Gary Payton is one of the best defenders in NBA history and one of the game’s all-time great point guards. The Hall of Famer impacted games in many ways, as evidenced by his career stats: He ranks fourth all-time in steals (2,445), 10th all-time in assists (8,966) and 38th all-time in points (21,813).
In addition to earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1996, Payton made nine All-NBA Teams and nine All-Defensive First Teams. He was also a nine-time All-Star, and the NBA recently made him available to encourage fans to vote for the 2020 All-Star Game starters before the deadline on Jan. 20. Fans can vote on NBA.com, on the NBA app or on Google.
HoopsHype spoke one-on-one with Payton and the NBA legend was extremely candid and honest throughout the conversation.
You’re one of the all-time great trash talkers in professional sports. Were there ever any opponents who surprised you with their trash talk? Any guys who chirped back when you didn’t expect it?
GP: (Laughs) Well, whoever I went at didn’t usually come back at me. Reggie Miller’s trash-talking was good, Michael Jordan’s was good. I only got to see Larry Bird twice in two years and he was hurt, really, most of the time. But when he did get on the floor with me, he had a lot of nice ones. He was a chatterbox and I didn’t really know he was like that. But he was! He was cocky and arrogant; he’d go at you and tell you where he was going to shoot it and tell you that he was going to shoot in your face, you know what I’m saying? Those three were the main ones, basically. Then, Kevin Garnett got onto the scene and he would start with his talking. Those were the main ones. Those four guys were the ones who I really wanted to go up against because I knew there’d be some chatter back. Most guys wouldn’t say anything or, if they did, their coach would tell them to be quiet and leave me alone because they didn’t want to wake up the beast. It was one of them things. But it was them four that I really looked forward to playing against.
Do random people ever come up to you on the street and talk trash to you, just so they can say that they’ve talked trash to Gary Payton?
GP: Yeah, that’s a lot of people’s main thing. They’ll see me somewhere and then they’ll say something to try to get me to go back and forth with them. Then, they’re like, “This is all I wanted! This is why I came up to you! They always say that you trash-talked a lot on the court, so we wanted to hear it and see if you trash talk everywhere!” You know if it’s someone who is trying to egg you on to do something. A lot of people, a lot of fans, will do things just because they want to see if they can push your buttons. Sometimes, you’ll go along with it and have fun with it; sometimes, you just have to let it go because some people let it get out of hand. But, yes, it does happen.
When I interviewed Ron Harper, he said that trash-talking would sometimes cause Michael Jordan to flip a switch and take his game to another level. You obviously had a lot of success against Jordan, but did you ever hold back against certain players (or at certain times) because talking trash may have fired your opponent up and helped them?
GP: I didn’t care. That was my whole thing, going in every night and trash-talking because… what can you do? Can you out-talk me? Are you going to get frustrated? Are you going to be focused enough to not concentrate on me throughout the entire game? Because I’m going to continue to talk and continue to play well. I’m going to play well because that’s my game. I never went into a game like, “Let me not talk to this guy.” None of my teammates or coaches ever said that either. They’d say, “Let’s just let Gary do what he do.” That’s what I did. That was my game-plan. I want to get my opponent in a different state of mind. If they’re focusing on me instead of their teammates and the game-plan, I got you. I’m going to trap you in, and then you’re about to get subbed out in a minute because you’re going to start making a lot of mistakes. That was my whole approach.
You did a phenomenal job of locking up Michael Jordan in the 1996 NBA Finals. It may be one of the best defensive efforts against Jordan. What were those battles with MJ like and do you take pride in the fact that you were one of the toughest defensive matchups he faced?
GP: It was just a challenge. It was like… He was the best offensive player and I was the best defensive player. It was just a challenge. I looked forward to those matchups all the time because I knew if I talked to him, he was going to talk back and we were going to go at it. That would make TV [ratings] go up and a lot of things go up; that’s what we were doing. Then, I would make it a point to challenge myself. I’d think, “I know I can’t stop him, but I can contain him.” You know you’re not going to stop him altogether – that’s not going to happen – so you just focus on how you can slow him down. If he’s usually scoring 35 or 40 points per night, can I hold him to 23 or 24 points? Yeah, I could. I would just make things a little bit difficult for him. If you let any great player be comfortable, they’re going to dominate you. If you take them out of their comfort zone and make them do things that they aren’t used to doing, you’re going to be effective. That’s all I’d try to do with Michael. I tried to pressure him and make it really difficult for him to get the basketball. Then, if he got the basketball, I’d just be a gnat. If you make him miss a couple shots and then you go down on the other end of the floor and you’re scoring on him when he’s guarding you, he’s going to want to come back and go right at you. They get frustrated when the last four or five trips down the floor, I’m scoring and they’re not, especially if the referees aren’t calling anything for them. That’s all I’d try to do. I wanted to get under his skin a bit and see what happens.
