The Gift of Gab

MIAMI, April 12 – Trash talking. Talking smack. Selling wolf tickets. Jive talking. Whatever you call it, HEAT guard Gary Payton is the perennial king.

But Payton is more than one of the NBA’s great gabbers. And when he finally unlaces his size 12 Jordans for good, he will be remembered as one of the all-time NBA greats.

The future Hall of Famer has averaged 17.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.97 steals throughout his 15-year NBA career. His reputation as a shutdown defender earned him the nickname “Glove.” He’s one of the best defensive players in NBA history, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1996, including eight-straight NBA All-Defensive First Team selections.

But it’s not just Payton’s strength and quickness that gives the Glove the ability to wear down the opposing team’s best perimeter player. His best defense just may be his mouth.

Payton, known around the NBA for his bobbing head when talking to opposing players or referees, says that looks aren’t always what they seem when he’s talking on the court.

“Sometimes I get accused of trash talking even though I’m not,” he said. “When people see you talking with the referees or to other players, they immediately figure you’re trash talking. But I could be talking to a guy about what’s going on or asking about his family.”

Don’t get it wrong, Payton has done his fair share of verbal sparring. But his ability to get into an opposing player’s psyche came from an unlikely source. Growing up in Oakland, CA, where some of the greatest playground ballers are from, it’s easy to think that Payton learned to trash talk from pickup games. According to Payton, it came from his father, Al Payton, who encouraged the then-young Payton to get into the heads of the opposing team.

“My father would always say, ‘Talk to him. Try to talk him out of his game.’ If you talk to a player and you keep telling him that you can beat him, he’ll eventually start believing it.

“It’s all about mental toughness, and that’s what I have,” he continued. “You just keep talking and keep playing. Some players want to get mad and take it personal, but that’s how you know you got them – they start thinking about you all the time.”

Payton admits that trash talking is becoming a lost art – an art that he’s going to try to keep around as long a possible.

“There aren’t too many guys who talk out on the court now. Reggie Miller was always talking, but he’s retired now. (Los Angeles Clipper guard) Sam Cassell is a talker. He’ll really wear you down. Today, everyone just go out there and play basketball, which is a good thing. It’s just basketball and you’re not distracted by other stuff.”

Even though Payton has gotten into the heads, and under the skin, of many basketball players, from the playground to the NBA, Payton very rarely crosses the line.

“I never take it too far. I don’t know the people who I talk about. I just try to talk and get their mind off the game and turn their attention on me.”

On the court, Payton is all action and a whole lot of talk. But off the court, he’s all action, especially in the community.

In 1996, he established the Gary Payton Foundation to help underprivileged children stay in school and provide safe places for recreational activities. He is active in the Girls & Boys Clubs of America and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He’s even written an autobiographical children’s book entitled “Confidence Counts (Positively For Kids).” In addition, Payton donates HEAT tickets to underprivileged children as part of the HEAT’s “Player Corner” program. Last Christmas, he also gave 60 children from Voices For Children Foundation a $100 shopping spree at Toys “R” Us in Miami.

Opposing players may say that Payton has a big mouth, but ask the thousands of people who he has touched through community outreach; they will say Payton has a big heart.