I Miss the Sonics


People will come up to me when they see me in Seattle and say stuff like, “Hey, where you living these days, man?”

“Seattle, man. I never left.”

Nobody believes me when I tell them I’ve pretty much stayed here since 1989. I mean, after I left the Sonics for Cleveland — that was around ’97 — I bounced around a little bit before my career was over. But even when I was playing in Italy, I always kept my house in Seattle. There was never a doubt in my mind that I’d be back someday. And, you know, a lot has changed here. The heart of the culture is still the same. But a lot has changed.

But man, the city’s just not the same without basketball. It’s not like it used to be.

This is funny to think of now, but in ’89 I was the youngest person in the NBA. A 19-year-old kid — and I’m the first one to admit that I didn’t know a single thing about being a professional or living on my own or any of that. It didn’t really feel like a big deal to me, though. I was young. I was hungry. I wanted to dunk on fools, go out at night, and then dunk on ’em again the next day.

And I was lucky. A lot of guys who come into the league with that sort of mentality don’t last long. I learned from guys like Xavier McDaniel, Nate McMillan, Michael Cage — the veterans who were in Seattle when I got there. They all taught me early on that there was a lot more to the game than waiting down low for the dunk.

My rookie year was a big transition. I was a teenager who had to start following rules, practicing hard in the gym every day, studying player reports on my time off – just educating myself about basketball. They always say, “It’s a job,” but it only really becomes a job if you learn how to approach it like a job.

So that’s what my rookie year was like — growing up a little bit. When I came back for my second season I was ready to show my full potential. I wasn’t going to let anything distract me from being dominant.

We had the second pick in the draft that year.

We picked up this cat named Gary Payton.

Gary already had buzz, especially up in the Oregon-Washington area. He was an All-American. He’d already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, all of that.

I remember the first time I saw him play. It was my rookie year. I think it was a Friday afternoon, and our GM, Bob Whitsitt, called me up. He told me to watch the Oregon State–USC game on TV because there was a possibility that this Gary kid could be my future teammate. It was kind of cool, having the GM ask you to play scout — like really watch, really study a prospect’s game. By that time I was trying to be a pro and a good teammate. I wanted to take my job seriously.

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You know what my main memory from that game was? Gary barking. Not Gary’s handle or his defense, it was his barking. He talked at everybody. From before the tip until the final buzzer, dude was talking — and like, angry talking, not banter. Either side of the floor, to guys on the bench, USC fans, referees — it didn’t matter. Nobody was safe. I remember pulling my chair up closer to the TV to try and make out the things he was saying to the USC coach. The opposing coach, man! A college kid. I loved it. Gary had something to say to everybody.

He ended up finishing with 58, if I’m not mistaken.

Right when the game ended, I called up our management.

“If we get a guy like this, you won’t have to do anything to motivate me.”

That’s what I told them.

“We gotta get Gary. The two of us will go on a tear.”

Bernie Bickerstaff was the coach my rookie year. Then K.C. Jones replaced him the next year, Gary’s rookie season. Right away, Gary and K.C. did not really get along. All these years later, Gary and I still talk about how much K.C. taught us, though — how important he was to our development. He was tough, but you gotta remember, K.C. was coming over from the Celtics, from a championship culture, coaching some of best guys to ever come through the league. He was drawing up plays on the chalkboard for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.

Then all of a sudden, he had to draw plays for Shawn and Gary. With us, man, we were kids. We had a lot of talent, but we didn’t know what to do with it yet.

I think basketball people don’t fully appreciate what K.C. Jones did for that Sonics team. Even in that one year, he taught us a lot about maturity off the court as well as in practice and games. Gary and I still talk about how much he set us up for the next few years.

One of the things I struggled with early on was bringing it every single game. In the NBA, you have to be ready to win every night. I know that’s the cliché, but the truth is that when we started out with the Sonics, we were lucky. They were already a .500 team, with veteran guys who knew the league. We could go out and perform and play pretty great basketball, just on instinct. Off the court, Gary and I would spend all of our time messing around at bars or just goofing around wherever. We tried to have it all for a little bit there. But the great NBA teams, they’re never taking a night off. You dog it in practice all week and suddenly you’re playing against one of those teams, you’re going to get beat up.

I remember when Xavier McDaniel told me, straight up, that we had better not put the team through that. The other veteran guys didn’t want to waste any time, and not only because they could actually see their windows closing. It was because they approached the job like professionals.

Gary Stewart/AP Images

Xavier and those guys saved me and Gary from having forgettable careers. They pushed us and tried to hold us accountable. It’s funny because I was a little easier for those vets to mentor. It definitely took some time for everyone to understand Gary. Like I said, when I came into the NBA, I was confident, but still a baby. I think I recognized that everyone else saw me as this teenager who came right out of a public high school in Indiana. When the older guys told me to do something, I did it. I didn’t ever make a thing out of it. That’s just what anyone goes through as a rookie. Maybe you have to carry an extra bag or grab somebody a Coke or a deck of cards. To me it was never a big deal.

Gary, though. Nah. He wasn’t trying to do those things.