When I spoke with Michael Cooper, we discussed how he’d fare as a defender in today’s NBA. He said that even though he couldn’t be as physical these days, he’d still lock down today’s stars because of his length and speed. He said Kevin Durant would give him trouble, but he could cover anyone else. Do you ever think about how you’d fare in today’s NBA, defending guys like James Harden and Stephen Curry?
GP: The younger guys always say, “Well, in your era, you guys couldn’t do this or that.” If that’s the case, I wish you could come to our era and play in our era. I wish we had a time machine so that we could put them in our era and see how they would fare. Sometimes, they say, “Well, you couldn’t play in this era because of the shooting and scoring!” Well, when we were in our early 20s, we were pretty athletic and dominant too; that’s why you know about us. It’s just changed. You can’t put your hands on guys. The league is about scoring; they want you to score and they want to run up the points, so it’s entertaining. In our era, we were talking about locking guys down. We were talking about beating you up. We were talking about putting you on your back if you tried to come in the paint and dunk. We wanted you to think that you may get hurt every time you came in the paint. You know what I’m saying? Now, that will get you a flagrant or get you kicked out of the game and they may even suspend you after evaluating it. We didn’t have all of that. We’d put you on your back, they’d look at it and then you’d go on about your business. It’s just so different.
If I played in this era, I would adjust to it. If I played now, the first thing I’d do is go straight to the referees and say, “Look, here’s how I’m going to play. Make sure you let me play defense. If you’re going to let them play offense, let me play defense.” It’s just like what Patrick Beverley is doing right now. He gets into you and, because the referees know what he’s doing and how he plays, they let him play. You just have to get to the point where the refs know how you play, so they adjust. I would probably go talk to all the refs before every game like, “You know how I play. If you want this game to be okay, let me play defense like you let him play offense. Now, if he pushes off, call it. If I foul him, call it. But let us play.” And then I’m going to go back at my guy on the other end and see if he can guard me. That’s a big difference from our era: We wanted to go back at the player who was scoring on us. Now, there’s all of the switching and stuff. We wouldn’t have played that way. I’m going at that guy, locking him down and making someone else beat us.
Are there any current NBA players who remind you of yourself in terms of their game or tenacity? You mentioned Patrick Beverley, so I’m guessing he’s one.
GP: There are two: Marcus Smart and Patrick Beverley. They both remind me of myself. They’ll go at you. Beverley is a little bit different because he doesn’t have the offensive game that I had. But Marcus is starting to become that kind of player – he’s starting to score and shoot the ball. But both of them are dogs on the defensive end. My son, [Gary Payton II], has a little of that in him and he’s doing the same thing. He can get at you when he wants to and he’s long for someone who’s 6-foot-3, so his length will hurt you too. When you have them type of guys who can play defense that type of way, it’s always a bonus for their team. When you have a guy who can lock down like that, he’s always giving you great stuff on that end. But can they give you something on the other end? All three of them need to work on their offense. My son needs to work on it, Pat needs to work on it and Marcus is starting to become a good scorer to be a two-way player, but he’s still working on it too. But those three guys remind me of myself defensively.
Last year, Tim Hardaway told me that he used to be really tough on his son, Tim Jr., to the point that they no longer discuss basketball because they agreed it was ruining their relationship. I’ve read that you were very tough on your son, Gary Payton II, and you even walked out of one of his high school games because you weren’t impressed with his effort. You obviously have so much information that you want to share with your son, but how do you find the right balance between pushing him really hard and giving him space to learn on his own?
