<h3>Gary Payton, aka The Glove, Is One Of The Greatest Point Guards To Ever Play. It’s A Shame That More People Don’t Recognize It.</h3>
We currently live in what is possibly the greatest point guard era of all time. One quick glance around the modern NBA – from the ageless wonders like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, to Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Deron Williams, who are widely recognized as the position’s current Gold Standard, to the young, revolutionary athletic marvels like Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, and on through to the emerging young bloods like Kyrie Irving, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley Jr. and Ricky Rubio – will inform us of the current renaissance underway at one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions in all of sport.
The shimmering, glossy hardwood basketball courts in today’s state of the art arenas are magnificent canvases that the aforementioned players, night in and night out, create priceless works of art while displaying their splendid mastery of their complicated craft.
Their work also provides some great context to compare and contrast what we’re now witnessing and debating which players, among this current brilliant group, will ascend to the pantheon reserved for those who are recognized to be among the best to ever play the position.
But before we get there, it bothers me, not that the usual suspects like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Tiny Archibald, John Stockton and the incomparable Oscar Robertson, aka The Big O always get their due, but that one man, Gary Dwayne Payton, aka “The Glove”, is erroneously left out of the discussion.
Payton grew up in Oakland, California and forged his game on the sundrenched, outdoor courts of the city like Mosswood Park and Brockdale Field, playing alongside talented players like J Kidd, Brian Shaw, Antonio Davis, Greg Foster, J.R. Rider and Hook Mitchell, one of the most gifted talents to never make the NBA.
Oakland, unlike New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, never receives its proper due when it comes to producing top flight talent, which seems strange given that Kidd, Bill Russell and Paul Silas, among others, spent their formative years there.
Payton was the youngest of four brothers and sisters and his fierce competitive spirit and never- back-down attitude was encoded in his DNA. His father, Al, would cruise around town with the name “Mr. MEAN” on his license plates.
Al worked two and sometimes three jobs as a chef to make sure that his youngest son would never go wanting.
“Money changes people’s minds,” Al once said. “I made sure Gary never had to sell drugs to get anything.”
Al was the neighborhood father who dispensed tough love to everyone: friends and neighbors alike. He believed in showing, by force if necessary, the way toward the right path. He taught his son to back down from no one.
He also coached Gary’s youth teams and raised money so that, every summer, he could pile teams into a van for overnight rides to tournaments in Vegas, Phoenix or San Diego. Al stressed the importance of playing defense and reading the entire court in order to make the correct pass.
Whenever young Gary didn’t defend or pass the ball to his father’s exacting expectations, Mr. Mean did not hesitate to snatch him from the game.
“With Gary, I knew he loved to play,” Al once told the Seattle Times. “So if he did something wrong, I sat him down. Once I sat him down and put him back in, he’d take it out on the opponents.”
“Everybody knew who he was,” Brian Shaw once told the LA Times’ J.A. Adande about Al Payton. “Everybody was kind of intimidated by him.”
At Skyline High School, The Glove was once suspended from the basketball team during his sophomore year.
“I messed up – fighting, trashing teachers and coaches, everybody,” Payton told Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated.
Fed up with his son’s antics, Al showed up at one of Gary’s classes.
“I went in there and told his classmates, ‘I’m going to show you all that he’s not a little man, he’s a little baby’, Al told the Seattle Times. “And I kind of spanked him in front of everyone. That was that. Even in college, all anyone had to do was say, ‘I’m going to call your father’ and Gary would straighten right up.”
Although G.P. dominated the Oakland Athletic League, questions about his attitude, in addition to the dollar signs and champagne glasses that were skillfully shaved into his head by his creative barber, scared off many college coaches.
Former UCLA coach Jim Harrick once said, “He had an air, like a guy who might cause trouble.”
Payton was originally slated to play his college ball at St John’s University in New York City. Can you imagine The Glove running the fast break with Malik Sealy on the wing, playing on national TV every week and testing himself regularly against the phenomenal talents in the Big East at the time like Sherman Douglass, Dana Barros, Billy Owens, Derrick Coleman, Terry Dehere, Charles Smith and Alonzo Mourning?
But unfortunately, for the Big East and St. John’s fans, Head Coach Lou Carnesecca reneged on The Glove’s scholarship offer at the last minute. Payton was actually dressed in a St. John’s warm up suit, awaiting the press conference at Skyline where he planned to announce that he would be heading to New York, when Carnesecca called to revoke the offer.
“Gary was devastated,” his father told the Seattle Times’ Nelson. “But it made him a better ballplayer. He wanted to prove that Carnesecca made a mistake. Gary just kept getting better and better, hoping he’d get a chance to play St. John’s.”
