Gary & Me


Gary & Me

David Shields reports on his season spent ruminating on the Sonics, Seattle, race, life, and GP.

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    4.11.95—In a press conference in Seattle, Gill announces that he's rejoining the Sonics and will begin practicing with the team tomorrow, but that he'll need a few days until he's ready to play. He says that he was diagnosed with a metabolic imbalance, that he doesn't know how long he's been suffering from the condition, and that he prefers not to say what treatment he's receiving. He's daring anyone to call his bluff. "I have a fresh look on everything. I've never felt better physically and mentally in my life. The problems I have had will never happen again. That incident with George [shouting at him in his office a couple of weeks ago]: I normally don't react that way. I apologize to George for what has happened. I may even take George to lunch." Peace. Karl says, "I'm not gonna stand up here and say I'm an authority on clinical depression, but"—I am an authority on clinical depression—"it's a situation that can be fixed very quickly [with drugs] and it can free you up. I don't think we can win a championship without Kendall Gill," which is an oblique apology to Gill after saying he was only one of the Sonics' top eight players a few days ago. "My hope is that we can turn this experience into a positive. We can establish better communication, develop more of an intensity, a camaraderie. But I'm still going to coach the game. I'm not going to manage egos." No peace. Tonight, in Tacoma, during warmups before the game against Phoenix, Gary makes a point, it seems to me, of taking his practice shots directly behind the TNT reporter on the floor to make sure he'll be on TV. Sasquatch, the Sonic mascot, comes up to shake Gary's hand; G. slaps his hand, kicks him in the ass, tells him to go away. No one else could do this with his weird mix of edge and warmth. If anyone else did this, it would either seem too mean or too benign, whereas he somehow makes it seem both funny and edgy. My brief ode to things like this that Gary does appeared in the Weekly today—to what degree would this hold his interest, affect his mood? Barkley is kissing up to referee Jake O'Donnell and winds up patting him on the back; I'm practically shouting at O'Donnell not to fall for all this pseudo-friendliness. It seems to me that a lot of what makes Barkley so magnetic is that you can't tell to what degree it's natural garrulousness, to what degree it's playful showmanship, and to what degree it's a very concerted effort to orchestrate the game. Barkley gets into an argument with O'Donnell, and Joe Kline, the Suns' 7-foot white center, tries to argue on Barkley's behalf. Barkley literally shoves Kline out of the way: I can argue my own arguments, thank you very much. Leaving the court at halftime, Payton gives Barkley a hug. Fans want to see these guys as sworn enemies, but they're not. They adore each other; how explicit do they have to make it till people get it? My friend Paul is at the game with me, but he says he doesn't seem to feel like talking much—he's been unusually subdued and quiet all evening—so I listen to the game on the radio. Toward the end of the first half, Kevin Calabro says, "The game has no kind of flow." Marques Johnson says, "We call it rhythm." Calabro can't tell if Johnson is kidding or serious. There's a long silence, which Calabro finally breaks by launching into song, "I got rhythm, I got music." During halftime, a guy plays familiar tunes by bouncing colored plastic balls on an enormous keyboard placed on the floor at center court. In the audience, most white people are applauding mightily; black people sit there, stunned, stunned that this is apparently what white people find lyrical. Marques says, "Now that's rhythm right there." Kevin says, "Mozart was doing that at age four." Marques: "Stevie Wonder at age three." Kevin: "So Mozart was an underachiever, huh?" Is race racing through Calabro's mind every time he talks to Johnson, or am I just imagining it? Is race on my brain, and am I screwed up? Or is it on everyone else's brain, and am I just taking notes? No one ever acknowledges the true subject of our discussions; it can never get expressed directly, it simply can't be, won't be, isn't allowed to be talked about openly, and so it comes out in a thousand indirect inflections. An exhibitionistic young woman—who has beautiful olive skin, long dark hair, blue eyes, and usually wears tight black jeans and T-shirts—always stands and cheers in such a way, always walks from the aisle to her seat in such a way, that all the men in our entire section seem to have their tongues perpetually hanging out. Tonight, in the third quarter, as a song plays during a time-out, she sashays so suggestively that the three men sitting directly behind her bow to her and say, "Thank you," which somehow captures for me the relation of fans to players, the mixture of reverence and contempt. The Sonics miss nearly two-thirds of their shots; Payton and Schrempf shoot particularly poorly; Gill doesn't play or even show; the Suns win. Schrempf's in foul trouble for most of the game, about which Karl says, "Here's a great player getting rookie calls in a big game. I'm dumbfounded." No, he's not; in Schrempf is gathered the reverb from a racist society cordoning off one arena in which the people it has oppressed will succeed. Driving home, I ask Paul why he was so silent tonight, and he says that his jaw hurts. I ask why his jaw hurts, and he says he was in Pioneer Square last night with his new girlfriend, Meredith. A young black man wearing a red bandanna walked past them and mumbled something. Paul, being Paul, said, "What?" The man mumbled some more. Paul, being Paul, said, "I'm sorry—what—excuse me?" Paul finally understood that what the guy had been saying was: "Apologize to me right now." Before Paul could say anything, the man hit Paul in the back of his head with his hand. Paul fell to the ground. Meredith screamed. The