You talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me?
—TRAVIS BICKLE, to himself in the mirror
(Played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver)
Maybe it's because he looks so nasty when he plays—his glare piercing, his jaws flapping, his angular body rippling, snaking, curling itself across the court into the shape of the very snarl that binds his face. Or perhaps it's because Gary Payton is nasty. Call it genetics. The license plate on his father's 280 Z back home in Oakland reads MR MEAN, because, as Al Payton says, "I am mean. I taught the kid the look, the intimidation, yeah, the meanness. When I played, I liked to hurt people."
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!" Payton screamed at the Stanford bench during an 84-70 victory on Feb. 3.
"Forget this one," Payton woofed at Washington's players in the midst of the Huskies' 66-57 upset of Oregon State on Feb. 15. "Y'all still draggin' last in the conference!" (They were actually ninth.) In that game, Payton had twice as many turnovers (six) as baskets (three) in what was easily his worst performance since somebody other than the folks of Williamette (Ore.) Valley figured he should be a Player of the Year candidate, right up there with all those Rumeal Robinson and Larry Johnson types.
For a guy who appears to have a chip on his shoulder as wide as the Cascades, who sometimes chews out his own teammates and who chests up the entire Pac-10 with hardly a chest of his own—Payton is 6'4", 180 pounds, most of it barbed wire and nerve endings—the biggest shock of all is that nobody has ever smashed his face to smithereens. "A shack bully," is how Washington State coach Kelvin Sampson once described Payton. "He's like a bounty hunter, always out there looking for you. But I think he gets more respect than any player in the league."
"Payton doesn't mean any harm with his trash," says Washington guard Eldridge Recasner, who did some harm of his own in that Husky victory, outscoring Payton 28-13. "It's just his competitiveness. He doesn't get in fights, because he backs up everything he says. He's not out there mouthing off, then playing like a girl." (Whoops. Washington's women's team was ranked fifth last week by the AP; Recasner and his mates were closer to 105th.)
Southern Cal center/forward Chris Munk says, "Gary talks it, Gary walks it."
At least Payton didn't have to adopt a second sport—or second name—to get some attention. Nearly three decades ago, Oregon State basketball player Terry Baker made a national splash. But he was more famous as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Two other Oregon State graduates had to leave Corvallis before becoming well known—as Betty Crocker and Bozo the Clown.
Shall we get the award thing over with right away? Michigan's Robinson and LSU's Chris Jackson have been too up and down, UNLV's Johnson has not dominated the big games, and La Salle's Lionel Simmons doesn't get to play big games. Remove those players from their teams, and the teams would still be awfully competitive. Remove Payton from the Pac-10-leading-but-lord-knows-how Beavers (21-4 overall through Sunday, 14-2 in the conference), and Oregon State makes an emergency call to the NAIA. He is simply the strongest candidate for NCAA Player of the Year.
"I'd rather play against Rumeal any day," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, against whose team Robinson scored 27 points earlier this season. Payton had 25 against the Wildcats. Sampson, three years a head coach at Washington State and once a grad assistant at Michigan State, says, "When I think about another guy who made guys around him this much better, I think of Earvin [Magic Johnson]."
This is not the first time Payton has been linked with some fairly respectable history makers. Last Thursday he poured in 58 points in a 98-94 overtime win over Southern Cal to come within three points of the Pac-10 single-game scoring record set by Lew Alcindor in 1966-67. Afterward, USC coach George Raveling said, "That was as good a one-man performance as I've ever seen in the conference—be it Walton, Jabbar or whomever you want to name."
Earlier this season, in the Far West Classic, Payton scored 15 of his team's first 22 points against Boston University. On the final two nights of the tournament, against Louisiana Tech and Oregon, he made the game-winning shots to cap performances in which he had, respectively, 35 points and 12 assists, and 30 and 13. "This is a great player," said Boston University coach Mike Jarvis. "Does he have any relatives?"
Uh-huh. Besides Al, a restaurant owner in Fremont, Calif., and Annie, Gary's mother, there are four older brothers and sisters, including Sharon, whom Payton credits with inspiring the feistiness that is his hole card. "On the softball field, I'm tellin' you, Sharon would punch out boys," he says.
Payton attended Skyline High, which is in the OAL (Oakland Athletic League). OAL games are often played with armed guards on hand (OAL might as well stand for Offensive Agitation, Legal). Oregon State coach Jim Anderson remembers scouting an OAL tournament during which six squad cars were needed to quell a riot—and that was between games. "You talk about rowdy," says Payton. "In Oakland the players were on you. The refs were on you. The stands were on you. You had to talk back or you were a sissy; you'd get run out of the league. Afterward? Yeah, it was kind of a, uh, struggle to get out of the gym. Cops had to be everywhere. Which was lucky."
