LAS VEGAS – I’m standing at a gate in suburban Sin City, waiting for Gary Payton.
It’s a mild March afternoon in this neighborhood 20 minutes off The Strip. It’s quiet and quaint, so much so that if the birds weren’t chirping, you’d fear people could hear your thoughts. I feel like a stalker, standing and hoping the Sonics legend will return home soon, looking around to see who’s looking at me.
I feel like an awkward cub reporter, shuffling my feet and wondering how to capture the essence of a complex Seattle icon.
Who is he, really? How will this go? Will Payton open his mouth, bob his head and trash-talk me into submission, too? Is he a jerk? Misunderstood? Both?
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Why aren’t these questions making the wait any shorter?
After 20 minutes of anticipating that every car was his, I see Payton pull up in his black luxury automobile, open the electronic gate and cruise into a circular driveway. I walk behind him, earnest and overdressed in business attire.
“Sorry I’m late,” Payton says, bald head as slick as it was in 1996. “You know how it is when people get going at the barbershop.”
Payton rubs his goatee. It’s grayer than it was in 1996.
“So,” he says, “what you want to know about me now?”
PAYTON HAS BEEN called many things — abrasive and arrogant, affable and admirable — and we still have 25 alphabet letters to go. The point guard, nicknamed The Glove for his impenetrable defense, survived the drug-infested streets of Oakland, improved amid the smoke-filled coaching of Ralph Miller at Oregon State and thrived under the emotionally charged leadership of George Karl in Seattle. He almost played his way to irrelevance early in his NBA career, and then he became so good that he could back up everything that came out of his infamous mouth. And he did it all his way, with a cocked head, a snarl and a glare.
Humble beginnings. Brash ending. That is the Gary Payton story, which reaches its climax in six days when he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He didn’t just earn the honor. He cobbled together all his talent, supplemented it with inconceivable intensity, and took what he wanted. It’s as if the game of basketball were a guard with a shaky handle to him.
“We always want to talk about the guys who persevered quietly,” Karl said. “Gary didn’t persevere quietly. He persevered angrily.”
Now, with the game over, with little left to prove, Payton relishes life appropriately. He has found tranquillity, though his version of tranquil is several decibels louder than most.
He doubles as an eager host on this day. He runs through his 8,500-square-foot home much like he used to weave through defenses, acting more hospitable than a grandmother during a family visit.
He asks if my seat is cozy and wants to know which room provides the right ambience for this interview. And, oh, something to drink? He insists.
“What can I get you? Water? Coke? Juice?” Payton asks before flashing a wide smile. “Beer? Hey, if you need it to get it going this early, I won’t judge.”
The hard-edged former superstar laughs. This isn’t the Payton portrayed in his career’s mythology.
And he can tell I’m thinking just that. Because, in the six years since he retired, Payton has seen the confused look many times.
“People say it a lot now: ‘I was expecting you to be an (expletive), but you’re not,’ ” Payton says. “I tell them, ‘I was never like that in the first place. I’m just a guy that’s outspoken. But I’m a great guy to be around. It’s just that I’m going to tell you the truth.’ ”
The truth. It used to be as vicious as his trash talk on the basketball court. Today, though, Payton is 45, divorced and the father of four children between the ages of 15 and 25. For certain, The Glove is adult-size now.
“He has become a man,” said his mother, Annie Payton. “I’m proud of Gary. He’s become a man. You know how guys are when they’re playing ball. He was out there, but he’s matured. I’m glad to see that in him.”
When Payton was a child, his mother used to tell him that he was bound to become a drug dealer. She knew that was the way to get to her son. She challenged him by saying that because his friends were drug dealers, he would be no different, knowing the remarks would spark Payton’s competitiveness.
He still reminds her of that prediction. Annie Payton laughs and replies, “I said that because I didn’t want you to be that. I knew how you’d react.”
