When we watch a basketball game, we automatically--through a kind of rapt, almost religious attention--divide it up into a series of isolated moments, and each moment is then subdivided by a consolation of remarkable gestures. Everything that occurs, occurs with such incredible quickness. Every second, as we gawk at the court, is a shutter-quick of separation, a parceling of time and activity. The spectator's eye swarms over a field in constant flux, a blur of bodies in perpetual motion, waiting for the next play that will bring with it a momentary, nearly hilarious relief from an almost unendurable suspense.Suspense and relief, squint, frown and smile... continuously repeated over a span of 48 minutes. This is not only how we watch the sport, it's why we watch the sport: to witness the seemingly effortless implementation of style within, or against, a chaos of rapid movement blurring through time. Basketball is unique this way. No other sport is so relentlessly defined and confined by time, by all these clocks nagging at tenths of seconds; and yet the pleasures to be derived from watching basketball seem to subside wholly in the magical suspension of time--in any given player's sudden ability to arrest the clock through an exquisite feat of grace or accuracy or courage (sometimes all three). And the game's greatest players, the ones we love to see "do their stuff," are those who appear totally impervious to time. Their graceful, entrancing movements elevate them--and, oh-so-briefly, us--above such ordinary ho-hum concerns. Their style is their talent is their art. The apotheosis of style.

"Watching a basketball game on TV," wrote Leonard Michaels in his 1993 book of essays, To Feel These Things, "I saw Walt Frazier start to his left with a sort of no-beat dribble, then break right, going to the basket at a hard slant, his opponent going just as fast, then not fast enough. Frazier went by untouched, soaring toward delivery, and the ball whispered through the net before his sneakers hit the floor. The move took one second, yet was packed with sensational detail. I was alone in the house. There was nobody to whom I could say, 'Did you see that?' Then Bill Russell's voice came on the air. 'Frazier doesn't look fast, but that's because he's so smooth.' Russell, who often said things more pleasing than the game, said exactly what I'd seen. If he'd wanted to write about Frazier's move and had then sat all day at a typewriter, he couldn't have said it better."

Here's what I'm getting at: Substitute the name Gary Payton for Walt Frazier, and you have a nearly perfect description of what it is that makes the Sonics point guard such a constant joy to watch. Payton, like any number of fantastic players over the years--Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan--has, as Michaels says of Frazier, the "clarity of tremendous style." And that style, a sort of unbounded determination that carves beauty from pure slapstick, suffuses every aspect of his game: from his ridiculously high-arcing scoop shots in the lane, to his scrappy, stealthy drives on the baseline, to his endless chattering and challenging on the floor. Payton is the NBA's Charlie Chaplin, rescuing grace from garbage and transforming his physical limitations into an amazing asset. Half of the shots Payton puts through the hoop appear guided by nothing but outrageous luck; but that, due to the irrefutable laws of physics, is simply impossible. This is exactly why he's so amazing to watch. His chaotic gestures, despite all appearances, are entirely controlled. The implementation of his style is a sheer force of will.