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Monday, January 26, 2004

Back in the driver's seat

Payton joined the Lakers to be one of the guys, but he proved that he is still capable of leading.

By KEVIN DING, The Orange County Register

Gary Payton had a life before this one.

He shared a little of it with the likes of Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and Vin Baker, but just a little. They were mere caddies, really.

For 122/3 seasons in Seattle, it was Payton who bore a franchise's weight on his shoulders and held its fate in his hands, bouncing that ball always with head up and eyes open - looking all around to lean on teammates the way his father-coach had taught him.

There was very fleeting glory in 1996 when Seattle made the NBA Finals, only to be brushed aside by Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls. And so Payton finally gave up the wheel this season to join the Lakers.

Turning 35 over the summer, Payton became two years older than that other famous Payton, Walter, was when he retired the year after winning his first NFL championship. Gary calls Walter the most interesting person he has ever met. And the NBA Payton knew he was ready to give up team autonomy in hopes of gaining league supremacy.

Unlike Karl Malone (John Stockton's longtime partner in Utah) and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant (who've had to halve here before), Payton never found a real equal. It would be new, but that's what he wanted. So he dove back there and embraced the chance to be the ultimate backseat driver.

It was working wonderfully.

"We just wanted to hush all the critics," Payton said when the Lakers were hot. "They said we'd want to come here and average 20-25 points. We don't want to do that. We want to win basketball games, and we're doing that."

Except a funny thing happened. All three other stars got hurt, leaving Payton alone ... again.

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