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Thursday, January 20, 2022

‘I Got A Surprise Coming’

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Hall of Fame guard Gary Payton has not been shy about his desire to dive back into the NBA—as a coach. He told Yahoo! Sports last October that he had conversations about joining a coaching staff, “but the timing wasn’t right. I believe I now am ready to coach.”

He did not, in the end, join a staff for this season, but now Payton says something is in the works and that could change shortly. He was coy with specifics, but when asked, he told me about his desire to coach, “It is still the case. I got a surprise coming for a lot of people pretty soon. I don’t want to announce it right now, but you’ll see it pretty soon in the next couple of weeks, I hope everybody will be excited about it.”

Vague, for sure, but it seems that Payton could find his way onto an NBA bench for the first time since he left the game in 2007—and soon. He didn’t name any teams, but Payton has said he would like to work with young players, and logical speculation would hold that he could land in Atlanta to mentor star guard Trae Young. Payton’s old teammate and close friend, Nate McMillan, took over the Hawks job after Lloyd Pierce was fired this week.

Another possibility would be Detroit, where coach Dwane Casey is overseeing a rebuilding project with a slew of young players for the Pistons. Casey was an assistant coach for Payton’s great Supersonics teams in the 1990s.  

Either way, around the league, Payton is considered a viable head-coaching candidate down the line—if he gets a chance. There was consternation among many in and around the coaching fraternity late last month when the Timberwolves fired coach Ryan Saunders and immediately hired Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch, who is white, without giving so much as an interview to another candidate.

“That bothers us because you don’t know what the circumstances were,” Payton said. “We didn’t know if they were already looking at this guy or not, did they do research or what? We just knew that when they fired Saunders, they went right back and got a head coach who was already in the league. They brought him in. We don’t know what happened with that. We don’t want to speculate anything about that.”

There are currently only seven Black coaches in the NBA. Payton said he is hopeful that NBA owners will recognize that number is too low and start working to change it.

“I think it is going to be different,” he said. “I think we are going to have a difference in coaching in the near future. I think it is going to grow. I think it is going to be more, give the best man the job. Not just give him the job because he has been a coach for 30 years or whatever. If it is another young coach who is Black and is worthy of it, give him the job, give him an opportunity. That’s how everybody else started, let’s do it to them, too.”

Payton pointed to the example of McMillan replacing Pierce. Of course, it is troubling that Pierce got only two-and-a-half years to prove himself during a rebuilding project before Atlanta threw him over, but having McMillan there made for a natural transition.

“When they fired the Atlanta coach, they came right back and gave it to my big brother, Nate McMillan, they replaced him with another Black coach,” Payton said. “So what I am trying to say is, we are moving forward to what it is. The owners are understanding. Yes, you have got to give everybody a chance if he qualifies, and he is the fit for your team, hire him. I don’t care what color he is. Hire him. I think that we are moving toward that. We are taking baby steps toward that. But if he is qualified, give him the job. I don’t care what it is.”

Payton To Award Scholarships To HBCU Athletes

Payton remains active around the NBA, including during this weekend’s All-Star Game, when he will surprise two student-athletes from historically black colleges with $100,000 in scholarships, given through Mountain Dew during the 3-point contest. Payton (like most of us) won’t be in Atlanta for the game, but he surprised the two winners—one a golfer the other a track and field athlete—with a virtual call to inform them of their awards.  

“We have partnered up to reward these students for coming out of where they came from, hard times of their cities to come back and give them a scholarship to reward them and build up their awareness of everything,” Payton said. “Then it will be more awareness of the black colleges, and what the black colleges can give you. You do not have to go to the big-time schools, the Dukes, the North Carolinas and stuff like that—the black colleges are doing the same thing for great students out there and we are just trying to recognize them.

“We just want to recognize them, these kids are excelling and getting 4.0s, we want to recognize them, myself and Mountain Dew.”

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