PAYTON LIVES TO BE challenged. To this day, he can’t work out by himself. He needs someone there to push him. As a player, winning consumed him so much that he would do and say anything necessary to gain an edge. Sometimes, it meant alienating teammates by berating them. Other times, it meant jawing at an opponent to ruin his focus.
Payton’s fire was so hot that it even scared Karl at times, For 6½ seasons in Seattle and, later, another half-season in Milwaukee, Karl served as an ideal coach for Payton. They had a similar passion, which exposed itself in on-court arguments often. But their relationship remains strong because they were always honest with each other, and winning was their agenda.
“He demanded winning,” Karl said. “He demanded it in himself first. Then, he demanded it of his teammates. His strength was his ability to demand winning. It was off the charts. Gary’s passion was to kick your ass.
“Sometimes, people got offended with how Gary got in your face and portrayed his anger, but his intentions were never misplaced.”
When he retired in 2007, Payton learned the consequences of his singular focus. He heard that people didn’t want to deal with him because he was perceived as a headache. It was a cruel twist. Payton was finally ready to open up like never before, but everyone else was closed and on edge. He has regrets, but he also found another place to focus his competitiveness.
“The thing that I regret is not having better relationships with a lot of people,” Payton said. “Being the hard-nosed guy that I was, I think I could’ve come off a little bit better in my relationships with a lot of people, and I didn’t. Right now, it’s coming back to me because people haven’t seen me in six years in the NBA, and now they’re understanding what Gary is about in here (pointing to his heart) instead of what you saw out there and how I was acting.
“And I have to tell them now, I was 24, 25, 26 years old being a superstar, making millions of dollars. I didn’t understand the game. I talk to my agents now, and they say a lot of people don’t want to mess with me because they think I’m arrogant, and they think I’m this type of person. That’s a bad thing to have hanging over you. And now, I’m improving more of my relationships, and people are starting to see it.”
After Payton retired, he took a job as an NBA TV analyst, but it didn’t last because the league thought his style was too harsh and his comedy too over-the-top. It was wild and entertaining television, with Payton and Chris Webber trippin’, acting like two players in the locker room. But there was still the image of Payton as a crude character.
He made his return to TV recently with the new FOX Sports 1 channel. He’s an analyst again, more relaxed this time, even more playful, sharing anecdotes and jokes, looking like the person at the party who makes sure everyone is having fun. Payton’s television transformation mirrors real life. He has an ambassador role with the NBA. He has reduced his quarrels to only the bitterness he feels toward former Sonics owner Howard Schultz and former president/CEO Wally Walker.
Payton can’t let go of the controversial and disheartening way his Sonics tenure ended in 2003, when he was traded for Ray Allen. He never will.
“I don’t regret what happened to those relationships with Howard and Wally,” Payton said. “But I regret any other people that I didn’t get a good relationship with.”
WHEN PAYTON ARRIVED in Seattle in 1990 as the No. 2 overall draft pick, Shawn Kemp took him aside and said, “Man, we the future. We’ve gotta be together.”
Kemp, the No. 17 overall pick of the 1989 draft, was 20 at the time, a year younger than Payton. He had jumped from junior college to the NBA, and as a high-flying forward, he was excited to see the Sonics draft a point-guard complement. Former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley and his family loved the duo so much that they assured Payton and Kemp in private that, despite some early struggles, the organization would do whatever it took to build around them.
Then Karl arrived midway through the 1991-92 season to clean up K.C. Jones’ failed tenure. The Sonics went 27-15 to end that year, a .643 winning percentage. During the next six seasons, they averaged 59.5 wins per year and never won fewer than 55 games. The great disappointment is that the Karl-Payton-Kemp era never produced a championship. The Sonics made the NBA Finals only once during that run, losing to the 72-win Chicago Bulls in 1996.
Still, in terms of consistent success, excitement and star power, Seattle has never had a more captivating run from a pro sports team. From the Payton-Kemp tandem to quality role players such as Detlef Schrempf, Nate McMillan, Hersey Hawkins and Sam Perkins, the Sonics became a fascinating and complete basketball team.
