Can't seem to find my Glove
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Maybe if I repeat it a couple of times it will make sense to me.

Gary Payton
Repeat after me, "Gary Payton is a Buck ... Gary Payton is a Buck ... a B-U-C-K ... "
Gary Payton is no longer a Sonic. Gary Payton does not play for Seattle. He is a Buck. He suits up for Milwaukee.

Nope. Still Greek.

Still wrapping my mind around the idea, almost a week after the fact. I saw a Bucks highlight Monday night on SportsCenter, and I swear I didn't recognize him. It was like he'd gone through some subtle metamorphosis, like the look and shape of him had literally changed. He was Paytonesque, but he wasn't Payton.

Of course the trade was possible. Basketball's a business. Deals get done. And on some level, I even knew it was likely: Negotiations had stalled out, Schultz and GP weren't speaking the same language, and the Supes needed to think about tomorrow and the next day.

But it didn't feel possible. It was the sort of thing I pushed to the outer edge of my brain, because it didn't do any good to think about it anyway, like car-crash statistics and the prospect of falling satellites and such.

So when the news came last Thursday, it came like SkyLab, hurtling through space and knocking me flat on my butt. When I could pick myself back up off the floor, I called my friend Wes in Seattle, who had tickets to Friday night's Sonics-Bucks game.

"Wow." That's all he could say (that and a few "unbelievables"). That's all either of us could say, and we said it over and over again, for about 17 minutes worth of incoherent, flabbergasted babble.

Wes and I, we're seasoned vets. We know we live in an ironic, more-cynical-than-thou, postmodern world where sports fans are suspicious and wise just falling out of bed in the morning, and everyone is fed-up with athlete's salaries and behavior, and too cool to care. We know being a fan means being hard and hip; untouchable; armed with a savage wit and a quick will to judgment.

But we know that's just a front, too.

Water-cooler smack is just hot air, and corner-pub grousing ain't nothing but a tough-guy thing. A fan is led by heart first, and even in these don't-get-fooled-again days sports is ultimately about devotion. Everyone has a team or a player. Behind every disaffected pose you'll find an authentic-style jersey and an autographed 8x10.

Wes and I, we're long-time Payton men and Sonics fans, and the trade left us with murmuring, wounded hearts.

Payton asks a lot of anyone who loves him. He's loud, sometimes mean and selfish, and almost never satisfied. And to be a fan of his is to suffer the slings and arrows of popular sentiment from time to time, because there are plenty of folks who find him plenty unappealing.

But he gives a lot back, too. He plays a bulldog brand of ball. Every night. He's capable of these odd little syncopated layups that seem impossible 'til they fall through the net. He throws exquisitely-timed alley-oops. He plays every phase of the game, plays out of position when he needs to, and leads by example. The rewards for hitching yourself to his star are high, and the feeling of being connected to him is all the sweeter, because, as Lennon would say, Christ, you know it ain't easy, you know how hard it can be.

Gary Payton ... Seattle ... Sonics ... Us. It's all so natural.
That sweet feeling -- bits of bitter and bits of honey -- grows strong and deep over time. Twelve straight years in Seattle. Stormy but uninterrupted. Relentless. The kind of thing you bank on, because it's dogged; because it becomes the steely essence of the Sonic thing, and because it has the willful spirit of the whole game in it.

Payton, the Sonics, us -- no difference after a while.

We attached ourselves to GP not because it was easy, nor because the team won all the time, but because there is a kind of grit and hunger, and beauty, too, in the way he plays.

We attached ourselves because he brought a fierce cocktail of emotion and skills to work for a team and a city in desperate need of such intensity, and he made them both seem more heroic and worthy than they had before.

And we attached ourselves because hard-won devotion is the very best kind.

You have guys and attachments like this. Maybe for you it's not Payton. Maybe it's Garnett or Vince, maybe AI, Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller. Anyway, you know the feeling I'm talking about. It's the subterranean pulse, the deep, still water. It's one of those things you set your clock and compass by. Tells you who you are. Sun comes up this morning, Gary Payton dons the green-and-gold tonight. The Basics. Life and how to live it.

It's na´ve to think this kind of feeling will last forever, of course. And it doesn't. Guys move on, cars crash, satellites drop out of the sky, and Gary Payton is no longer a Sonic.

It was, in many ways, a good trade: the Sonics got younger, the Bucks got stronger for this year, and Gary got away from an owner who clearly had little respect for him.

Wes and I, we couldn't care less.

We see this guy who sort of looks like our guy, only he couldn't be our guy, because he's wearing purple and green. Suddenly 12 years disappear beneath our feet. We're in freefall. Lost.

We know we're supposed to take this in stride, be cool, rise above it and swear we never felt nothing nohow.

When it's your guy, whoever he is, we'll probably manage such a front. But this was our guy, on our squad, and all we can think to say is "wow."

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.





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