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December 06, 2001

On handling the superstar
By Dan Patrick

The dismissal of Paul Westphal as coach by the Seattle SuperSonics was not a shock. But it was an upset if you root for decorum and decency.

Coach Paul Westphal, above, and Gary Payton didn't exactly see eye-to-eye in Seattle.

If Westphal were a Division I college football coach, he'd be just another new customer for a moving company today. Those guys lose their jobs, usually, because the programs they run are not doing well. It's strictly wins and losses, usually. That's not always fair, but the coaches know it going in.

But what happened to Westphal, to me, was the result of an organization that has mishandled a superstar.

To see what went wrong in Seattle, let's look at what went right in Philadelphia. The 76ers are run by Pat Croce, a hands-on owner to say the least. When trouble surfaced between his best player, Allen Iverson, and his coach, Larry Brown, Croce called Iverson. He visited Iverson. And over the summer he made it clear to Iverson that the team came first.

Croce would trade Iverson if it moved the team closer to a championship. In short, Iverson was reminded that he is part of an organization. Less than his full commitment would not be tolerated. And he was also told that his coach was a guy named Larry Brown -- and that would not be changing.

I wonder if Iverson watched the way Croce handled Brown. When the North Carolina men's basketball job opened up this summer, Larry Brown's name was often mentioned as a candidate. Croce let him talk to the school, Brown's alma mater.

In the end, Brown stayed in Philly. Iverson must have respected the respect that Croce showed to Brown. In a way, giving Brown the chance to leave to pursue a dream job was just about the opposite of shopping him around, as Iverson was shopped.

Brown had the power and perhaps gained even more when he chose to stay. His focus and dedication could not be challenged. The same could not be said for Iverson.

Croce's strong presence in his team's affairs has worked. The Sixers are doing well. And Iverson seems content in his role and is willing to play for Brown and respect team rules. True, it's a long season, and Iverson will have to toe the line longer than a month to prove that he has really matured.

George Karl once told me that he put up with more from Gary Payton than he might have wanted to because of Payton's importance to the team.

Still, the 76ers are in good shape because they respectfully reminded their superstar that he did not run the team. And from the way it looks, the superstar survived that bit of news.

Across the country, a similar scene played out differently. Gary Payton whined and demanded that the team be improved. The Sonics went out and got Patrick Ewing. They toyed with letting Payton's friend Vin Baker go but decided to retain Baker, more to keep Payton happy than because it was a sound basketball move. Payton spoke and the team listened.

But Payton remained unhappy about the Baker affair. He felt he should have been consulted all along if his best pal was going to be let go. Despite getting what he wanted, he decided to take it out on Westphal.

If the team were run well, that would have been nipped in the bud in training camp by GM Wally Walker or owner Barry Ackerley. But it wasn't. And Westphal could never overcome having his best player tune him out. Westphal was too easygoing a coach to deal with the mess Payton decided to make of his team.

It all came to a head when Payton was ridiculously insubordinate to Westphal during a game against the Mavericks, saying, "I don't care about this game anymore. You all can suspend me for the rest of the year." Walker suspended Payton but took it back the next day when Payton apologized.

That's showing him who's boss, Wally.

You can't really blame the Sonics. They have a good team with Payton, Baker, Ewing, Rahard Lewis, Brent Barry, Ruben Patterson and good-looking rookie Desmond Mason. They should be doing better.

The Sonics danced to the tune of their superstar and are in disarray.

But did Westphal deserve his fate? Shouldn't someone have come in and supported him and let Payton know the score? This is Ackerley and Walker's failure more than it is Westphal's.

George Karl once told me that he put up with more from Gary Payton than he might have wanted to because of Payton's importance to the team. He allowed him the freedom to be Gary Payton. Westphal found out, though, that too much Gary Payton is not a good thing.

The 76ers reinforced their structure and came out stronger. The Sonics danced to the tune of their superstar and are in disarray.

Allen Iverson changed before he ended up with the Clippers. It may be too late for Gary Payton to change. It's definitely too late for Paul Westphal. And that's a shame.

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