NBA 75th Anniversary Season
Archive 75: Gary Payton
It is, inarguably, one of the 10 best nicknames in NBA history.
Gary Payton credits his cousin Glen for the moniker. But Payton certainly earned it as one of the best perimeter defenders this league has ever seen, a First Team All-Defense selection in nine-straight seasons and the only point guard to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
“The best part of basketball for me is getting out there,” Payton said, “guarding somebody, and making them fear me.”
Payton wasn’t just a defender. He was a complete player, one of five in NBA history with at least 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 7,500 assists.
Payton was born and raised in Oakland, Calif. As a sophomore, he was suspended from the basketball team at Skyline High School “for bad grades and a worse attitude,” as Curry Kirkpatrick once wrote in Sports Illustrated. But he matured, attended Oregon State, and became one of the best players in the country by his senior year. In his SI cover story, Kirkpatrick saw what NBA fans would eventually come to love about Payton, hidden in the Pacific Northwest.
“Is it any wonder then that in the ensuing two seasons hardly anybody outside the green glades of Corvallis has recognized that bad, baaad Gary Payton, son of Mr. Mean, is at the same explosive time the coolest, edgiest and most trash-talkin’ player, the slickest defender, the deadliest passer, the cockiest leader — in short, the best college basketball player in America?”
The Seattle Supersonics selected Payton with the second pick in the 1990 Draft. Highlights from his fifth career game (vs. New York on Nov. 13, 1990) feature a skinny Payton harassing Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, flourishing in transition, tossing a perfect lead pass to Shawn Kemp for a two-handed dunk, and hitting a couple of big buckets in what was an overtime defeat.
Payton started all 82 games as a rookie, and that was a sign of things to come. He isn’t necessarily remembered for his durability, but in 17 seasons in the NBA, Payton played in 1,489 (98%) of a possible 1,519 games (including playoffs). Five of those 30 missed games were because of in-season trades, while 16 of the other 25 came in his final season.
And while he showed glimpses of greatness early on, he might not have made it to 17 years had it not been for a coaching change in early 1992. Payton has admitted to struggling through his first two seasons, when his brashness was more of a façade.
“I just wasn’t playing the type of basketball I wanted to play,” he said. “And I started to hate basketball.”
But with George Karl on the bench, Kemp on the frontline, and Payton running the show in a system that fit him better, the Sonics began to flourish. They upset the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 1992 playoffs and were a top-four seed in each of the next six seasons. Over that stretch (1992-93 through ’97-98), only the Chicago Bulls (362-130) had a better regular-season record than the Sonics (357-135).
The Sonics’ best season in that run was 1995-96, when they won 64 games and reached The Finals, losing to the Bulls in six games. After they went down 3-0, Karl had Payton guard Michael Jordan, a move that curbed Jordan’s efficiency and helped the Sonics win Games 4 and 5. But it wasn’t enough.
With all those wins came All-Star selections (nine of them, including two starts) and LOTS of highlights, none more spectacular than Payton feeding the ridiculously athletic Kemp for gasp-inducing lobs on the regular.
VIEWER WARNING: You’re likely going to hit the “Replay” button over and over after watching this one:
Payton wasn’t a great shooter (31.7% in his career from 3-point range), but he averaged more than 20 points per game in seven of his 17 seasons. He was able to beat you on both ends of the floor … and he’d let you know about it. In fact, Payton was such a good trash talker that he talked trash about his trash talking, calling himself “the greatest trash talker of all-time” in his Hall of Fame speech. “But you know what … I can back it up!”
“He wanted you to know that you were gonna lose the game,” Karl said, “that you weren’t going to play very well, and it was basically because ‘I’m covering you.’ ”
In Seattle, Payton will always be remembered as a leader, a fiery player who put defense and effort above everything else. He understood the value in leading by example, and as he matured in the league, he learned how to convey those values to players younger than himself.
The Sonics made the playoffs in 10 of Payton’s 12 full seasons in Seattle, winning eight series over a stretch in which Payton also won two Olympic gold medals with USA Basketball. The end of the run came in the 2002-03 season, when Payton was traded to Milwaukee for Ray Allen.
The following offseason, Payton signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, joining forces with fellow Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. But that team disappointed, losing in the 2004 Finals. And, after a year with the Boston Celtics, it was in Miami where Payton finally reached the top of the NBA.
He came off the bench for the Heat, but as they came back from an 0-2 series deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006 Finals, Payton had two of the biggest buckets in the series, a step-in jumper for the lead with 9.3 seconds left in Game 3 (capping a comeback from 13 points down in the fourth quarter) and a ridiculous lefty scoop off the glass for the lead with less than 30 seconds to go in overtime of Game 5.
In total, Payton was 6-for-8 on “clutch” shots in the 2006 playoffs, capping a Hall of Fame career with a championship as a leader and a star in his role.
If you’re the greatest trash talker of all-time, there’s no better way to back it up.