Gary Payton: The Man, The Mouth, The Legend
One of the many beauties of sports is that they allow observers with an opportunity to assign words or phrases to athletes that you wouldn't traditionally hear in a public setting. Ubiquitously used terms like" Diva" and "Gymrat" elicit entirely different, though equally intense responses from all parties in question.
One of my favorite such idioms is "has some dog in em," on its surface, the phrase seems rather benign and innocuous. For those in the know, it's one of the highest forms of praises you could bestow on a professional athlete. It speaks less to the person's game and more to their character and temperament. "Dogs" play with a competitive spirit that influences teammates and permeates every facet of the game. The NBA has a long-standing history of "dogs" at the point guard position, but few matched the intensity and tenacity of Mr. Gary Dwayne Payton Sr.aka "The Glove."
Let's take a look at how GP became one of the game's most respected and feared floor generals of his generation.
Gary Payton was born in Oakland, California, to Al and Annie Payton. Al played college basketball at Alcorn St. and became a fixture in Oakland's youth basketball scene. Al earned the nickname "Mean Al" for his stoic demeanor and disciplinarian ways, his no-nonsense approach hardened and empowered Gary as well as other notable Oakland hoopers such as NBA alums Jason Kidd, Antonio Davis, and Greg Foster.
Gary made a name for himself at Skyline High School alongside Greg Foster, by his senior season he had established himself as one of the nation's top point guards. Payton almost found himself playing for Lou Carnesecca's St John's squad before the coach rescinded his scholarship in fears that luring such a high profile west coast prospect would disrupt future recruiting efforts back east.
Payton went back to the drawing board and consulted with his family before choosing Oregon State. Payton made an impact his first two seasons but saw his game jump by leaps and bounds during his junior and senior seasons. Payton averaged 25.7 PPG 4.7 RPB and 8.1 APG his senior year, closing his collegiate career as the PAC-10 POTY and a 1st team All-American.
Payton rode the hype of his senior year into the NBA, where he was drafted 2nd overall in the 1990 NBA draft by the Seattle Supersonics. Once again, Payton struggled early on averaging a pedestrian 7.2 PPG 3.0 RPG 6.4 APG his rookie year playing under NBA HOF'er KC Jones. In interviews, Payton recalled the challenges of being a rookie playing under Jones and how his sporadic minutes affected his confidence and rhythm.
Payton's inconsistency stretched into his 2nd season before Sonics decided to move on from Jones and hire George Karl as head coach and add Tim Grgurich, a former UNLV assistant under Jerry Tarkanian, to the coaching staff. Tim Grgurich's name is not one you'll often hear when fans talk about the Seattle Supersonics success, but according to Payton, his contributions were invaluable.
Contrary to popular belief, Payton and Karl didn't see eye to eye early on. Grgurich's title may have said assistant, but his duties included that of arbitrator/mediator for Karl and Payton. As Payton described it, he found a "father figure" in Grgurich, a man who would hold him accountable while giving him the freedom to be himself similar to "Mr. Mean."
Over the next 14 seasons, Payton would go on to establish himself as one of the game's most complete guards. Payton used his 6'4 frame to turn and exploit ball handlers, constantly disrupting half-court sets. He is also ambidextrous which allowed him to utilize his superior footwork to attack defenses from angles that left opposing defenses puzzled.
“The Glove” never shied away from contact, often putting his back to the basket using his size to impose his will upon smaller guards and manipulate defenses. In Seattle, he and Shawn Kemp would capture the hearts and imaginations of fans with their high wire act. In a world before league pass, the Sonics were "must see TV," a precursor to "Lob City." Payton's combination of length and skills, coupled with Kemp's size and athleticism, turned the Sonics into legitimate contenders for the crown culminating in a 1996 Finals loss to the Chicago Bulls.
After spending his first 12 years in Seattle, he moved around a bit first to Milwaukee wherein a half-season he led the Bucks to a 2003 Eastern Conference Finals loss to the New Jersey Nets. Payton's stint would be short as he would leave Milwaukee to go and play for the LA Lakers, where they lost in the 2004 NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons.
Payton played briefly in Boston before ending his career in Miami, where he would be reunited with Shaquille O'Neal to win his first and only NBA championship in 2006. His resume speaks for itself: no other point guard has ever won the DPOY award, he is a 2x Gold Medalist, 9x All-Star,9x All-NBA selection. Gary's trash-talking skills are legendary, but his game wasn't far behind.