Thursday, July 24

SSS HOF Inductee #1: Gary Payton

The Glove

Words: Peter Nussbaum | Illustration: Rafael Calonzo Jr.

How does it happen?

How does a man so menacing, so scowling, so intense become so beloved?

How does a brash youngster from Oakland by way of Corvallis become the most treasured player in four decades of Seattle basketball?

So many questions, all coming back to the same answer.

Intensity.

Gary Payton’s given middle name may have been Dwayne, but to those of us who followed his career in a Sonics’ jersey, his true middle name was always Intensity. His 1,335-game career was built upon a foundation of ferocious defense, perhaps more than any guard in history.


Ask yourself: How many other guards earned nicknames because of defensive skills? Are there any beyond Payton? He wasn’t “The Glove” for the way he stroked teammates’ egos, he was “The Glove” because of the way he clung to opposing guards like a wool sock to a freshly laundered towel.

Relax and remember Payton now in your mind’s eye. Not the GP that wandered the NBA like Odysseus for the final years of his career; that wasn’t The Glove. I mean the Payton who dominated his position for a decade in Seattle, the Payton who inhabited the All-Defense Team as if it was his summer cottage.

What do you see when you turn on the film projector in your mind? Is it the chest-bumping menace, arms stretching ever-outwards – as if he was part Plastic Man and could reach all the way around a man from both sides? Perhaps you see him poised in his defensive stance, shorts hiked up with a snarl – oh, that menacing snarl! – daring his opponent to try and drive past him? Is it the way he snapped off jumpers with disdain, as if he couldn’t believe he had to settle for an outside shot when all he really wanted to do was drive into the forest of big men? Maybe you see Payton artfully lofting the ball to an absolute perfect apex up-up-up for Kemp to snatch it and throw it back down-down-DOWN through the cylinder, a roller coaster of delicate passing and violent dunking so utterly incongruous it defied description?

For me, that rickety film projector always plays the same clip. It is Payton cockily trotting backwards up the court after yet another knife-like incision into the paint, his head cocked sideways, mouth wide open, words spilling out faster than an Al Sharpton sermon. It wasn’t enough for Payton to beat you, he wanted you to know you had been beaten, that he was going to beat you again the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that, and if you didn’t watch yourself, he was going to take the ball right from your ha .... crap, there he goes!

To me, the pinnacle of Payton’s tenure wasn’t the 1996 NBA Finals but two years previous, during the infamous 1993-94 season. The trio of Payton, Nate McMillan, and Kendall Gill only lasted two seasons in Seattle, but it was two seasons of utter hell for opposing guards. Three guards, three defensive demons, all three capable of a steal at a moment’s notice.

Just how fantastic were Payton and his Co-conspirators? The NBA has kept track of steals since the 1972-73 season, and in those 35 years, two teams have managed to pass 1,000 steals in a season – and one of them was the 1993-94 Sonics (if you know the other, tout your knowledge in the comments). So great were the Sonics that season that the second-place team was closer to seventh than to first. The incomparable McMillan led all individual players in steals despite averaging a scant 26 minutes, and Gill and Payton both cracked the league’s top ten, but even those amazing figures don’t tell the whole story.

The Sonics were like religious fanatics that season, and assistant coaches Tim Grgurich and Bob Kloppenburg were the resident preachers. The whole team (well, perhaps not Ricky Pierce; never Ricky Pierce) drank in their defensive mantras, and the most apt disciples were Gill, McMillan, and Payton.

Imagine yourself an opposing point guard that season. Perhaps you’re Spud Webb of the Kings, and you’ve been given the role of bringing the ball up against Gary Payton. You receive the inbounds pass and turn backwards as you approach half-court, but Payton starts bumping you with his chest, forcing you to spin sideways so you can gain an angle. Out of the corner of your eye, you see McMillan inching off his man, eyes intensely focused on the ball, waiting for you to let up for just one second. You pivot around again, trying to get by Payton so that you can just pass the ball to someone – anyone – and be done with these vultures. But he won’t let you get by; Gary wants you to do the work. The shot-clock ticks downward, urging you to cross the line before a violation is called.

