Gift of gab an unmistakable part of Payton's Hall of Fame legacy
It will not surprise you to learn that the first time I saw Gary Payton in person, he was talking. It was in 1990, when he was a senior at Oregon State and I was a writer for The National, and I had arrived in Corvallis to interview him for a feature story. A sports information staffer brought me to the gym, where I waited while Payton finished his end-of-practice shooting drills, catching passes and hoisting jumpers from the top of the key.
Every release came with accompanying commentary. "Put your hand down, you can't stop this. Too late. Take the early bus and get here quicker next time. Don't even turn around, you know it went in. Ooh, another one. How'd that feel?" All the trash talk wouldn't have seemed so unusual, since Payton's chatty reputation was already well known, except for one thing: No one was playing defense. Payton was taunting the air.
When he was finished, I asked if he always verbally abused imaginary defenders. Payton cocked his head to one side and gave me that quizzical look that would become so familiar to NBA fans, the one he would give referees who called a foul on him when his plastic wrap defense became a little too aggressive. He looked confused for a moment, as if he didn't realize he had been yapping while shooting. Then he said, "It just comes out of me. If you know me, you know I'm always gonna talk."
We certainly know him now, after 17 loquacious NBA seasons that led him to Springfield, Mass., where he will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend. Payton, selected to the All-Defensive first team nine times, earned his spot in the Hall on the strength of his lockdown ability on D -- which actually overshadowed his considerable offensive skills -- not his talkative nature. Still, it wouldn't be altogether inappropriate if his Hall of Fame plaque depicted him in another familiar pose -- his mouth wide open, chin jutting out defiantly -- accompanied by a tape of his greatest trash-talking hits playing on an endless loop.
It's hard to separate now which of Payton's bon mots I heard firsthand and which ones traveled through the grapevine from other writers. He once told Timberwolves coach Sidney Lowe, a 6-foot former NBA guard, to "Shut up, you little Smurf." Before a game against the Nets, he looked at the sparse crowd at Meadowlands Arena and said to opposing point guard Kenny Anderson, "At least nobody will see me take the ball from you."
Even Payton's teammates were sometimes overwhelmed by his verbiage. Michael Cage, who played with Payton in Seattle, once told me that after being on the court with Payton, "You just want to go find a library or something. Someplace totally quiet." Not enough notice has been given to Payton's ability to be a silent irritant, as well. I once saw him cap off an evening of annoying Lakers guard Eddie Jones by walking up to him during a dead ball and blowing in Jones' ear. Just blew in his ear for no reason. Kept on walking. That was Payton.
My days of covering Payton go back far enough that I once wrote that "although he has been called the Glove ... the nickname has never caught on." (Yeah, that changed.) During his 13 years with the Sonics, it seemed that at least once a season I wrote about how Payton was moving away from the smack-talking style he'd learned on the Oakland, Calif., playgrounds of his youth. I can go back in my notebooks and find quotes from various years to that effect from teammates Sam Perkins, Hersey Hawkins, Nate McMillan, Shawn Kemp, coach George Karl and general manager Wally Walker, among others, as well as from Payton himself.
It was easy to believe, because away from the court Payton was usually -- while still chatty -- warmer and more contemplative than he was in games. I visited him at his home in the Oakland Hills during the summer of '96, after the Sonics had lost to the Bulls in the NBA Finals, and I was struck by how soft-spoken and mellow he seemed.
"I think I've grown up a lot," he said. "I mean, I'm always going to talk, but I know how to control it better now, when to tone it down. I don't worry that much about what people think of me, but nobody wants to be known as a loudmouth their whole career."
But he never really changed, thank goodness, at least not during his prime in Seattle. Payton was always the edgy, combative talker and player that he was when he came into the league, and really, that was for the best. It's hard to imagine that a toned-down Payton would have been as effective or as entertaining for those gloriously dysfunctional Sonics teams.
He would also have lost his unofficial place in NBA history. Perhaps more than any other player, Payton was responsible for the general public's discovery of the trash-talking culture in the league. He wasn't the first player to talk smack, but he was one of the cockiest and most creative, and -- credit him or blame him for this -- he helped make trash-talking an expected, and largely accepted, part of the pro game. The irony is that if Payton came along today, in the era of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and other well-known talkers, the verbal part of his game probably wouldn't stand out nearly as much as it did 20 years ago.
For any writer who covered him and any fan who loved an original, it's a good thing that Payton never hit his own mute button. It's not surprising that he is still making a living with his mouth, as an analyst for Fox Sports 1. He has one of the biggest talks of his life coming up this weekend -- his speech at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony -- and the smart money says he'll make it memorable. Talk as much as you please, Glove. I hope you never shut up.