GP: That’s a good question. It was the same way with me; I was the same way Tim was. I pressed my son too much. He was around basketball all the time and he got pressed a lot. It’s one of those things where you can steer your son away from loving the game of basketball. My son stopped liking it [when he was young]. As of today, he listens… but he don’t listen. It’s gotta come from somebody else. Then, when they don’t make it and they aren’t productive like they want to be, you want to go say, “See, what did I tell you? Why don’t you want to listen to me?” But that’s not the right thing to do. So I’ve backed off from my son. When he calls me, if he calls me, I’ll say what I say and then leave it alone. I won’t even go into it anymore. Now that he’s got his guaranteed contract for the first time and he’s staying up, I told him, “You should’ve been doing this since day one.” But they always got excuses. This is a different era and they always got excuses, man. “They should’ve let me play!” or, “They let me play, but [they should’ve] let me do this or that!” It’s not about all that. It’s about seeing what the coach wants and doing it, doing what the organization wants. But, nowadays, I just let him do what he gotta do and however he wants to do it. I just don’t want to stray him away from nothing. And it is hard to listen to the caliber of father that I am, with what I did in the NBA and what I’ve become. It’s hard to do that, especially being named after me. It’s kind of hard. Now, I just let it go. I just try to support him. If he calls and wants to talk about something, then I’ll talk about it. Other than that, I don’t call him after games or anything like that; I don’t do that anymore.
You’re ambidextrous; you write with your left hand and shoot with your right hand. Obviously, a lot of NBA players learn to be effective with both hands, but you were actually born ambidextrous, so how much do you think that helped you in the NBA?
GP: That was just natural. I can bat on both sides. I shoot pool with my left and write with my left. I can throw left or right. It’s just something that came to me and then, I broke my right thumb when I was young. I had a cast on, so I played with my left hand during that time. That came easy to me. Then, when I got the pros, I posted up on my left side all the time and threw up shots, scoops, hooks or whatever I needed with my left hand. It’s just something that came to me and I was always happy that I could do things with both. Now, it’s still the same thing. People will say, “Why don’t you shoot with your left hand? Why do you shoot with your right?” When I play Pop-A-Shot in an arcade, people will say, “You’re right-handed, so only shoot with your left!” And I’ll go, “Okay, sure, I’ll shoot with my left!” They don’t read up on me! Then, after the game, they’re like, “Oh man, you’re making even more with your left!” Then, I’ll tell them, “I’m kind of left-handed, if you think about it.” Some people have looked and seen that my watch is on my right side, so they’ll ask, “Are you left-handed?” And I’m like, “Duh!” It’s just kind of fun to mess with people. (Laughs)
I wrote about Seattle’s basketball culture and how Jamal Crawford helps the next generation of Seattle players by training with them and mentoring them. He’s even let some prospects live with him. Jamal said that he’s just passing on what you and Doug Christie did for him when he was young. He said that when he was 15 years old, you guys helped him a lot and let him train with you. Do you remember getting to know Jamal as a teen and how nice is it to see that he’s been able to pay it forward and do the same thing for many young players?
GP: I basically helped raise Jamal. Jamal lived with me for a little bit when he came out of Michigan for one year of college. It’s a great feeling to see a kid like him give back to Seattle and do those things. I always knew he was going to be one of a kind because he would always listen and he was so humble. He was never talking about how good he was. And he was so knowledgeable, even when he was younger. What he’d do is pick your brain. Anytime there was an older guy or a veteran around, he would ask questions and try to learn different ways that he could better himself. Now, to see him grooming other players and doing the same stuff that we taught him, it’s a special thing. It’s nice to be able to look at him and say, “He listened! He learned it!” We just wanted to help him. Now, he’s doing that for other guys – and they’re going to listen to him and learn from him, so that they can be the next guys who do this and help the next generation.
Speaking of Seattle, what would it mean for you to stand in Key Arena and have your jersey retired in front of those fans at some point in the future?
GP: It would mean a lot to me. Those fans really were the ones who made everything happen for me. I was there for 13 seasons and that’s where I became a Hall of Famer. And the fans deserve it. I think they deserve to see that happen, just like they deserve to see Shawn Kemp’s jersey raised up and Detlef Schrempf’s jersey raised up – not just mine. You know what I’m saying? It would be great for those fans to see that and feel that because I know they’d go crazy, and it would be a great moment for myself too. I hope that we have an opportunity to do that. I do think it will come. I think basketball will get back to Seattle.
You’ve gotten involved with the fight to bring the NBA back to Seattle and you’ve said that the city could have a team in the next three-to-four years. Do you still think Seattle will get a team in the next few years and what are some things Seattle is doing to become even more appealing?