man ran. What do you want to be attacked for—for not apologizing or for acknowledging that you have something to apologize for? 4.13.95—Payton has a strained left hamstring and is listed at only 50-50 probability before the Dallas-Seattle game tonight at the T-Dome. However, Payton says, "You never have to worry about me not playing." Karl says, "He plays great when he's hurt. I like him sore." As I walk into press row, ma ch鲩e [Sonic director of media relations Cheri White] makes a specific point of coming up to me and saying, "Hi, David." She must have finally seen in this week's Weekly my ode to G. Payton, which, although not cut from the cloth she'd prefer, at least may have demonstrated that I'm not an utter charlatan. At the start of the game, I expect Gill to be sitting on the bench in street clothes but don't see him anywhere. Midway through the second quarter, Sasquatch, as a kind of joke, steals the ball from the black referee. I'm very aware that this bit can't go on too long before it becomes problematic, and virtually all of its problematicalness derives from the fact that the ref is black, so after ten seconds or so Squatch returns the ball to the ref. If the ref were white, the shtick could and would have gone on for, say, twenty seconds, and this difference of ten seconds is a measurement of history, of blood over time. During halftime, a group of guys who specialize in supposedly spectacular dunks take the floor, although they're none too spectacular. Some are black; some are white. It seems quite calculated to me that toward the end of their performance, when they hold a kind of elimination tournament, it winds up with one black dunker and one white dunker: two black dunkers would have too emphatically reinforced the stereotype (white men can't jump, etc.), and two white dunkers would have seemed like affirmative action, but having one black finalist and one white finalist is an attempt to empty out the racial code of the thing, which is immediately reintroduced when the white dunker proves to be painfully, comically bad compared to the black dunker. Just as he did in December, when he scored 30 points against Houston a few hours after he injured his back in a fall on his icy driveway, Payton has a great game tonight despite his strained left hamstring; he makes 7 steals and scores 24 points. With the victory, Seattle's record goes to 54 and 22—still just a half-game behind Phoenix. After the game, as he heads to the locker room, Sam Perkins throws his used towel into the crowd; fans go crazy. What must the players think of us, that we worship their dirty laundry? In the first quarter, Jason Kidd, Payton's friend from Oakland, blocked one of Payton's shots. Asked in the post-game locker room what he said to rub it in, Kidd says, "I don't quite remember." It's our camaraderie, not yours. McMillan says, "Kidd got Gary upset. Whatever he said, he shouldn't have. I like for players to talk to Payton. That's a way of getting him into the game"—Payton's weirdly primary, proprietary relation to language. "He didn't start it [the trash-talking] tonight. He will finish it, put it that way." McMillan admires Payton for some of the same reasons I do: he's as bad as we'd like to be, if we ever got good at being bad. Payton, asked what Kidd said, says, of course, "It was nothing. It's cool. Just a little humor. That's my boy. He's like a little brother to me." Like an astronaut with the right stuff, he makes whatever transpired seem more dramatic by downplaying it. The Sonics, however, are a little concerned about the fact that sometime during the game—no one seems to know just when—Payton appears to have sprained the ring finger on his left hand. After the game, I'm hanging around in the corridor outside the Sonics' locker room. Karl comes up to me and, shaking my hand, says, "I hope you know that it wasn't me; I wanted to do it," i.e., it wasn't his decision to nix the Sonics' cooperation with my book project; he would have welcomed me officially spending the year with the team. (Necessity is the proverbial mother of invention; denied access to the gods, I'm writing this other book—about being a fan in the faraway stands and ogling the gods.) Whatever spin-doctoring he's doing, I'm still stupidly flattered that Karl would go out of his way to reassure me; it suggests a certain insecurity on his part but also, undeniably, a certain capacity to empathize, which very few coaches are keen about exhibiting. 4.14.95—The Sonics are playing the Golden State Warriors tomorrow, and on the Gary Payton Show on KJR Michael Knight and New York Vinnie can't comprehend why Payton says he'd rather play for Sacramento than Golden State. Vinnie and Michael used to work in San Francisco, and like nearly everyone who has lived in San Francisco except me, they're hopelessly nostalgic for the Bay Area. Gary finally explains to them that "Sacramento is a better situation than Golden State," which is to say that what matters is not place but what you're doing in that place. Vinnie and Michael can't understand this, but I understand this—I've always felt this way—and in a sudden upsurge of feeling my grumbling dissatisfaction with Seattle vanishes, via GP. X-rays reveal that Payton suffered a broken left ring finger; videotape shows that Payton suffered the fracture when Jamal Mashburn of the Mavericks slapped at the ball in the third quarter of last night's game. The playoffs start in two weeks; Karl, trapped in the first stage of grief (denial), says, "I thought it was just displaced at the joint." 4.15.95—Last night I had a dream about Gary: as his backcourt mate, I play particularly well, knocking down jumpers every time he passes me the ball. I'm earning his begrudging approval and admiration, but I'm nervous because I know the real test is still to come—the repartee between plays. This is an excerpt from Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, by David Shields, to be published in November by Crown. 1999 David Shields.

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