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He has been called the Glove, because he covers opposing guards
as snugly as one, but the nickname has never caught on. The
Mouth would be more appropriate, and it will be until Gary
Payton shuts his, which Indiana Pacers guard and former Payton
teammate Ricky Pierce once estimated would happen "about two
months after he's dead." Payton, the Seattle SuperSonics'
loquacious point guard, is the NBA's preeminent trash talker, a
mantle he has carried with some pride during his six years in
the league. To play against him is to risk being buried under an
avalanche of verbiage so deep that according to another former
teammate, Cleveland Cavaliers forward-center Michael Cage, "when
you're done, you just want to go find a library or something,
someplace totally silent."

In Payton-speak, talking trash is "yapping." It is an art form
he learned on the Oakland playgrounds of his youth, and he has
built up a lengthy yap sheet. He once ran by the Minnesota
Timberwolves' bench and admonished 6-foot Sidney Lowe, the
Minnesota coach at the time, to "shut up, you little Smurf." He
looked around a mostly empty Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey
once and told guard Kenny Anderson, then with the Nets, "at
least nobody will see me take the ball from you." Teammate
Hersey Hawkins calls Payton "a little Charles Barkley," but
Payton, 27, is more like a big pest, a 6'4", 190-pound gnat
buzzing around, willing to do anything to annoy an opponent, as
he showed earlier this season when he punctuated an evening of
running commentary in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers by
inexplicably blowing in Lakers guard Eddie Jones's ear.

But it's hard to build a career on a foundation of words. And
even with Payton's considerable accomplishments--three All-Star
game appearances, his selection (announced Monday) as the NBA
Defensive Player of the Year for 1995-96 and this season's
league-leading average of 2.85 steals per game are but a
few--words are what he is best known for. The biggest difference
in Payton this year is that he has come to realize that
sometimes words obscure deeds. One afternoon last summer he sat
out on the deck of his house in the Oakland hills and looked
down at his children, Raquel and Gary II, playing in the pool
below. The sneering, glaring bravado that has come to be
associated with him was nowhere in evidence. The Mouth was not
roaring. "I think I've grown up a lot," he said softly. "I mean,
I'm always going to talk, but I know how to control it better
now, when to tone it down. I don't worry that much about what
people think of me, but nobody wants to be known as a loudmouth
his whole career."

Nor does he want to be known as a player who talks a good game
but doesn't back it up in the playoffs. Payton knows as well as
anyone that after the Sonics' upset losses in the first round
the last two seasons--in which point guards Robert Pack, then of
the Denver Nuggets, and Nick Van Exel of the Lakers played
especially well against him--that label was about to be applied
to him with superglue. "I know I have more to prove than anyone
on this team," he says. "This is the year I have to step up in
the playoffs and show what I can do."

For Payton, the time has come to put up or shut up. And he's
putting up. His maturation was clearly evident through the first
six games of the playoffs--the Sonics' 3-1 victory over the
Sacramento Kings in a best-of-five first-round series and their
sweep of the defending champion Houston Rockets in the first two
games of their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal, which
resumes Friday at Houston's Summit. At home in Key Arena,
Seattle demolished Houston 108-75 in Game 1 last Saturday, and
the Sonics followed that up on Monday by defeating the Rockets
105-101. Payton was Seattle's leading scorer for the six games
and, as usual, its best defender, especially on a key
last-minute strip of Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 2.
More than that, Payton provided a steadying influence.

When All-Star forward Shawn Kemp was suspended for Game 1 against
Sacramento, Payton took it upon himself to reassure his
teammates that they could survive a game without Kemp. Then he
showed them how, with 29 points, nine assists, six rebounds and
four steals in a 97-85 win. "Gary had big shoulders for us,"
Seattle coach George Karl said afterward. "We just rode him all
night long."

A loss in Game 1 to the Rockets could have damaged the still
fragile psyches of the Sonics, who were euphoric over surviving
the first round for the first time in three years. But Payton
set the tone with four early three-pointers and finished with 28
points and seven assists to lead the Seattle runaway. In the
Game 2 win, he dropped in 18 points and had five assists. "He's
just the key to everything they do, that's all," said Houston
coach Rudy Tomjanovich after Game 1. "He's the engine behind
their offense with the way he penetrates and pushes the ball on
the break, and he sets the tone for the way they attack you on
defense. Nothing he did surprised us." Well, maybe there was one
surprise. "He really didn't talk all that much," said Rockets
swingman Mario Elie. "He was all business, which I didn't expect
at all."

Perhaps Payton was just conserving his voice. He nearly lost it
in Game 1 against Sacramento, when he played with a cold and a
sore throat. Still showing the effects of his illness, he wasn't
at his best for Game 2, finishing with 10 points and seven
assists. Not coincidentally, the Sonics went down to a 90-81
defeat. It was yet another indication that although Kemp is
Seattle's leading scorer and rebounder, Payton is the player
most crucial to Seattle's success.

