Despite an on-time arrival for Celtics training camp, Gary Payton never really left Los Angeles. He keeps his clothes back home, necessitating the establishment of a bicoastal laundry service. When Payton tires of wearing a set of outfits, he sends them to his wife, who mails back a fresh set. His collection of cars also remains on the West Coast, and the veteran point guard has gotten lost more than once on local roads without a GPS system. And the Lakers are never far from his mind.
Two weeks into what likely will be a one-season stint with the Celtics, Payton continues an awkward transition everywhere but on the court. From the time change to the falling temperatures, the 36-year-old acknowledged he might never fully adjust to his new surroundings. Struggling with the distance between home and work, the father of three made a brief trip to LA Thursday to cheer up his children. Although coach Doc Rivers told him he could miss practice Friday, Payton made a point of returning on time to show continued support and respect for his new teammates. Despite his desire to finish his career in LA, Payton knows he has landed in a good situation, especially when compared to his time with the Lakers.
While Payton repeatedly claims to have moved on from what he called the most miserable season of his career, he sounds unconvincing. The circumstances and suddenness surrounding his trade to the Celtics still hurt.
"It wasn't fun when I was traded," said Payton. "It was a respect thing. The week before, [the Lakers] were saying they wanted me, then they traded me. That's not respect. I'm really not fond of people like that. Once you tell me something, it's like a loyalty thing and I go by loyalty a lot.
"I don't think we'll ever have a relationship again. I don't think I'll ever talk to any one of those guys in their organization again because it's about respect. They did what they wanted to do, and I think that's sneaky and I think that's just a backstabbing thing, to make me sign with you and already have in mind that you were going to trade me. I don't respect them anymore."
Payton cannot talk about his current situation, his rediscovered enthusiasm for the game in an offense that suits his talents, without revisiting his past. For better and worse, his time in Boston will be framed in comparison to his experience in LA. In the end, he thought the Lakers showed him neither respect nor loyalty. With a private plane chartered to fly Payton and his wife to Boston for the start of camp, then all forms of flattery from coach Doc Rivers, the Celtics have done their best to give the nine-time All-Star all the props he could ever desire.
"Doc being a former point guard that understands the game is giving me a lot of leeway to be myself again after that miserable year last year that I couldn't play basketball," said Payton. "At the end of the year last year, I was really miserable. I don't understand what went wrong. That was Phil Jackson's decision. I guess he's never been around a true point guard, so he wasn't really used to that.
"I wouldn't change the decision [to go to the Lakers], but I wasn't feeling I was getting used in the right way. I'm not the type of basketball player to pass the ball and go stand in the corner and watch other people play.
"Doc is letting me play basketball again. After a year absence, to get to run a team, to call the plays and get to do the things I want to do, it's been great. But it's just the beginning. We've got to keep building this.
"I've been let out of a shell. It's a whole different situation. When you have a coach that's won nine championships [Jackson], he's not going to get out of his philosophy. He's always going to say, 'You're going to do it my way or the highway.' Doc came and just let me play my game.
"In LA, you couldn't be who you wanted to be because you had [Jackson] with his ego up here. I wasn't the type of player for him. We weren't made for each other. It's just like a marriage sometimes; when you ain't made for each other, you've got to experience it first, then you get out of it."
Voice of experience
While Payton said reports about friction on the Lakers were greatly exaggerated and he had no problems with Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant, he added that there were times when he and Karl Malone needed to "act like fathers" and bring a dose of maturity and discipline to the team. Although the Celtics have a relatively young roster, Payton said he needs to serve only as a mentor, not a father, in Boston. That said, Payton wasted no time assuming a strong leadership role. Paul Pierce may be the team captain and leading scorer, but the Celtics are increasingly Payton's team.
The veteran point guard never runs out of advice for backup point guards Marcus Banks and Delonte West or scoring tips for Jiri Welsch and Pierce. He never tires of voicing his opinions to anyone who will listen. More often than not, the younger players have been paying attention. After all, they grew up watching him play and know he brings an impressive resume to Boston.
"I can't tell you if I'll be here more than a year," said Payton. "I really don't know about the situation. I know that this is my job and I've got to be here to do it and I'm going to do my best possible. We've got a great group of guys in here, young guys.
"A lot of people don't expect this team to do a lot of things. But the way we've been playing in the preseason, I think we've got a legit chance to win games and try to win our conference. I'm going to take everything a day at a time and keep rolling with it.
"You always think about whether you're going to win [when you go to a new team]; why would I want to come to a rebuilding team? It is almost like a start over in the later part of your career, but you've got to take it. You can't look at it that way. I came in saying we can win games. It could get frustrating if you lose a lot of basketball games, but I'm not trying to look at it that way. I'm just trying to win games the right way so it will make it a lot easier."
How much longer?
After his turbulent time with the Lakers, Payton said, he gained more perspective on his career. Winning an NBA championship does not seem as important as it once did. Perhaps Payton now recognizes how difficult it can be, even with favorable odds.
"It was meaning a lot last year," said Payton. "The way I see it now, how people do things - trades, the business - it would be great if I got it, but I've accomplished a lot of things in my NBA career. And I'm very happy with it.
"I haven't won a championship, and if I don't, I can always say I had a great career and I wouldn't trade it for anything else. I still think they can't take things away from you that you've done. If I can get back [to the Finals] in the next two or three years and try to win it, that would be great, too. But if I don't win one, I would never say I want to rewrite my career to let me win a championship over everything else."
According to his agent, Aaron Goodwin, Payton considered retiring until the day before he was scheduled to report to training camp. Payton denied that, attributing the statements to typical agent gamesmanship, but he was coy when asked how long he planned to continue playing.
"If I don't get hurt and I stay in good shape, if I keep doing the pace that I'm doing, I could play basketball a long time," he said, "but I'm not trying to do that. I'm trying to work with my kids and see them grow up.
"I don't want to play until I'm 40, but I could if I wanted to. It's not really a goal to me to play 20 years in the NBA. I'm just playing basketball. When I stop loving the game, then I'll quit. Right now, I still love to play and I know I can play with a lot of these guys.
"When it gets to a level where this basketball gets serious, I think you should hang it up. It always should be fun and you should be playing for fun. That's the way I felt during the trade. If it got to a point where it is too serious, then I've got to step back for a minute and think about it. I have to ask myself, 'Is this what I really want to do?'