Gary Payton studied his prey, patiently waiting for the right
moment to go for the steal. His opponent drew closer, handling
the basketball casually, apparently unaware of the dangerous
territory he was entering. Finally Payton made his move. He
flicked his left arm out at the ball, but his opponent was too
quick. He whisked the ball away just in time, then tucked it
under his arm and ran several steps away. Having eluded one of
the best defenders in the NBA, Gary Payton II, age 2 1/2, smiled
triumphantly at his dad.
The elder Payton's larcenous tendencies are obviously as
well-known in his own household as they are around the league.
There are times when opposing players would undoubtedly love to
copy little Gary's technique of picking up the ball and running
like a fullback when they're being stalked by Payton, the
Seattle SuperSonics' point guard and one of the league's premier
"He's one of those guys who makes you look around as soon as you
get the ball, just to make sure where he is," says Houston guard
Clyde Drexler. "I've played against some great defensive guards
in this league. Joe Dumars is outstanding. Alvin Robertson a few
years back was tremendous. But Payton belongs right up there
with the best of them."
Payton has been playing the passing lanes since his childhood
days on Oakland's playgrounds. The pickup games of his youth
were populated mostly with point-hungry players always on the
lookout for their next shot, but Payton kept busy trying to shut
down his opponents. "I've always been defense first, offense
second, as long as I can remember," he says. "I always liked
frustrating guys, taking them out of their game, and the best
way to do that is to lock 'em up on defense."
October 22, 1995
So it isn't surprising that although Payton averaged 25.7 points
in his senior year at Oregon State and was the consensus Pac-10
Player of the Year, he was known more for his defense than his
offense. The Sonics made him the second overall pick of the 1990
draft even though some NBA scouts had doubts about his scoring
Those doubts proved well-founded: Payton averaged 7.2 and 9.4
points in his first two seasons. Seattle even tried trading him
to Dallas for Derek Harper after his second year, but when the
Mavericks nixed the deal, the Sonics decided to wait for
Payton's offensive skills to improve. That began to happen in
his third season, when he raised his scoring average to 13.5,
and continued last year, his fifth in the NBA, when he averaged
a career-high 20.6 points, 16th best in the league. "Teams that
used to dare me to shoot have to play me straight-up now, and
that opens things up for other players," Payton says. "I always
knew I'd be able to score in this league. It was just a matter
of concentrating on my offense, working on my shooting in the
But though he's a much bigger offensive threat than he was when
he broke into the league, Payton hasn't lost sight of the fact
that it is his defense that has mainly been responsible for his
All-Star Game appearances the past two years--and for his
sprawling home in the Oakland hills, where he lives with his
wife, Monique; their daughter, Raquel, 7; and Gary II. "Scoring
was always secondary to me," he says, "and it's still not as fun
as making a steal."
Payton has been a member of the all-defensive first team the
past two years, but he has never led the league in steals. His
third-place finish last year with 2.49 per game--behind Chicago's
Scottie Pippen (2.94) and Atlanta's Mookie Blaylock (2.50)--was
the highest of his career. Still, he is perhaps the most feared
defensive guard in the league because he can strip an opponent
of the ball and his dignity at the same time. "A lot of times
when you take the ball from somebody, the dude tries to get it
right back," Payton says. "So I'll take it, and when the guy
slaps at the ball, I'll just pull it away and look at him like,
'What do you think you're trying to do?' I'm not trying to make
anybody look bad, it's just my way."
Besides, if anyone deserves to show off a bit after a theft,
Payton does, because he works as diligently to develop his
defensive moves as most players do on their offense. He has a
spin move in which he turns as if to leave the ball handler and
run downcourt but takes only a step or two before he whirls back
around and goes for the steal, hoping to catch his opponent with
his guard down. Another of his tactics is to overplay his man,
forcing him to spin and change direction. When he does, Payton
is often already there and going for the ball, having
anticipated the move.