This season he has been more aware than ever of the
responsibility that comes with that role, thanks in part to
counseling from Sonics veterans like swingman Nate McMillan and
forward-center Sam Perkins. "He's definitely grown up," McMillan
says. "He still has his mouth and his attitude, but where in the
past he might have gotten so caught up in talking trash or
complaining to the officials that he took his head out of the
game, now he seems to know when to pull back. He might get a
technical, but then he'll close his mouth so he doesn't get the
one that will get him thrown out."

Houston seems to bring out the best in the Sonics--they had
beaten the Rockets 11 consecutive times after their Game 2
victory--and the best in Payton. He averaged 28.8 points on
59.2% shooting in Seattle's four regular-season victories over
Houston and showed no signs of cooling off in Game 1, when he
hit five of 12 from beyond the arc, thus foiling Houston's
strategy of giving him the outside shot to protect against his
penetration. But Payton was an equally important force on
defense in Game 1, spearheading Seattle's constant pressure on
the Rockets' perimeter players, which made it difficult for them
to get the ball inside to Olajuwon. The Dream shot only nine
times and scored a mere six points, his career playoff low.

Afterward, some of the Rockets tried to dismiss the loss as an
aberration. "It was just one of those games," guard Kenny Smith
said. "Some days you're dancing with your favorite girl and all
your moves are right, all your spins are right. And some days
you just drop her." But the lopsidedness of the Sonics' victory
indicated that Houston needed to make some fundamental changes
in its approach. Seattle is uniquely suited to disrupting the
Rockets' bicycle-wheel offense, in which Olajuwon is the hub,
either scoring inside or whipping the ball back out to
three-point shooters like Elie, guard Sam Cassell or forward
Robert Horry, who are positioned around the rim of the wheel.
The Sonics' quick, athletic defenders, such as Payton, McMillan
and forward Detlef Schrempf, can double- and sometimes even
triple-team Olajuwon yet still rotate fast enough to harass
Houston's outside shooters if Olajuwon passes the ball back

"To beat this team we have to be more creative," Olajuwon said
after Game 1. "We need people to penetrate and draw them into
the lane and then kick the ball back out. There is no question
that we need to make some adjustments." It must have been
gratifying for the Sonics, whose mental toughness is so often
called into question, to hear traces of doubt coming from the
other locker room for a change.

While the Rockets had major work to do at practice the day after
Game 1, Payton used the day mostly to rest and recover. He is
one of those players who save themselves for the 48 minutes when
the score is being kept. He barely tolerates practice--"Nobody
ever won a championship in a drill," he says--unless his
teammates can get him into a yapping contest that makes his
competitive juices flow. And it's not uncommon before a Sonics
home game to see Payton padding around the locker room in his
bathrobe, headed for the whirlpool, while his teammates are
going to the court to shoot around. His disdain for workouts has
caused friction in the past with Karl, for whom practicing is
like attending church. But they have come to a meeting of the
minds, and Karl is now one of Payton's biggest supporters. "I
can't imagine a better point guard for our style," he says.
"There are some great point guards in this league, but there's
not one I'd rather have playing for me than Gary."

After the season Payton will become a free agent and command a
salary that will probably be more than double the $2.7 million a
year he currently earns. Although the Miami Heat and the New
York Knicks have been mentioned as potential suitors, several
people close to Payton believe he is likely to stay in Seattle
because the system is tailor-made for his talents and because
the Sonics, realizing they can ill afford to lose him, will be
prepared to dig deep into their bank account.

But the dollars can't buy the Olympic gold medal that Payton
almost certainly would have earned had he been selected for
Dream Team III, which will compete this summer in Atlanta. He
had the resume to gain a spot on the team ahead of Glenn
Robinson of the Milwaukee Bucks. But Payton's talkativeness made
him less attractive to the selection committee, which generally
picked the stars least likely to cause an international incident.

It was not the only time Payton has been slighted. This season
the fans chose Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks as the Western
Conference's All-Star Game starter ahead of him, and he has
never had the sneaker-commercial visibility that one might
expect for a player of his flair. This pattern goes as far back
as his senior year at Oakland's Skyline High School, when St.
John's withdrew its scholarship offer to him in favor of another
player. (Payton ended up at Oregon State, where he became SI's
college player of the year in 1990.)

Perhaps Payton is simply getting used to such snubs, but it's
more likely that his increasing maturity is helping him to
handle them. "Some people might not like my style, and maybe
that's kept me from getting as much recognition as some other
people," he says. "But I look at somebody like Sam Cassell. He's
gotten noticed because of what he's done in the playoffs, what
the Rockets have done in the playoffs. That's the way it could
be for us. This year the playoffs could be our stage." And
wouldn't that be something to talk about?

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In Game 1, Payton carved up the Rockets for 28 points and kept his yapping down to a dull roar. [Gary Payton shooting basketball against two Houston Rockets; Gary Payton yelling]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGHTwo days before he was named Defensive Player of the Year, Payton helped hound Cassell and Houston into 17 turnovers. [Sam Cassell being guarded by Gary Payton]

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT/NBA PHOTOS Payton knew he needed to elevate his game after two playoff flops. [Gary Payton in game against Houston Rockets]