Finally, you make it past half-court, and now McMillan has given up the charade of guarding his man – why bother, the idea of you passing the ball was laughable to begin with – and now he’s bearing down on you and the two-headed monster – McPayton – has you by the throat. As Payton slaps at the ball for the sixth time in the last eight seconds – or was it McMillan? who can tell? – your willpower begins to fade. Who can withstand this fury? Finally, Payton wins, Kemp sprints down the court, snatches an alley-oop, the crowd screams, Garry St. Jean beckons for a timeout, and you trudge back to the bench, only to see Gill taking off his warmups.

It never ended.

Well, that was every night in 1993-94 – every night until the Denver Nuggets and Dikembe Mutombo ... no, we won’t talk about that part today.

But back to Payton (wipes blood from forehead after aborted attempt at lobotomy). I don’t think it’s a stretch to make the claim that he’s the greatest player in team history. To wit:

- Franchise leader in games, minutes, points, assists, and steals
- 18,207 points scored, or as many as Gus Williams and Xavier McDaniel combined
- Nine-time all star
- Nine times 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-team All-NBA
- Nine times 1st-team All Defensive Team
- Of the ten best single-season PERs in team history, five belong to Payton

Admittedly, Payton was not the perfect player. His antagonistic attitude towards rookies was frustrating to the team’s development, and his undying confidence in his abilities – so useful on the court – proved to be his undoing off it, as he wound up being on the losing end of a battle with Howard Schultz. At the time of his trade to Milwaukee for Ray Allen, most fans bemoaned the move, but looking back it was obviously a wise one.

That said, there’s no point belaboring the argument of his place in Sonic history. Gary Payton is the greatest Sonic ever and will be the first (only?) drafted Sonic ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. He is the Alpha and the Omega of Seattle basketball. There is no “if only” with Payton because he never left the door open to questioning – he played seemingly every minute of every game he could in a Sonics’ uniform with a manic fury unrivaled in Seattle sports history. A history of the SuperSonics without Gary Payton would be like a history of the United States without Abraham Lincoln, a history of rap music without Public Enemy. He may not have been the first or the last, but his importance is as undeniable as his will to compete.

Have I said enough? Perhaps. I’ll yield the floor, then, to the man himself, with words from his appearance at the Save Our Sonics rally a month ago.

“You guys have always supported me, and I’m supporting you,” Payton said, the crowd chanting his name as if it was 1996 once again. “And there ain’t nothin’ going to be stamped on my chest but Sonics when I go into the Hall of Fame.”

Still intense. Still beloved.

22 comments:

chunkstyle23 said...

Man, what is left to say? A fitting tribute to my favorite Sonic--heck, favorite pro-athlete of all time. Thanks for articulating our collective love for the Glove.

Anonymous said...

Nice work, fellas. No doubt about it - GP was The Man for the Sonics. All those crappy first-round flameouts aside, the early to mid-90s Sonics were a great, great team, and Gary was the best player on that team. Nuff said.

Steff said...

Nothing but love for the Glove...

whiskeychainsaw said...

Man, I love your artwork but I wish you would have used a different style photo. I had a photo of him in college from his SI "Player of the Year" article in which he was straddling an O player. He had both legs wrapped clear around the guy, his laces in the old school 1991 Nike team shoes were unlaced, his back was arched and he was half pawing at the ball.

To me, his defensive game will always be the greatest attribute. I tried finding that photo but couldn't. But I'm sure you can picture that kind of a GP defensive posture. Can you do a 2nd image for him along those lines.

In fact-- you should do that for everyone. 2 pictures. For him an O and D, and so on so forth...

Anonymous said...

And in 3-D, while you're at it.

chunkstyle23 said...

Er, hey, no problem! I should be finished with the whole list, oh, right about the time everybody has holographic monitors.

Thanks for stopping in, folks.

Anonymous said...

I was kidding by the way; just sort of playing off whiskey's "request", there. I thought the art was great (and article, too). The art sort of reminds me of a cross between "Clash of the Titans" and something you might see in "Doom" (the game, not the movie).

(And, yes, that was meant as a compliment, as bizarre as it might sound).

nuss said...

Just so we're clear, I originally asked Raf to design GP tearing the heart out of David Stern, then alley-ooping it to Kemp for the thrown-down. (Perhaps that's coming in a future installment).

Nice work, though, amigo, especially on the scowl.

chunkstyle23 said...