He was the second pick in the draft and he walked around like, you know, carrying a guy’s bag wasn’t in his contract. Guys occasionally got annoyed with him, but for the most part everyone would let stuff slide because they knew Gary actually had the skills and the heart to back up what he said. It’s like, even his rookie year everyone kind of saw it as — Gary could be the future of Sonics basketball. But if you’re going to ship out every player or coach who initially didn’t get along with him, then you’re not going to have a very deep bench. So there was an adjustment period with Gary and everyone. But it was worth it.

As Gary settled in, everyone saw how lucky we were to have him — and to not have to play against him. Gary barking at everyone in practice motivated us. Made us better. He was a problem, but he was our problem.

There’s a story Gary tells about a preseason game where he called out Michael Jordan and MJ embarrassed him. I remember that. I think for the rest of the team, when we saw Gary step up and get in MJ’s face, it was like … it was symbolic. It was a big sign. A kid picking a fight with the schoolyard bully.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

I’m lucky I got to see MJ in his prime, the early-’90s-MVP-coming-to-kill-you Michael Jordan. I had only been in the league a year at that point, but c’mon — it didn’t take anybody long to realize that when you played Michael, you could be coming off the best game of your life, playing at home, playing on your birthday — he could have the damn flu — whatever. All the odds could be in your favor, and then MJ would score 25 in the first half, stick his tongue out … just take aim at your entire organization. He lived for that.

So when we saw how fearless Gary was with Michael, we’d encourage it. We’d all get in his ear, tell him to keep it up, not to back down. Gary gave us all that grit and that fight that Seattle had for a lot of years there. After a while we sort of got a reputation. Seattle was physical. We were gonna run our mouth. No matter if we were winning or losing, those Sonics teams were special because we always thought we had a fighting chance.

That was Gary’s rookie moment, and it’s not even so bad. Michael was Michael.

When I played Bill Laimbeer for the first time, I got a little of that medicine.

It was 1989. I was coming off the bench as a rookie. The Bad Boys in Detroit were still in full effect and coming off their first championship.

I had been playing well for a few weeks. We were winning games and I was dunking on everybody. I’m basically thinking I’ll dominate forever, like when you’re playing neighborhood kids with the hoop lowered.

We had the Pistons one night and it was early in the game. I got open down low and threw it down on Bill Laimbeer. Detroit called a timeout. I was feeling good. Running back to our huddle, I saw Laimbeer pointing at me.

“Is he pointing at me?”

He ain’t gonna be pointing at me. I just dunked on this guy.

So I point right back at him.

The Bad Boys didn’t get that nickname just because they were good on defense. They were bad dudes. They’d hurt you. I had never really played basketball against guys like that.

The timeout ended, we got a rebound, and on the other end somebody passed it to me in the paint.

Laimbeer was behind me.

I don’t know what happened next. I woke up in the hospital.

I’ll tell you one thing. I get a lot more sleep than I used to.

All that going out, hitting the clubs with Gary after games. Feels like a long time ago. We still get together from time to time, though. But it has chilled out a lot.

My mom and Gary’s mom have become friends. I’ve gotten to know Gary’s family, and he’s gotten to know mine very well. We even saw our sons play college ball against each other in Seattle, not too long ago.

It’s surreal, man. We used to joke about it all those years ago, that someday we’d be watching our sons play basketball like we did.

And now it’s like — to see it happen with both of them in college — it’s just hard to believe. Being able to share some of the experiences we had as players with our kids and with each others families … if you look back at the types of men we were then, and how much has changed over so many years, it’s crazy.

I was a father throughout my entire career as a basketball player. I missed a lot of moments with my family while I was playing, and that’s sometimes difficult to think about. And I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t always the best role model to my children. But I always tried to learn. And eventually you learn that just like basketball — a daily commitment is important.

Fatherhood, basketball. It all takes time. Except in fatherhood, there are no coaches or veteran guys looking to make sure you’re getting it right. You’re on your own the whole way. Really, I’m just grateful for my family, my career, and to have made some lasting friendships. Grateful for everything.

“Stockton and Malone” is what me and Gary used to always say in practice. They were the guys we looked at, first and foremost, when it came to trying to polish our game. And it’s funny, those are two guys where you can’t mention one of their names without automatically thinking about the other.

It’s an honor now when I hear people say the same thing about Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. It’s something beyond basketball — a history on the court and a true friendship off the court, even all these years later.

AFP/Getty Images (L), USA Today Sports

I’m still out here in Seattle, man. I’ve been married 23 years now. Gone from spending all of my time on the road to being a husband and father. I’ve watched the city change so much, but it’s still got the same passionate fans, and it’s still a city that loves basketball, even without a real team to root for. Since the day I arrived, I have been treated so well by the people here. And the love lasted much longer than my career. I was welcomed back with open arms as soon as my playing days were over.

Basketball has taken me all over the world, and after seeing so much over so many years, I can say with absolute certainty that there’s nowhere else in this world I’d rather be.

But something is not right. Something’s missing. We need the Sonics back.

So many great sports moments have happened here. So many legends of the game have had their moments in Seattle. I know that the NBA bringing in a new team now might be a mess, but it just feels off here without the Sonics.

I believe it’ll happen — we will have a team again someday. I don’t know when, or how, but I feel it. Basketball will come back to Seattle.

And I’ll still be here when it does.