It's all part of Payton's attempt to throw an offense into
chaos. "I love it when a team has to have its 2-guard bring the
ball up because I'm making it too hard on the point guard," he
says. "That means they've changed their offense, and that's what
a good defense makes teams do. Sometimes a team will go to its
backup point guard, and then I've won, because the backup knows
if I've gotten the starter out of the game, he's gonna have
That cockiness sometimes makes teams especially eager to limit
Payton's effectiveness on defense, but he sometimes uses even
that to his advantage. "If I'm having a good night, getting my
hand on a lot of balls, teams will bring their big men into the
backcourt to set blind picks on me," he says. "The Knicks are
good at that with Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason; and Stacey
King in Minnesota sets some nasty screens too." But instead of
running into the pick, Payton will often slide behind it and
wait a beat, hoping the ball handler will relax momentarily so
he can pop out and go for the ball.
Payton has all the qualities required to be a master thief: He
is fearless, he works quickly, and most important, he studies
his target closely before he strikes. When he talks about
"pacing" his man, Payton sounds a bit like a base stealer
studying a pitcher, but more like a burglar casing the joint.
"When you pace a guy you get his rhythm down," he says. "You
guard him as he brings the ball up the floor a few times just to
find out where he likes to spin or put the ball between his
legs, what he likes to do with the ball when he's pressured or
double-teamed. Then you can anticipate his moves, and the next
thing he knows, the ball's gone."
The mental part of Payton's defense is often overlooked,
obscured by the cockiness and trash talk for which he is better
known. "Part of playing defense and getting steals is instinct,
and Gary's got that," says Dallas point guard Jason Kidd, who
plays with Payton in a Bay Area summer league. "But he watches
guys all the time, trying to pick up on things they like to do,
tendencies they might have. He's always thinking about how he
can get his next steal."
He's also thinking about his next opponent. Payton keeps track
of the favorite offensive moves and tendencies of the league's
other players, especially point guards. But one part of his
defensive approach is constant, regardless of the opponent: He
is never afraid to gamble, and he never spends much time on
regret when a risk backfires. "You can't lock a guy up every
time down the floor, not in this league," he says. "There are
too many great offensive players. A guy is going to break you
down every now and then. You might bust me this time, but I'm
coming back at you next time down the floor. The one thing I'll
never be is gun-shy."
The same goes for his team. Payton's aggressive, gambling
defensive style perfectly suits the Sonics, a trapping,
double-teaming bunch that has led the league in steals the past
two seasons. "Our defensive philosophy is to attack at all
times," says Seattle coach George Karl. "Gary sets the tone for
Payton is supremely confident in his defensive abilities
("Michael Jordan is the only guy I feel I need help on," he
says. "Everybody else I'll take my chances with"), but he's also
willing to acknowledge other masters of his trade. He names
Pippen, Blaylock and teammate Nate McMillan as some of the other
top perimeter defenders in the league, and picks Kidd as the
next great ball hawk. "He's got a great, quick pair of hands,"
Payton also has a special regard for Harper, who taught him a
defensive lesson during Payton's rookie year. "He kept telling
me, 'I'm gonna take it from you, rook, I'm gonna take it from
you,'" Payton says. "I was just as sure that I wasn't going to
let him. But one time I brought the ball down and he put his
hand on my hip and just held me there. It didn't look like much,
but I couldn't move, and he just reached around and took it from
The next year, Payton showed Harper what he had learned,
relieving him of the ball with exactly the same technique. "He
said to me, 'You got the move,'" Payton says. "I said, 'Guess
who I got it from?'"
But Payton doesn't limit his defensive moves to opposing guards.
He nearly salivates when big men get careless with the ball,
especially when they pump-fake several times before shooting.
"When a guy fakes, fakes, fakes, that's just giving a guard
three chances to take it from him," he says. "The big boy in
Philadelphia, Shawn Bradley, tried to put the ball on the floor
one time last year, and I got it. I told him, 'Big fella, you're
7'6". You better keep that ball up around 9'6" if you don't want
me coming to take it.'"
Talking is an integral part of Payton's defensive repertoire.
His goal is to frustrate opponents and inspire his teammates,
and the occasional well-placed taunt accomplishes both things.
"But the smart thing is not to talk back to him," says Kidd.
"That gets him hyped up, and when he gets that way, Gary's a
maniac on defense."
Payton could not have said it better himself. "If you're playing
against me, don't turn your back on me, don't pump-fake on me,
and most of all, don't talk to me," he says. "The thing to do is
come right at me, because if you don't, I'll come get you."
And quite often, he will leave with the ball.