Gary Payton Talks the Talk, 1995

[Here’s a short article on the always-yappy Gary Payton, who was then entering his fifth season with the Seattle Supersonics. The article was written by the fantastic Fran Blinebury and ran in the magazine Street & Smith’s Pro Basketball, 1994-95. Enjoy!]

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Gary Payton talks. Yes, and the sun shines and the tides roll in and the wind blows and the grass grows. Some things are inevitable. Payton talks in the locker room, and he talks on the basketball court. He talks on radio and on television. He talks when he is driving around in his car, and he talks at his own coach, and he talks at the referees. Talking, talking. Never stopping. The only thing bigger than his ego is his mouth. 

“If somebody says something to me, I’m going to yap,” Payton said. “If something happens, and I feel like talking, I’m going to talk. When I’m feeling good, I know I’m going to talk.”

The only thing the Sonics’ guard does more relentlessly is hound the man he is guarding on defense. Try to bring the ball upcourt, and Payton is all over you. Try to drive, and he’s blocking your path. Try to go up for a jump shot, and he’s got a hand in your face. Try to run into the bench for relief, and he just might beat you to your seat. Nonstop. That’s Payton. That’s the way he’s made himself the eye of the hurricane that is the Seattle attack that ran up a league-high 63 victories last season.

“Make no mistake about it, we can’t be what we are or who we are without Gary,” said Sonic coach George Karl. “After taking a couple of years to get his feet underneath him in the NBA, he is playing great basketball. And I do mean overall basketball, not just one aspect of the game. 

“He plays great with his defensive pressure, and he plays great on offense with his scoring and his passing. When Gary and Shawn Kemp are really into it, we’re a very difficult team to beat. Because if I can get those two into it, I can always find three other players to put on the court who’ll get carried along in the storm.”

If Payton is not the straw that stirs the Sonics’ drink, he is certainly the firecracker who puts the noise and the pop in their attack. What Payton does is put an elbow in your chest, a blast in your ear, a jumper in your eyes. And then he’ll always be right there to tell you about it. 

He’s ornery, aggressive, loud, and now he’s all of the things the Sonics hoped when they made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 college draft, just behind Derrick Coleman, and were immediately second-guessed when he didn’t fit in with then-coach K.C. Jones’ philosophy.

“When I came into the league, I didn’t know what to expect out of K.C. Jones,” Payton said. “It just turned out that his style wasn’t my style of basketball, and I never could feel comfortable. I couldn’t play the Boston Celtics’ style that he was trying to put in. I’m a fast-paced player, and that style didn’t work for me. I had a bad year and a half, and people were questioning me. But now, I’ve had a good two-and-a-half years, and they realize that it wasn’t me, it was the system.”

The system of constant pressure that Karl brought to the Sonics made Payton fit in like a duck to a pond. “In fact, we couldn’t play the way we do without Gary,” Karl said. “That’s because everything we do starts with the pressure on the ball, and since 80 percent of the NBA offenses start with the point guard, it’s important to have a player like Gary at that position to start throwing everybody off center.”

It would have been quite easy for Payton to have been thrown off center in his life, having grown up in East Oakland, California, a haven for drugs and every other kind of modern-day inner-city nightmare. 

“Whatever you were looking for, you could find in my old neighborhood,” Payton said. “I could have told you where to go. I think I knew every drug dealer in town.”

But knowing them was one thing, and being enticed was another. Payton stayed out of trouble because he gravitated toward basketball. Or maybe was pushed into the game by a strict and loving father who was determined to keep his son straight.

Al Payton raised Gary with an iron hand, but he was always there to coach his summer-league basketball team or to give him a few dollars for spending money. “Money changes people’s minds,” Al Payton said. “I made sure Gary never had to sell drugs to get any.”

After a stellar high school career at Skyline, what Payton had to sell was a world of talent that eventually took him from the mean streets of East Oakland to the sleepy town of Corvallis, where he attended Oregon State. He started every game for four years, finished No. 2 on the NCAA all-time lists for steals and assists. Sports Illustrated named him the Player of the Year.

Then, he arrived in Seattle. Talking, always talking.

“A lot of people take me the wrong way,” he said. “People think I’m a cocky person just because I talk a lot, but that’s just my game. I tried to change my first two years here, but it didn’t help. Now, I’ll never change again. That’s just me.”

Talking the talk. Walking the walk. It’s hard to ignore Gary Payton.

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