It turns out that Gary Payton was just a big sweetheart, after all. He may have talked trash with the best of them and chucked dumbbells at Vernon Maxwell for his between-game calisthenics routine, but the mouthy image also had a lot to do with exactly where the NBA was at when Gary Payton was developing into an All-Star. Stuck between Michael Jordan’s retirement and return, for years without the presence of Magic and Larry, the league was looked at by some as a noisy, uncouth collection of shoe salesmen that liked to hold out for big contracts before hanging on the rim after dunks.
The image was spot on for a few of them, at least early in their particular careers. That stereotype missed the mark with Payton, though, because not only did he decide to just about eliminate dunking from his repertoire sometime in his second season, he was about as fundamentally pure (save for those coach-cringe inducing right-handed layups on the left side of the goal) and desperate to win as they come. Who cares if a few dumbbell tosses (it missed, hitting teammate Horace Grant instead) got in the way?
Payton was nearly also the victim of another unfortunate trend of his era – the inability to secure a ring with Jordan lingering somewhere in the same playoff bracket. Gary would go on to win one in his final season, acting as a backup’s backup with the Miami Heat in 2006, which helps ease the pain a little. Still, his Seattle SuperSonics fans will forever be frustrated with a 1994-1998 run that seemed cruel in its taunting. Possible payback for some of Payton’s barbs? Nah, just bad luck, and bad timing.
The 1994 playoff run saw the SuperSonics lose a first round series to the formidable Denver Nuggets – a strong team that would go on to challenge the Utah Jazz in the next round, but an eighth seed in the grand scheme of what was a deep Western Conference. It was the first time in league history that an eighth seed toppled a first seed, and Seattle was rightfully embarrassed. The next season resulted in another first round exit to a far lower seed, this time at the hands of a young Los Angeles Lakers squad that was still a year and a half away from adding Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The team’s front office didn’t overreact. It hung on to Payton and Shawn Kemp, mindful of their age, and stuck with fiery coach George Karl amidst much derision. Somehow, Karl and Payton kept it all together, as the team changed uniforms, amped up the zone-ish defense, and ran to 64 wins in 1995-96. That figure would lead the league in most other seasons, and yet the Chicago Bulls managed to pile up 72 games in Michael Jordan’s first season back.
When the team teams met in the Finals, Karl would strangely start Detlef Schrempf on Jordan to begin that series, hoping Payton’s acumen in the passing lane (he was the Defensive Player of the Year that year, an award we probably won’t see handed to a point guard ever again) and Seattle’s defensive wing depth (with Vincent Askew and David Wingate) would help limit MJ just enough. Seattle never really had a chance after that call, going down 3-0 in the series before Karl switched Payton onto MJ. That, and an injury to Ron Harper that made it so Jordan had to chase Payton around defensively, allowed Seattle to crawl back to a 3-2 Finals deficit before Chicago pulled it out in Game 6. They’d made it to the championship round, but in the exact worst year.
Three other NBA teams have won as much and failed to pull out the ring. Dallas won 67 games in 2007 and lost in the first round, but their frustrations were assuaged as they pulled out a championship four years later. Cleveland won 66 games in 2009, but they’re Cleveland – very much used to the idea of getting kicked where it hurts the most. Boston won 68 games in 1973, but they’re Boston – they just have to go cry on a pillow made of all those other championship rings.
Seattle? It shouldn’t have been over after that, but it was. Kemp kvetched at free agent signee Jim McIlvaine’s contract the next season, and the team lost to a re-modeled Houston Rocket squad in the second round. Kemp was dealt to Cleveland in a three-team deal the following September, and new addition Vin Baker was helpless in guarding Shaquille O’Neal in the 1998 playoffs. A front office dustup led to Karl’s exit a month later, and the lockout, creeping alcoholism, and the embarrassment of a terrible playoff showing led to an overweight and unconfident Baker showing up to camp next season.
By then, the SuperSonics were just another good team, even if Payton was the best point guard in the game. He was dealt to Milwaukee in 2003, and Seattle would be without an NBA team just five years after that.
More bad timing resulted. The reunion with Karl in Milwaukee fizzled, as George was let go following Payton’s short stint with the Bucks. A free agent contract (with Karl Malone) to join the Los Angeles Lakers led to Payton’s second Finals appearance, but by then his defense had started to slip, and the Lakers were too beat up physically and too fractured mentally to handle the Detroit Pistons. GP was shipped to Boston for next to nothing that summer, used as a throw-in for a deal to Atlanta, released, and finally treated to a rare turn of sound luck in the 2005 offseason when the Heat came calling.
His run with the Heat was not without its highlights, as Payton hit a go-ahead long two pointer with 9.3 seconds left in Game 3 of the Finals, giving a desperate Heat team its first win of the series, and effectively swinging the momentum in the eventual triumph. After too many years of too many things letting Gary Payton down, it was the best way to go out.
The Basketball Hall of Fame is the best place for a person and player like Gary Payton. It may not be the appropriate place for many of his contemporaries, players that we won’t name that had Hall of Fame-talent and relatively pedestrian careers, but it’s the right place for someone with Payton’s drive, defensive know-how, and daring.
Gary Payton is a survivor, and a winner. And a talker, too. We have some kind of speech to look forward to on the night of the induction.