Carnesecca later admitted his severe misjudgment and error that probably kept the school away from another Final Four during his tenure.
“When I make a mistake, it’s a real whopper,” Carnesecca said about his decision to pull Payton’s scholarship.
An Oregon State assistant coach begged head man Ralph Miller to give Payton an opportunity. Miller demanded that the dollar signs and champagne glasses, that were shaved into his fade, disappear.
The Oregon State coaches were also under strict orders from Al Payton, who said, “I told them if the boy ever gets out of line, slap him upside the head and tell him it’s from me.”
But Miller did not mess with Gary’s commitment to the verbal warfare of trash talking that he was so skillfully proficient at.
“It’s been a touchy thing for me, but you can’t take away this kid’s style,” Miller once told Sports Illustrated’s Kirkpatrick. “His cockiness is what makes him tick. Gary just belies himself with the glares and the lip and the other stuff. He also never looks like he’s paying attention. But he is. He has the best eyes and ears I’ve ever known.”
Remarkably, Payton was named the Pac-10’s Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman. He started every game for four years and led Oregon State to three NCAA Tournaments. After averaging 13 and 15 points per game during his first two college seasons, he stepped it up as a junior, scoring 20 per game. As a senior, he averaged 26 per game, and hauled in a steady 8 rebounds per game every year.
Unfortunately, there were few outside of Corvallis, Oregon who realized that the sinewy, 6-foot-4 kid with barbed wire muscles was the best leader, passer, defender and overall college player in America.
While Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman, Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson, LSU’s Chris Jackson, UNLV’s Larry Johnson, Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson, LaSalle’s Lionel Simmons, Michigan State’s Steve Smith and Illinois’ Kendall Gill got most of the accolades, no one was more valuable to their team than Gary Payton.
“If I had gone to New York, maybe I’d have made All-American two years ago,” Gary told Sports Illustrated during his senior year. “But who knows what trouble I might have gotten into in the big city. Here, I settled down, slept a lot and started to take care of my body.”
He once scored 58 points against USC, prompting then Trojan Head Coach, and the man who allows me to share my thoughts in this esteemed space, Mr. George Raveling, to say, “That was as good of a one man performance as I’ve ever seen in the conference – be it Jabbar, Walton or whomever you want to name.”
But because Payton was playing at Oregon State, most of the world missed out on his college brilliance. Sports Illustrated let everyone know when they put him on the cover of the magazine, announcing him to the populace outside of Pac-10 enthusiasts as the National Player of the Year.
The Seattle Super Sonics used their highest draft pick ever, at the time, the second overall, to bring The Glove to Seattle.
He teamed up with the spectacularly gifted Shawn Kemp, The Reign Man, to form, with all due respect to Penny Hardaway and Shaq in Orlando, and the incredible things brewing in Los Angeles with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the greatest alley-oop duo of all time, which was known as “The Sonic Boom.”
Payton’s NBA accolades are too numerous to pontificate on in this space, but know this – He’s the only point guard to ever win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. EVER! Just let that marinate for one second.
And if you really want to know how he stacked up against the best, go back and watch the 1996 Finals, when he gave Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls more fits than a naturally belligerent, long-haired kid attacked by an army of ravenous lice.
Most people said Dean Smith was the only man who could keep Jordan from averaging 30 points, or that Joe Dumars guarded him better than anyone. But after seeing The Glove barking and sneering at him, while making him work for every inch on the court, I was convinced that I’d never seen anyone make Jordan look so human, in the way that Gary Payton did.
For some, Payton’s robust personality and his perpetually flapping gums somehow took away from his greatness. But in true basketball academia, we fully recognize The Glove as one of the greatest of all time.
Kevin Johnson once said, “Gary is certainly amongst the best ever, just as intimidating, maybe even more so than Magic, Isiah, Tiny and Mo Cheeks.”
Widely recognized as the best defensive point guard ever, his offensive contributions were also tremendous. Payton, through his complete body of work, made a compelling and convincing argument to be considered the best two-way point guard in history.
And think about this – Gail Goodrich, the man who played alongside the incomparable Jerry West, who was known as “Mr. Clutch” and is now referred to as The Logo, once said, “Gary Payton is probably as complete a guard as there ever was.”
So I ask you, if you were blessed to see him work throughout his underrated college and pro career, and if you’re intimately familiar with how truly outstanding he was, to seriously ponder the ramifications, as the thoughts dance through your mind, of the following question.
If offense and defense are weighted equally – and let me repeat that again for those who might be confused by the following words – if offense and defense are weighted equally, maybe we shouldn’t just be asking if Gary Payton is simply among the best point guards to ever play.
It mind sound crazy, but maybe what we should really be asking is, was he THE best?
Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Sporting News, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Dime Magazine, among others.