That “Mom, I don’t want to be a fool” stabbed like a dagger into Monique’s soul. So much so that she has never forgotten the moment. It was the summer of 2003 and she was flying from Seattle to Los Angeles to face the adventure of her husband, Gary Payton, head of the family and one of the great point guards of her time, in the Lakers. That phrase from her son, also called Gary and at the time 10 years old, summed up between tears and inside that plane the permanent discomfort he suffered. The derivative of not understanding why it was different.
Just two years earlier, little Gary had been diagnosed with dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult to learn to read and write and with which he could not learn to live. His mother still had an open wound. Monique she regretted the harshness with which she —without knowing what was happening— she had been able to treat her son during hundreds of nights in which she, before going to sleep, forced him to read to create a good habit.
She also did it with her brothers, Julian and Raquel, in sessions that never exceeded half an hour and where she always served as a guide. But while there were no problems with his brothers, Gary was constantly stuck. He stammered, hesitant, a victim of those lines whose messages it was difficult for him to decipher. She demanded of him and the boy still dragged that insecurity. Later, with perspective, already aware of the disorder that prevented her son from overcoming that apparently simple routine, the one who would cry—and for months—was going to be her.
In Los Angeles, Gary, who would study in a special center for children with learning disorders, not only accepted his situation, but ended up normalizing it, not showing any more tears or frustrations associated with the difficulty with which he had had to live. That served, in fact, as a future stimulus to try to help improve the lives of others.
In the United States, it is estimated that between 10% and 15% of children suffer from dyslexia. But Gary Payton II offers, from his platform, enormous support for them. And it is to such an extent that the NBA itself recently distinguished the Golden State Warriors player with the Bob Lanier Community Assist Award, an award that values the social impact of athletes on the environment that surrounds them. And one that, by the way, this year has seen his name altered in honor of the legendary Lanier, former player and benchmark for decades as a promoter of equality and social justice, who died last May.
Payton’s work in San Francisco, developed through his non-profit foundation focused on family and educational management of dyslexia, has earned recognition that, for the player himself, reaffirms the feeling of living the year that has transformed his life.
And it is that many things have changed in just a few months. Especially remembering that not so long ago, in mid-October, Payton faced the umpteenth crossroads of his career. The eternal conversation with his family and, above all, with himself about what to do. On whether it was worth continuing. Cut for the fourth time in six years and having accumulated only 71 games in five NBA career courses, with constant landings in that test bed called G-League, Payton was ready to give up.
The Golden State Warriors, with whom he had played ten games (but only forty minutes) the previous season, terminated his contract shortly before the start of this campaign, leaving him, once again, on the brink. No place to play, no trust to hold on to. Payton even asked an acquaintance in the franchise, assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, to intercede for him for a vacancy in the video coordination department. “I just wanted to be close to the game, if I couldn’t play I wanted to help”, journalist Kendra Andrews collected in her day.
Mahlalela knew that Payton, with enormous defensive intelligence and a keen eye for detail, could deliver there. But also that she could do it even more on the track. Fortunately for Gary, he wasn’t going to be the only one: four days later the Warriors would call Payton back, offering him the last spot on the roster and a chance at a franchise that dreamed of reigning again.
Payton’s goals were much less ambitious but, to tell the truth, not even in his wildest dreams would they have achieved what reality offered. The player has ended up being an active part of the rotation of Steve Kerr’s team. He has played the same games, only this year, as in the previous five together. He has done it with the highest average minutes (17.6) of his career and, above all, feeling valuable in a scheme that he perfectly complements.
The last sample could be seen during the fifth game of the NBA Finals, against the Celtics, with the series tied (2-2). It was a duel in which Payton, taking advantage of the minutes (26) that Steve Kerr allowed him, left his mark again. Because of his profile, a dim footprint or given to popular clamor, but an equally basic one to help win and leave the Warriors just one win away from the title.
On the track, Payton is not and will not be his father, a legend at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st and chosen among the 75 best players in the history of the NBA, but a real and stable opportunity has been enough, in an environment that appreciate the brightness but also the balance, to realize its value. He has been able, deep down, to suffice a home to make a luxury accessory emerge. On and off the field.
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