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Don’t Call Gill Cop-Out

“Hey K,” Gary Payton joked last week with Kendall Gill, “How many more games left in the season?

Gill knew.

“How many quarters left?”

Gill had the answer.

Sonics guard Kendall Gill practically was counting the hours until this season was done. He couldn’t wait to get out of Seattle, away from coach George Karl, away from the scrutiny of his game and attitude.

This should be the eve of the most exciting time of the year. The playoffs loom and the Sonics have positioned themselves into championship contention.

Gill should have been savoring the hours, not crossing them off like a prisoner waiting for his release.

But Gill is ill.

We discovered Tuesday he is suffering from symptoms of clinical depression. It is as serious a condition as a broken bone or a torn ligament. He probably will be lost for the rest of the regular season.

Nobody should look at this as a millionaire feeling sorry for himself. The people who say he should stop complaining and try working a real job for a while, don’t understand. This is a medical condition. And, after fighting, like the competitor he is, against the demons that have hounded him for years, Gill finally gave into that illness.

Nobody should be blamed. Not Karl, who had become stingy with Gill’s fourth-quarter minutes. Not Gill, who exploded after going scoreless and playing only 17 minutes against Minnesota.

Just as nobody is to blame for a broken foot, nobody is to blame for clinical depression. The news, however, helps explain a lot.

It helps explain why Gill wasn’t comfortable in Charlotte with a talented team that included Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson.

It helps explain why George Karl and he fought like Iran and Iraq.

Gill was happy with the team’s success, but unhappy with his role. He almost seemed outside of the team’s laughter. He seemed to live on the edge of this team, an important part, but emotionally apart.

Nobody knows why Karl benched Gill at crunch time so many times this season. Certainly their conflicting personalities influenced his decisions.

But now we know Gill’s problems were deeper than playing time. His depression didn’t happen just because he sometimes sat on the bench. He was a tortured soul this season, burying his depression deep inside him, never mentioning it to teammates.

Still, as angry as he was with Karl, as tormented as he was in private, he never took his problems onto the court. He played hard. He played some of the best ball of his career this year.

He never publicly asked for more playing time, or more shots. Those wishes were made by his agent to Karl, who made them public. He never sought out reporters to complain about Karl. But he was honest with them when they asked what he thought when he sat on the bench at crunch time.

The fact is, the Sonic locker room is as harmonious and relaxed as it has been in five years. There is no Ricky Pierce sniping at Gary Payton this year. There is no Eddie Johnson blaming everyone but himself for any team problems.

Gill, soft-spoken and introverted off the floor, never criticized his teammates. He never griped to them in public. He has their respect.

Gill is ill. He isn’t one of the petulant prima donnas of the 1990s. This isn’t Anthony Mason feuding with New York Coach Pat Riley, or Rod Strickland with Portland Coach P.J. Carlesimo, or Derrick Coleman with New Jersey Coach Butch Beard.

“I’d be lying if I said it (controversy) doesn’t affect me, because it does,” Gill said last week. “I’ve been trying to stay away from these situations and not letting them affect the team. This team has a chance to win a championship. I don’t want to be the cause of us not winning.”

Gill meant what he said. He is a professional. He wants to play. He wants his team to succeed.

The Sonic regular season has 10 games, 40 quarters, 480 minutes remaining.

But we should be counting the days until the playoffs begin. And while we are doing that, we should hope Gill can return and become part of this championship contender he helped create.