“In history, that’s a run that very few teams can touch,” Karl said. “The only thing that’s missing is the championship. The big disappointment is that we didn’t get out of the first round the two years that Michael Jordan wasn’t a factor (1994 and 1995). I look at it now and wish we could’ve gotten it for Seattle. I think we’d still have the team if we had gotten a championship.”
Payton says the Sonics left “two or three” titles on the table during that run, between playoff failures and the fact that Kemp left after the 1997 season and Karl after 1998.
As he enters the Hall of Fame, Payton laments that Kemp won’t be alongside him. If the duo had stayed together, Payton says, Kemp’s dominance and aerial audacity would’ve continued.
“He would be right there with me in the Hall of Fame,” Payton says. “No doubt about it. I would’ve kept him hungry; he would’ve kept me hungry. I would’ve been by his side, and he would’ve been by mine.”
They’ll always have the crazy lob passes and the hearts of Sonics fans, however.
IN PAYTON’S OFFICE, he has a glass case of autographed baseballs. The names on those signed balls include Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Pete Rose and Harmon Killebrew.
“Only the greatest of the great,” Payton says. “I’ve got good taste.”
Tell him that you didn’t realize he had such an appreciation for baseball, and he replies, “There’s a lot of things that I appreciate that people can’t appreciate.”
Somewhere, someone has a case of autographed basketballs, and the owner cherishes having Payton’s name among other greats. For Payton, though, the Hall of Fame isn’t as much affirmation of his greatness as it is closure.
From childhood, he fought for a place in this game. First, he was a little boy whose older brother, Greg, wouldn’t let him on the court. Then he was the emerging talent desperate to prove to his father, Al Payton, aka Mr. Mean, that he was worthy. Gary could score 50 points, but his dad always found something to critique. That’s where much of his passion for the game originates.
Later, Gary Payton was upset because St. John’s passed over him and gave a scholarship to a lesser player. At his mother’s urging, he went to Oregon State and turned into a dominant all-around player. And when the NBA exposed his subpar outside shooting, he had to rebuild his confidence and his game. He did it, but there was always something else to prove. It lasted until he finally won a championship in 2006, with the Miami Heat, just shy of age 37.
Now, he’s entering the Hall of Fame. There’s nothing else to take from him. So Payton can relax — and make up for the past.
Payton works harder than ever to be there for his four children. He’s not away playing basketball anymore, and though there are wounds to heal in some of those relationships, he’s willing to work at it. He invited his ex-wife Monique, a lifelong friend and confidant, to his induction because loyalty means everything to Payton. They’re not together, but he can’t ignore all that she has done for him and the family.
“I wasn’t the best guy in the world,” Payton admits when talking about Monique. “I had a lot of money. Women were after me. I did a lot of things I regret. And ultimately, she couldn’t take it no more. So, she left. I don’t feel anger about what she did. She wanted to stop her heart from hurting. If I could, I’d change the hurt I caused my ex-wife. She was there before all the fame. She helped me buy my suit for the draft. She was with me when I was sick, when my back was hurting, when people were down on me. She did so much for me. She deserves to be a part of this.”
Gary Payton, Hall of Famer, pales in comparison to Gary Payton, Redeeming Soul.
The Glove awaits his moment with a grin, not a glare. With arms open, not folded. He still has that revolutionary mouth, however, and in a moment of bravado last week, he couldn’t resist providing a reminder.
With the Sonics extinct for five years, I wondered if Payton feels like a king without a throne right now. His franchise doesn’t exist to celebrate him. It’s odd. And depressing. But for Payton, it’s another opponent to defeat.
“I still think I’ve got a throne,” Payton fires back, talking loud and fast suddenly, making his words trample each other in his trademark rhythm. “All of Seattle is my throne. If Seattle could put my jersey on top of the Space Needle, they would. It’s not like they don’t want to do it. I understand that.”
There goes the incomparable Glove, still evolving, still yapping, yapping all the way to immortality.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com.