GP: I’m involved in that. We have a team of people who are really involved with that and we’re talking with Adam [Silver] all the time. We’re getting there. First of all, we have to make sure that we have an arena to play in. Key Arena is getting revamped for the hockey team that’s going to be there in 2021. After that, a lot of other little things have to happen like the TV deal has to come up again and we have to see if we can get a basketball team. They know. Like I said, Adam Silver is listening. We have a group that I’m a part of that is really, really working on it, so we just have to hope that it happens. We’re just laying low right now because we want to make sure that everything is right so that when that time comes and we do get that opportunity, they can be ready to move right in and give us that team.
I loved seeing you and Shawn Kemp back together for ESPN’s recent Monday Night Football intro prior to the Seahawks-Vikings game. It generated a huge response among fans too. How did that idea come together and what did you think of the fan reaction?
GP: It was something that the guys at ESPN came up with and they got in touch with me and my people. Kenny Mayne from ESPN was really the one who really got it started. He told them, “I’ll get in touch with Gary,” because me and Kenny are really tight. He got in touch with me and when I heard the concept, I thought, “That’s great.” I knew it would trigger a lot of [nostalgia] and feelings about the Sonics. People hadn’t seen Shawn and I together in a long period of time. To see us doing that for the Seahawks and getting the fans ready for Monday Night Football against Minnesota, it was fun.
You reached the NBA Finals with three different teams – the 1996 Sonics (with Kemp), the 2004 Lakers (with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone) and the 2006 Heat (with Shaq and Dwyane Wade). Having seen what it took for three different franchises to reach the Finals, what would you say are the biggest keys to a team advancing that deep? Are there any specific characteristics that all three of those teams had in common?
GP: The Seattle team was a little bit different because we were already really good all year. We were really, really good. The other two teams, the Heat and the Lakers, we struggled, but then we got into a rhythm. When you get into a rhythm and get everyone on the same page at the end of the year, anything can happen. At the beginning of the year with that Lakers team, we were good and then Karl Malone got hurt so we went through a lull. I played all 82 games that year, but the other three guys didn’t play as many games and so we needed other players to step up. Then, we got into a rhythm and our team got that unity. With the 1996 Sonics team, we were already there. We were the No. 2 team in the NBA right behind Chicago; people don’t remember that we won 64 games that year and they won 72, so we weren’t too far behind them. We beat them once during the season too, so we were one of their 10 losses.
To me, you have to be in a rhythm at the end of the season, unless you’re a great team that wins all season long – like this Milwaukee team. This Bucks team can win a championship; they’re playing like we were in ’96, playing great all season. To me, you have to be in a rhythm and you have to be together. You need everyone to be clicking and playing well at the same time. That’s what we did in Miami, that’s what we did with the Lakers and that what was happening the whole season in Seattle. The two Finals losses were because we just couldn’t overcome great teams. Detroit was playing really well to beat us in ’04. With Chicago in ’96, we [showed up] too late against them. We got over the hump in Miami in ’06 because we were able to take down that Dallas team. But I think rhythm and unity is what it’s all about.
You, Jason Kidd and Damian Lillard are all from Oakland. I know you really pushed Kidd when he was in high school, making him better and toughening him up, and you’ve mentored Lillard too. All three of you guys play have a similar poise and swagger. Why do you think Oakland keeps producing superstar point guards and would you agree that there are certain characteristics that you guys have in common because of your similar backgrounds?
GP: Yeah, I think we have a chip on our shoulder because of where we come from. You come out of the neighborhood and you’re always hearing about New York, Philly, L.A. and people say, “They’ve got the best basketball players!” You always hear that. I always said, “Well, why don’t you come down to the North. Come to Northern California! Let’s see what you can do here and see if you can do the same things you do everywhere else.” A lot of people come to Northern California and then they get these guards like us and they’re like, “Whoa!” But we’re not really pressed with all that. When you’re from this neighborhood, you go to different blocks and you go up against different players and we prove ourselves. I think we all have a chip on our shoulder and we want to prove everybody wrong. That’s what we do.
We also had JR Rider, Antonio Davis… A lot of people don’t know that Bill Russell grew up in Oakland. Paul Silas grew up in Oakland. We have a lot of great basketball players, great baseball players, great people coming out of Oakland. It’s just that we don’t need to prove nothing until we get to the highest level. Go ahead and overlook us, but then look what happens. You end up with two Hall of Famers in me and Jason, and Dame is going to be one too. We have a chip on our shoulder because people want to overlook us.
Basketball, Interview, NBA, Evergreen, Featured, Interview, Top, Damian Lillard, Gary Payton, Gary Payton II, Jamal Crawford, Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Shawn Kemp, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Seattle Sonics, Seattle SuperSonics