I was ten years old when I got a new issue of Sports Illustrated in the mail anointing Gary Payton, then a junior point guard at Oregon State, as the Player of the Year. The tagline described him as “do-everything, say-anything.” I had no idea who he was. Growing up in the northeast, I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of Pac-10 basketball. It was Curry Kirkpatrick who wrote this SI piece that hipped me to a dude that would become one of my three favorite basketball players ever (along with Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson). This following passage -- along with GP’s snarling cover photo -- hooked me in particular:
Maybe it's because Gary's Oregon State Beavers perform nearly exclusively on cable, and long after much of America has switched to Arsenio Hall discussing great art with Shelley Winters. The only time during Payton's college career that the Beavers have been seen by more than a network regional audience was in 1988 in the final of the Pac-10 tournament, when Arizona blew them away and Payton, a sophomore, fouled out.
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?
Does Payton blithely refine his image as a street tough in front of a cracked looking glass—You talkin' to me?—as he coldly prepares to lay out another opponent with all those points (27.1 per game it week's end), assists (8.6), rebounds (4.8) and steals (3.6)? Or is he truly as vicious a wastrel hot dog as he seems? “Get somebody out here who can guard me!”
And, of course, the first time I got my chance to see GP live, it was as he was getting bounced in the NCAA Tournament a few weeks after I read the SI piece. I didn’t get to see any of GP’s trademark bravado until he was a quarter of the way through his 16-year NBA career. It was during a late-game of a TNT double-header. The Sonics were playing the Golden State Warriors and GP was abusing Tim Hardaway, hounding him up the court with what looked like disdain, bumping his gums the whole way. Then, the other end, he was taking Hardaway in the post, drop-steppin’ on lames, hitting open shooters...it was surgical. That’s his legacy, being among a handful of the best two-way guards to ever bounce a basketball.
Payton was inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday. First ballot status. It was never a question. For about a nine-season stretch between 1994 and 2002, he was the best point guard in game. John Stockton (whom Payton recently said was his toughest guard) was more respected and decorated, Tim Hardaway had the slicker game, Penny Hardaway was briefly transcendent -- but GP takes the crown for that era. As he stated in his induction speech, GP and Shawn “Reign Man” Kemp were the original Lob City. In fact, GP may be the greatest lob-thrower ever. Check this YouTube highlight reel. The way he’d fling those lobs with so little effort, yet with such timing and accuracy is prototype ish. GP and Kemp gave the 72-win Bulls all they could handle in the 1996 Finals. Every sports fan saw the future as GP lead those young swaggering Sonics. They should’ve stole a championship between the Jordan and Shaq eras. Never happened. That didn’t mean, however, that Payton wasn’t balling his brain out. When Seattle traded away Kemp -- in effect, for Vin Baker -- that’s when GP really started getting busy. In 2000, GP averaged about 24 ppg, 9 apg, 7 rpg and 2 spg. That’s a rare statline. Other than Shaq and Tim Duncan, he was the best player in the league that season. Too bad he was dragging around a ragged Seattle squad.
It’s been almost 25 years after SI introduced us to what would become one of the greatest players ever. GP had a self-reverential, but completely accurate comment toward the end of his HOF induction speech.
“As players we dream of this moment,” Payton said, “But we don’t expect to be standing here.”
Then he paused and flashed a knowing smirk.
“But I really, really liked my chances.”