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Celtics OK with this traveling

Gary Payton was back at practice yesterday. His third round trip to California since the start of training camp was, as they say in the trade, an elevator ride. Out on Saturday. Check on the family. Back on Sunday in time for the rap concert at the FleetCenter.

"As soon as I got back here, I went [to the concert] and relaxed," Payton said.

Relaxation hasn't been easy for Payton, who is trying to maintain a bicoastal life with his basketball in Boston and his family in the Los Angeles area. His latest trip to California was due to an illness in the family (his wife Monique) and he said yesterday that he wanted to keep the conversation on basketball.

"I'm fine," he insisted. "Everything is good."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, when asked about Payton's recent commute, said, "I think things are getting better at home."

Thanks to a schedule break that has the Celtics playing only twice in 10 days, Payton, with the blessing and support of Rivers and Danny Ainge, made trips to the West Coast over the last two weekends. In each case, he missed one practice. In each case, the message to Payton was: "Do what you need to do."

"I promised Gary that we would do everything we can to alleviate the burden he has with his family," Ainge said. "I believe players play better happy. I think Gary's focus is on basketball, but he has family responsibilities and we're trying to help him manage the best we can. To this point, Gary has been as good and as professional as I could have imagined or dreamed."

Payton also has a sympathetic coach in that Rivers, too, is living away from his family. Last Thursday, Rivers chartered a private plane and flew to Orlando to see his daughter's high school volleyball team clinch the state title. (He said he watched game tapes on his laptop while airborne.) The trip may have cost him $15,000, he estimated.

"I would have paid a million dollars to do that," Rivers said. "My daughter in the state championships? As a parent, you have to see that. It may never happen again. Me and Gary talk about [visiting family]. It's part of the business, but it's a part no one knows about. And our situations are similar. In fact, they're exactly the same."

Well, not exactly. Payton did not want to come here in the first place and did so only at the last moment. He's also six hours away by air -- and private planes generally charge by the mile. The Celtics sent a private plane to get him here for the start of training camp. The team knew going forward that Payton's 3,000-mile separation might be difficult for the point guard. He has a wife and three children in California, including a high school-age daughter, Raquel, who, if she had come East, would have been going to her third school in as many years.

Ainge can relate, sort of. When the Celtics dealt him to Sacramento, he had to spend the last couple of months in California by himself because his family was still in Boston-area schools. As he recalled yesterday, "It wasn't easy, so I can sympathize.

"I visited with Gary and his family," Ainge went on. "I saw the emotion in his wife and daughter. And in Gary, how difficult it was going to be. I know that it's not a perfect situation. I knew that going in. I think Gary has lived up to his end of the bargain and we've lived up to our end of the bargain. And I'm not really concerned about this as we go forward."

Rivers said he, too, isn't concerned. For starters, Payton has come back earlier than he needed to and, despite a sore thumb, has practiced even when Rivers wished he wouldn't. And the coach need only look at the schedule to know that there won't be many more long breaks between games. (There could be an opportunity for a visit on the team's first Western swing next month, which ends in Los Angeles. But it would only be for an extra day.)

"There won't be a lot of these in the future," Rivers said of Payton's trips back home. "But we have a lot of practices. And it's a long season. If I can keep my guys mentally clean, they have a better chance of playing [well] than if there are a lot of things going on."

Payton said he's grateful that the Celtics have been so accommodating. He has support from above and his teammates have accepted that he might miss a practice or two along the way. As Paul Pierce noted yesterday, "I know it has to be difficult on him, especially with the distance he has to go. But with a player like Gary, he's so strong mentally."

According to Rivers, Payton was back to his old form yesterday. There was an expletive-laden upbraiding of Marcus Banks during practice; Payton seems incapable of doing it any other way. As Rivers noted, "With Gary, you listen to the intent, not the delivery."

Said Payton, "Everything is going fine with the team. I've just got to keep it in mind that I stay with my family and work that out. It'll be fine. Everything is going to be good. The Celtics have been doing everything to help me do that. I'm not really used to it yet. But it's getting there." 

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