Payton was suspended from the team for half of his sophomore season for bad grades and a worse attitude. "I messed up—fighting, trashing teachers and coaches, everybody," he says. For about two months, Al had to trek to Skyline three times a week. Once, Al barged right into a classroom and read the kid the riot act in front of the other students. "I started growing up," says Gary.
Still, the Oregon State coaches are under orders from Al. "I told them if the boy ever gets out of line, slap him upside the head and tell him it's from me," says Mr. Mean.
Questions about his attitude caused several college coaches to back off. He also wore a diamond earring, and he was ahead of his time with such decorations as his initials, dollar signs and a champagne glass scissor-designed into his hair. A champagne glass? "Hey, class all the way," says Payton.
"He had an air, like a guy who might cause trouble," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who was the Pepperdine coach when Payton was a high school senior. One of Payton's Skyline teammates, Greg Foster, signed with the Bruins—he has since transferred to UTEP—but Walt Hazzard, UCLA's coach at the time, already had a first-rate point guard in Pooh Richardson, so he didn't go after Payton. St. John's coach, Lou Carnesecca, reneged on a scholarship offer at the 11th hour. "When I make a mistake, it's a real whopper," says Carnesecca now.
After Anderson, who at the time was an Oregon State assistant under Ralph Miller, convinced his boss that they weren't wooing the Hillside Strangler, the skinny scamp with the gnashing teeth who always made the fur fly ended up as what he should have been all along: a Beaver. (Note to NCAA tournament committee: Insert following quote into pairings computer. "Gary might not tell you this," says Al, "but he just wants Oregon State to play St. John's—anytime, anywhere.")
Understanding the OAL is a prelude to understanding Payton's rough-and-tumble career in the previously tranquil north woods of Oregon. According to Skyline coach Fred Noel, in the OAL "verbal combat, the necessity to seem cool, was as important as the game itself."
That could help explain why, as a freshman, Payton hit an Oregon male cheerleader between the eyes with a wad of gum during a game in which the crowd at Oregon was taunting him by calling him "Hookhead." Upon Payton's arrival in Corvallis, the stern Miller had forced him to shed the inscriptions sculpted into his dome, though Miller did allow his infant rabble-rouser to keep the earring—Payton has since added a second one, a gold-nugget job, and a Rapmaster design of a necklace that reads, G-E-E-P-E-E—as well as the unique personality of his game. A stickler for defense, Miller had vowed to Payton that he would start only if he learned to guard people.
Check. As a freshman, Payton was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-10. (Did the league see the GEEPEE on the wall? That was the last time the Pac-10 had such an award.) Payton has started every game since he came to Corvallis.
"As coaches, it's been a touchy thing for me and Jim [Anderson]," says Miller, who retired after last season. "But you cannot take away this kid's style. 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."
It has always seemed an odd mix: the urban, volatile young firebrand of an All-America at ease in sleepy Corvallis—first with the crotchety legend, Miller, and now with the plump, homespun Anderson, whose passion is to complete three crossword puzzles a day. However, Payton has toned down. Last season he kicked a ball in disgust at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, shortly after which Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West left the game. Friends of Payton's say that's when he realized the pros were tiring of his antics. Moreover, Payton has found comfort in the strife-free timberlands around the Oregon State campus, where the biggest crime news of late was a break-in at the student union that netted the thieves a cassette player, some prime rib and a few pool cues. We are not making this up.
"I've loved my days at Oregon State," says Payton. "If I had gone to New York, maybe I'd have made All-America two years ago, but who knows what trouble I might have gotten into in the big city? Here, I settled down, slept a lot, started to take care of my body. The trash-talking and stuff—I've calmed down. At this level it's all business."
Payton only became a heavy scorer this season, after Anderson asked him to start shooting more. Assistant coach Fred Boyd, the former Beaver and NBA guard, worked on Payton's release and follow-through, and as a result Payton is shooting better than 51% from the floor and has exceeded his career average by nearly five points. But Payton will step in and run a pro team next season primarily because of an ability to control the floor and his wizardry in the art of the pass.
Meanwhile, as Payton's brilliant undergraduate career winds down—he will finish as the Pac-10 record holder in career assists and steals, and about fourth in scoring—Oregon State students use flip cards in the stands to count down the number of assists Payton needs to break the NCAA record set by Sherman Douglas of Syracuse from 1985-86 to '88-89. At week's end Payton had 918 assists in 116 games, 42 short of the 960 Douglas had in 138 games.
First, however, there are a few more games to win—maybe even a Pac-10 title, Oregon State's first since 1984, if the Beavers can beat Arizona at Tucson on Saturday—and a few more opponents to trash. "We talk about feelings and emotions, and we've always wondered if Gary shouldn't have taken a gentler approach," says Anderson, putting aside his beloved crosswords for a moment. "But he's been carrying us on his back for so long. Whatever else happens, he's been something very special."
Ultimately, in fact, Payton is every synonym—up, down and across—for Player of the Year.