- Frank Hughes
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What does one do when the power of one's convictions rail so ardently against the public's greater desire?
Moreover, what does one do when the source of one's income, both in the micro sense and the macro sense, is tied so intimately to the public's greater desire?
This is the delicious irony that exists this week in Seattle, a town of liberal-minded life lovers consumed by hate in the confusing environs of its basketball cosmos.
Nothing is easy with Gary Payton. Never has been. Never will be.
And so -- what else is new? -- as Payton returns to Seattle with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night for the first time since he was unceremoniously traded, along with Desmond Mason, to the Milwaukee Bucks in February for Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie and Ronald Murray, controversy swirls, questions linger and the unknown is subject to unfettered speculation and debate.
Because, well, this is Payton, and this is what he does. This is who he is: a lightning rod for contention and disputation who walks through life in a swarming cloud of contradiction.
This is not Latrell Sprewell here. Yes, that was New York, and everything in New York is larger than life. But Latrell Sprewell is not going to the Hall of Fame. Latrell Sprewell is not the best player in that franchise's history. Latrell Sprewell has never really been the face of that organization, not the way Patrick Ewing once was.
That's what Payton was in Seattle: an iconoclastic personality whose brash demeanor and strident sneer perhaps emboldened a city that is apprehensive to cross the street without a signal telling it that it's OK. Payton has his detractors, to be sure, many of whom reside in the Sonics' own locker room. They knew the Payton who was not displayed so prominently on oversized billboards with that endearing look of disdain flouted in mock derision.
But the fans -- those who paid their hard-earned money to fill the KeyArena through the years -- love Payton. They see past his selfish flaws, churlish behavior and overbearing disposition, and embrace his intense, fierce competitiveness and his entertainment value. These are the people who would like to see Payton's No. 20 retired, hung in the rafters next to current coach Nate McMillan, Jack Sikma, Lenny Wilkens and Fred Brown.
These are the people who would like to bestow more than 12 years of gratitude to the greatest player to ever wear the many varied incarnations of the green and gold in the Pacific Northwest, who would like to display their appreciation of his 999 games, who would prefer to glance up in the rafters and remember his greatness rather than look up and be reminded by its absence the sordid details of his abrupt departure.
And therein lies the basis of the question concerning public desire vs. private emotion, and what happens when the two have a very tangible effect on one another. Because, you see, the person who has the ability to order Payton's jersey retirement ceremony, Sonics owner Howard Schultz, has a strong distaste for Payton.
How could he not? Payton essentially fabricated a story about Schultz promising him a contract extension, then went with it to the media in an effort to force Schultz's hand. When Schultz failed to cave, Payton intentionally insulted Schultz by not appearing at the first day of practice in 2002, which laid the tracks for an arduous, sometimes ugly journey that culminated in Payton being shipped to Milwaukee and Schultz claiming the team was leaderless with the tyrannical Payton in control. In the emotionally volatile wake of the trade, Schultz was besieged with ardent, vitriolic criticism for which in hindsight he said he was not prepared, certainly not to the degree it perpetuated itself.
It is with those mixed emotions that Schultz at some point must make the decision: Do we, as an organization, retire Payton's number?
It goes against the very moral fiber of Schultz's being to reward a man with whom he has such a divergent clash of values and personality. It goes against the very convictions that helped him build his Starbucks empire to cave to the lunacy that goes against what he knows is right and just. And, certainly, it would be a considerable blow to his ego to have to defer to the very person with whom he held such a public dispute.
But Schultz also speaks of his basketball organization as a public trust. He creates an atmosphere that promotes fan friendliness. Even in his coffee business, he advocates that the public is usually right, and that's the reason his stores offer skim milk even though it goes against the very nature and intent of the true Italian coffee experience, on which the Starbucks paradigm is based.
What, then, does the guidebook for running a corporate fiefdom say about this particular situation?
In a normal business venture, this could be ignored, stifled. But, as Schultz has discovered rather rudely, the NBA is not a normal business venture. It does not entertain the same set of rules.
It is not an issue that can be ignored, at least not forever.
There will, at some point, be a public outcry, perhaps even a backlash. Schultz prides himself on listening to his constituents, fulfilling their every need to the best of his abilities. Distasteful as it may be to those involved, at some point, the organization must retire Payton's number.
Schultz does not have to be there, he does not have to condone it, he does not have to take part in the celebration. Payton already has said he would not participate if either Schultz or Wally Walker was involved.
But, whether it is this year or next, or the one after that or the one after that, Schultz does have to sign off on the commemoration.
In the insular, nonsensical world of professional sports, it is the right thing to do.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
So his last days in Seattle got nasty. The Sonics still have to do the right thing and retire Gary Payton's number.