The fill-in is thrilled Basketball: Gary Payton is loving life as a member of the Dream Team, and he doesn't have to prove he belongs.

July 03, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Look for Gary Payton on the cover of the Dream Team media guide -- you won't find him. Try the posters of the team that are being distributed -- not there either. In fact, as the team went through its second day of practice yesterday, Payton was the only guy on the court without a name on his jersey.

"A lot of the stuff is being changed, a lot of the posters are adding my picture to it," Payton was saying yesterday. "But it doesn't bother me. I'm just here having fun."

In case you missed it, the Seattle SuperSonics' Payton is the newest member of the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, named to the squad Thursday. He replaced Glenn Robinson, who withdrew with a sore Achilles' tendon.

But don't think for a second that Payton is acting slighted about being the last person picked or that his late addition is an afterthought. Payton gives the Dream Team another point guard who has the ability to play aggressively on both ends of the court.

"He's a great addition to the team," said Lenny Wilkens, coach of the Dream Team. "He enhances our ability to stay up and pressure people on defense. He's real tough-minded."

Payton was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year and led the league in steals (2.85). Thus the nickname "The Glove." At times, Payton gave Michael Jordan fits during the finals and even traded verbal jabs with him. Before that, he frustrated Utah Jazz guard John Stockton during a grueling seven-game series in the Western Conference finals.

Payton's game is far from one-dimensional. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 19.3 points and ranked 10th in the league in assists.

"He's been able to improve every year, even when he was very, very good from the start," Stockton said. "Now, it's hard to find a weakness in him anywhere: as scorer, as a playmaker, as a defender he's taken his game to a new level each year."

Payton helped the Sonics to the NBA Finals, where they lost in six games to the Chicago Bulls. With the 12-member Dream Team having already been named, Payton was planning a summer to rest his body after the longest season of his career.

Those plans changed during a phone call last week.

"I was doing a commercial in Houston, and my agent called to let me know what was going on," Payton recalled yesterday. "Then I talked to [NBA vice president] Rod Thorn, and he asked me if I wanted to be on the team."

Payton said he's not sure Thorn even had a chance to finish issuing the invitation.

"Two months off [instead of three] is just fine with me," Payton said. "It's a great feeling. You look around and you see Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway. It's like, wow, you're here and it's just like being on an all-star team."

At stake is Olympic gold and Payton's first opportunity to participate in the world's biggest athletic showcase. After his sophomore year at Oregon State, Payton participated in the Olympic team trials. But Payton did not make that ill-fated 1988 team that would come home from South Korea with just a bronze medal.

Payton said there's no chance of such a misfortune to happen here.

"If this team were in the NBA, we'd probably win all 82 games," Payton said. "We got 12 good players, and everybody here is probably the star of their team."

When Robinson was injured, many thought the final spot would go to another forward, and Shawn Kemp -- Payton's teammate in Seattle -- seemed a likely candidate. Kemp still appears to be suffering from his actions during the 1994 World Championships in Toronto, and Payton spent a lot of his time yesterday answering questions about his jilted teammate.

"I haven't talked to him since I left Seattle," Payton said. "But I'm sure Shawn is probably wishing me luck."

The big question now is whether Payton will return to the Sonics. He's a free agent, and said that four teams -- the Sonics, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and New York Knicks -- are interested in him.

"I've always said I like [Heat coach] Pat Riley, and I look forward to seeing him," Payton said. "If he comes and tries to talk to me, I'd be interested."

The Rockets -- rumored close to acquiring Charles Barkley -- also obviously interest Payton.

"That'll be a good lineup, Barkley, the Dream [Hakeem Olajuwon], Clyde [Drexler] and myself," Payton said. "That would be a nice little lineup, and we'd win a few ballgames.

"I just want to be able to focus on what team I'll be with next year, and focus on playing with this team," Payton said. "Representing your country and playing with 11 of the best players, this is a great experience."

Dream Games

At Georgia Dome

Date .... .... Opponent .... .... Time

7/20 .... .... Argentina .... ... 10 p.m.

.... .... Angola ....... ... 10 p.m.

.... .... Lithuania .... ... 10 p.m.

.... .... China ....... .... 10 p.m.

.... .... Croatia .... ..... 7 p.m.

Countdown Days

2& Days until opening ceremonies: 16.

Americans lose: Cuba pounded three Team USA relievers for six runs in the eighth to erase a 2-1 deficit for a 7-2 win in Knoxville, Tenn. Cuba is 3-1 against the Americans.

Running into history: Jamaican sprinters Merlene Ottey, 35, and Juliet Cuthbert, 32, say they plan to retire after the Games.

Are we having fun yet?: Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's musical director and comic sidekick, will conduct the all-star jam session at the closing ceremonies.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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