Way to give away the finale, spoiler.

Heh, Anon, I was riffing on that too. If only I were as prolific as Whiskey thinks I am! I could finally ditch this two-bit "blog" business and go where the future is--newspapers!

Still joking.

Thanks for the kind words, all.

Dave said...

Anyone remember those Sonic commercials where they are the superhero team? If I remember correctly the glove was all rubbery-limbed, George karl had the brain under glass on his head, the Reignman was beastly as only he can be. Those images from the early 90's really pop into my head when I think back on that era. I remember GP for backing down his defender on the baseline, as KC always said "GP's going to work" and if it was vs. Damon Stoudamire "he's got a mouse in the house." All love for the Glove, great article.

anonymous said...

Just so we're clear, I originally asked Raf to design GP tearing the heart out of David Stern, then alley-ooping it to Kemp for the thrown-down.

I'd rather have GP delivering a head butt to Howard Schultz.

But seriously, great art & article.

kdoublec said...

OOOOOoooo weeeeeeeee. His name is G for real.

Paul Merrill said...

That's funny--he totally has the "DOOM" face on. C'mon nerds, where's the Supersonics mod?

Excellent work as usual, Chunk!

Donna said...

Thank you for that. Terrific descriptive writing...got chills just remembering all that the Glove used to bring to the floor and unleash upon our foes. He is definitely #1.

aggh.. said...

For all the flak he use to get for being a s*it talker on the court, off it he seemed like a nice guy. Remember running in to him at Jillians after games and he was very cordial. Took time to answer questions, signed autos and on one occasion, he even gave us a brief tour of the car (Dark gray Impala SS with wire daytons)he was driving for the night. Never got in trouble withe law as I recall..good guy..

karazekevin said...

great article..i had no idea of the prowess of the sonics' defense before..

good job!

JAS said...

Was it the 1977-78 Suns who also got 1,000 steals (I seem to recall reading that in Curt Sampson's book about the roller-coaster that was the 1993-94 Sonics)? Don't they hold the single-season record that the Sonics fell just short of in 1993-94?

Man, I would have loved to see Payton ripping out Stern's tiny little charcoal heart while X-Man digs into the Commish's neck with those long nails of his. You could add Bennett to play Alton Lister while Kemp dunks over him. The possibilities are endless.

nuss said...

We have a winner! Nice memory, Jas. For correctly guessing the answer, you receive a year's subscription FREE to supersonicsoul.com.

JAS said...

Woo-Hoo!

Sportszilla said...

I'll always remember those lefty layups he'd bank high off the glass...that, and of course, Calabro's "he's got a MOUSE in the HOUSE!"

AK1984 said...

Here's kudos to not just SuperSonicSoul, but also Gary Payton.

G.P. are you with thee!

Josh said...

Gary Payton, for me, could have represented a tear in loyalty. As an Oregonian, I know too well that we have no equivalent to the Seahawks or Mariners. For an Oregon kid in the early 90s, RIP CITY was all.
And I DID ache when our beloved Drexler/Porter/Kersey teams came up, inevitably, against that great Midwest Menace coached by Phil Jackson (later to haunt us from our own coast). But I was also an OSU fan. I had as a toddler climbed the tall, tall stairs of Gill Colesium to watch games with my parents, had once blown my chance at an A.C. Green autograph because he was so tall and scary. And I was (am) a HUGE Gary Payton fan.
Payton arrived after my time in Corvallis, but in 1996 - my freshman year of high school - he and the rest of the Sonics played a preseason game against the Blazers at Gill. To crown the event, Payton's #20 college jersey would be raised to the rafters of the old barn at halftime. From southern Oregon my parents and I made the trek to OSU.
The Sonics, of course, were fresh off of their own encounter with the Bulls, and the core of that Championship team was still intact. For Portland only Cliff Robinson remained, and outliers of darker times were in place (read: Isaiah Rider, Rasheed Wallace). Jermaine O'Neal was a teenager on the bench. The Sonics won, as I recall. The score didn't matter much, it being preseason and me being a Sonics fan anyway. There were no loyalties, only celebration.
Basketball fans have recently begun to crowd Old Gill once again, #20 hanging high above their heads. I hope that it isn't too long before people can get excited about a Sonics game again.

-Josh