. "But we never go. He's afraid they won't know exactly what to do. He'd rather stick it out the whole night until the Sonics doctors can see him and evaluate him.

"He told me, 'Babe, go get some sleep,' but I wanted to stay there for him. I felt so bad because he was in so much pain."

Hearing of Payton's back, Sonics Coach Nate McMillan doubted his All-Star guard would play against Memphis. McMillan even told reporters as much in pregame interviews.

A half-hour later Payton sashayed into the locker room, ready to start. He scored 32 points and had nine assists in the Sonics' 96-82 victory over the Grizzlies.

Buried in the dazzling night is how common those painful nights are for Payton. As the Sonics head into the playoffs tomorrow to face the San Antonio Spurs in a five-game series, fans will hear about everything but Gary Payton's health.

Forget even asking him about it, too.

"I'm not going to talk about that," and "I'm fine," are the standard responses. Even to teammates.

"It's always been like that," said retired Sonics guard Hersey Hawkins, who played with Payton from 1995-1999. "He looks at it as an excuse for not playing well."

In Payton's 12-year NBA career he has missed only five games, three because of an injury. There was a left chest contusion against Charlotte in 1992 and an abdominal strain in February 2001, when he sat out against Utah and Vancouver.

That's it, despite averaging 36.7 minutes over a span of 947 games.

And there have been numerous games when many other players feeling the same pain would have sat out. Payton has played — with jammed fingers, bruised thighs, tweaked ankles, colds and back stiffness. He's second only to Michael Jordan in his passion for basketball and desire to play in any situation.

"You cannot put him on the bench as injured reserve," Monique said. "He will not sit there and not play. Something has to be broken. His leg, so he can't run, or his arm, so he can't shoot. Something or he's going to play."

Payton's pain threshold is as legendary as his mouth around the Sonics camp. Seemingly everyone who has ever played with him has a story. Such as the time during the 1995-96 season when Payton caught his leg between the scorer's table and the floor at the Target Center in Minnesota.

"His ankle was huge," said McMillan, who was on the roster then. "He couldn't walk, guys had to carry him and the doctors said he'd be out at least two weeks.

"We had 24 hours between games and Gary was in the oxygen chamber two, three times that day getting treatment. He came back, got treatment before the game, said, 'I'm playing,' and scored something like 25 points. I was amazed."

Hawkins also remembers the incident.

"There was no way he should have played," Hawkins said. "But there he is getting his name introduced and I'm thinking, 'Can I eat or take what you've got? How can you take this abuse?'

"It's just not normal."

No, it's not. Especially in the NBA, where superstars often take the night off against lowly teams with a host of wink-wink injuries.

So, how does Payton do it?

He started a weightlifting regime for the first time this season, putting on 10 pounds to weigh 190, but he's basically hovered around the same weight since he entered the league. Keeping his weight stable from drastic change and having excellent eating and workout habits help his body recover quickly.

Still, getting ready to play can be like tenderizing hardened clay. Payton wears a harness that stretches his back out while he walks on the treadmill and sometimes takes doses of painkillers on bad days. Payton's typical pregame rituals include sitting in a hot whirlpool for about 15 minutes, placing a heating pad on his back, then applying Flexall, a pain-relieving gel.

The routine is all his teammates know of the pain that he endures most nights.

"It's an eye-opener to be around a guy like that," Sonics guard Brent Barry said.

McMillan said he hopes Payton's dedication rubs off on the younger Sonics. But forward Rashard Lewis remains hesitant to play in pain because he said he doesn't want to hurt his future. And Payton passing on taking a break this season also hasn't slowed the other rash of injuries the Sonics have experienced.

"Sometimes younger guys don't understand and think a player like that is getting special treatment when they miss practice because they're a superstar," said Dwane Casey, Sonics associate head coach. "But his body can't do what they can do day after day.

"I know with Gary, they see him getting treatment for his back and are learning what it means to come to play every night. No matter what."

Fans have grown to expect the same from Payton, the team's leading scorer, averaging 22.1 points and 9 assists. In fact, when an injury does slip out about Payton, most check it off as a guaranteed 30-point night based on past history.

And they'll never hear the truth from Payton.

"I respect that about him, that he won't say anything about his injuries," Barry said. "It means it's more important for him to play than let people know he's hurt. It's a page I'm trying to add to my book."

But there could be a downside.

"Later on in life he'll pay," McMillan said. "Gary has always played in pain and I couldn't force him to take a break. He does a lot with his body and someday, probably long after he stops playing, he'll pay."

Memphis center Bryant Reeves, 28, had to retire this season to ensure some sort of livable future with his chronic back pain. Closer to home, McMillan, 37, gingerly moves around after suffering from back injuries while he played.

Payton has even been told how severe his back is.

"They say he should have surgery, but that will never happen," Monique said. "It'll just be a lot of massaging and sleepless nights."

Is it worth it?

"That's why players get paid the big bucks," said Bob Weiss, a former Sonic turned assistant coach. He had a hip replacement after playing in the '60s. "I had a torn ligament in my finger and played juiced on novocaine and cortisone.

"It's the love of the game. Of course it's worth it."

Jayda Evans can be reached at 206-464-2067 or