Gary Payton admits he nearly quit NBA early in his career


payton-george-karlHall of Famer Gary Payton was so down on himself as a player and so frustrated with the coaching situation in Seattle early in his career that he came close to retiring after his rookie season, he told NBA.com.

“I was thinking about it,” Payton said in a phone conversation from his home in Las Vegas. “I was like, ‘What am I out here for? This isn’t even what I want to do. I’m not happy.’ I didn’t want to do anything….”

Payton played well enough in 1990-91 to be voted second-team All-Rookie, but the 7.2 points and 6.4 assists for a 41-41 team that finished one place lower in the Pacific Division than the season before was not up to the standards he set for himself as the No. 2 pick in the draft.

It was being the starter without getting true starter’s minutes, though, that truly bothered him, the 27.4 minutes per that led him to feel a lack of support from coach K.C. Jones.

Owner Barry Ackerley convinced Payton the SuperSonics believed in the young point guard, agent Aaron Goodwin and Payton’s father told Payton to give it time, and so he returned rather than retire or try to force a trade.

Jones was fired 36 games into the next season and replaced by George Karl. And when that change included Tim Grgurich coming as an assistant, Payton would meet his destiny as one of the great two-way guards in history.

“If we wouldn’t have changed coaches,” Payton said, “I would have probably said, ‘Yo, you know what? I want to end this. I don’t want to do this anymore because I’m not happy.’ If they would have stayed with the same coach, I would have probably just shut it down. They would have tried to trade me or I would have told them I don’t want to play there anymore.

“I went to my agent, I went to my father, I just said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m good enough to play in this league. I’ve got a coach who wants to play me in the first and the third quarter. He has no confidence in me.’ They told me the same thing. ‘You’ve got to stick it out. You’ve got to be the guy who you’re supposed to be. You’re tough. You’re this.’

“My father was like, ‘Are you crazy? If you quit, I’m gonna get in your (body).’ Stuff like that. He’s like, ‘It’s going to be better. You’ve got to dedicate yourself to it.’ As soon as coach Grgurich came there, I changed my whole mentality. I went back to the guy that I was at Oregon State and the guy that I was in Oakland, California (his hometown).”

Karl and Grgurich, who would become a familiar pairing as one of the most-respected head coaches and assistants in the NBA, lasted through 1997-98 while winning four Pacific Division titles and the 1996 Western Conference crown.

It should be noted that Shawn Kemp and Payton led the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA Finals in 1995-96, where they fell to the Chicago Bulls, who went on to win two more championships in 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Payton stayed until Feb. 20, 2003, when he was traded to the Bucks and reunited with Karl.

Payton enjoyed a successful 17-year NBA career, and he’s best known for his 13-year tenure in Seattle, where he established himself as one of the best defensive point guards of all-time.

Payton played 1335 games in the NBA (1233 started), averaging 16.3 points and 6.7 assists over the course of his career. He averaged over 20 points in seven of his 17 seasons, with his career-high average of 24.2 points coming in the 1999-2000 season.

The point guard reached three NBA Finals, appearing in one each for the Sonics, Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. Payton finally got that elusive first ring as a member of the 2005-06 Heat.

Payton is currently a basketball analyst on Fox Sports 1, and he will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on September 8.

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