As some of the shady, elder statesmen hung out along the sidelines of a Mosswood Park blacktop court in Oakland, Calif., shooting dice and heckling players with postgame threats, it was never much of a distraction for Gary Payton. Perhaps more than anyone else, he and his game did the talking.
“I'd be out on the court talkin' crazy,” laughs Payton. “And when I talk crazy to you, you get mad ... then, I'd show you up in front of all your homeboys.”
The opponent didn't matter. He brought his five from the north side and didn't care which side of Oakland your five called home.
"Young Payton" was going to go right at you. He was only 14 years old when he started to hone his game against grown men at the famed Mosswood Park.
Unlike today's crop of rising prep stars and ranked-since-middle-school phenoms, Gary Payton didn't grow up with private specialist coaching, a strength trainer or a professionally edited YouTube mixtape to help grow his personal brand for college and pro scouts, let alone an Instagram following.
He simply grew up learning the game from his no-nonsense father, Al, and playing at both Mosswood Park and in his front yard – for all hours of the day. It's where he learned to love the game, where he welcomed the physicality to stubbornly prove his toughness, and where he famously began "talking mess" to literally everyone he faced. Everyone.
His game eventually took him to Hall of Fame heights after a 17-year pro career, and now decades later, GP doesn't mince words when he looks back on his earliest days competing against the best. He got his game at the park, and as he's been known to do, he was happy to talk endlessly and tell his story of how Oakland shaped him.
Q: What were some of your first memories of playing basketball when you were growing up in Oakland?
Payton: Everything was outdoors! It was nothing like nowadays, where they have AAU and all of these nice basketball courts at your disposal. Growing up on the playgrounds in Oakland, it was real different, and we had to jump over gates if they were locked and we wanted to play. It wasn't until I was in junior high school that I really played, at [my elementary school courts at] Jefferson. That's when I started to really play pickup basketball, and it was always against older guys. That's how I got really good, is I always played against older people, and I knew that would make me better.
It was just fun, and we had to get home before the street lights turned on. I used to go up there about 10 o'clock in the morning, and I'd stay until around 5 in the afternoon, when they'd start to turn the street lights on and before I would get in trouble. [laughs] The guys used to always play, and they'd shoot for who would get the first pick. Most of the time, the guys would always say, “Hey, we've got Young Payton.” That's what they called me. I was one of the guys on the block that was pretty good, even though I was younger. I was probably the best one.
Q: What was it like learning the game from your father, who was known for being a tough coach and pretty mean?
Payton: Playing for your father and playing for a person like him – and he was so mean, he was that way – it was better for me. [My friends and I] all grew up together, and we started playing with my father's basketball team, “We Are Family.” I grew up learning a lot. A lot of people might've said I couldn't deal with him, but my father, even when I scored 45 or 50 points, he'd get on me even more. He'd say I could've done more. That just motivated me, to say that I always wanted to prove him wrong.
I always wanted to come right back the next day. If I had 35, he wouldn't even give me a compliment, and I'd want to come back the next day and say, “Hey, he'll give me a compliment one of these days, because I'm going to come right back and get 40-something.” It motivated me how my father was and how tough he was. That's why when I went to college and I went on to the NBA, it wasn't really a big difference for me. I had to adjust my game and my talent, to make sure I worked hard – but not my mentality. My mentality was already there, to be one of those hard-nosed basketball players, and not back down from nobody.
Q: Another guy from Oakland who came up just after you was Jason Kidd. Do you remember when you first saw him play and got to know him?
Payton: When I was in college, Brian Shaw and a lot of the guys were calling me and saying, “Hey, we heard about this kid in our neighborhood from the town, his name is Jason Kidd.” They were telling me he was a man playing against boys and that he might be the first McDonald's All-American to come from our city. I was like, “Shoot, we didn't even get nominated for the McDonald's All-American Game, he must be pretty good!” [laughs] I went home that next summer, and I started hearing about him more and more, and my agents at the time, the Goodwins, had started talking to Jason and were trying to stay on his radar. They started asking me to take a look at him and see if he's good enough.
I started to go see him, and he really started to change the game for Oakland basketball. He had so many people that wanted to go see him that they'd have to play their high school games at the Oakland Coliseum [now called the Oracle Arena]. I went to go see him, and he had a triple-double. [laughs] He just amazed me. I just thought, “This kid is really good, and he's playing like they're nobody.” He looked at them as just kids. He was 16 or 17, and he treated them like they were 6 or 7 years old. [laughs] He was just blowing by people. He was bigger and stronger than people, and he could just get to the bucket and do whatever he wanted.
He met me, and the first thing I said to him was, “You're pretty good, but I'd kill you all day long.” [laughs] He goes, “Oh, is that right?” So I invited him to come work out with us that next summer, and that was the first time that Jason got a taste of people going at him. I probably beat him down for about eight or nine days straight, and he kept coming back. I wouldn't even let him score. I'd say, “You're playing against little kids. Now you're playing against a man. It's not gonna happen that way.”
What I liked about Jason is that he came back, day after day after day. I heard a story that he used to go home crying to his mother, saying, “Gary beat me down today, but I'm gonna go right back.” His father came and told me about it. I said, “That's the right mentality. He's not gonna quit.” He was going to go at somebody until he got better. He started to get better and better, and then once he got to Cal, he started living with me here and there in the summer for those two years he was at Cal. He'd stay over at my house, and we'd go work out and he got better and better.
He started to do better, and he started to win a pickup game or two here and there. He kept on getting better, and he became an All-American at Cal, and then went on to the pros. Even in the pros, I still couldn't let him do nothing to me. [laughs] I had to go and take it to him when he first became a rookie. Everybody knows, Jason wasn't really the scorer in the league that he was in high school and in college, but he was an all-around basketball player that got better and better and became great.
Q: When you guys were growing up and playing in middle school and high school, was playing for the Warriors something you dreamed of? Or did you have a different team that you hoped to play for?
Payton: You know what, I didn't have a dream at a young age. I never really thought about playing in the pros, or playing basketball. I actually always liked to just go around my neighborhood and play cops and robbers with my friends, or cowboys and Indians. [laughs] I used to jump off our garage, play hide-and-go-seek, and do all of that. I was a kid. Then, all of a sudden, my father put up a basketball rim in front of our house, and my brother and his friends would always take the ball from me and tease me. I used to go cry and go to my father, and ask him to come outside and help me. He'd lower the hoop down and help me shoot, and then my brother and his friends would get all mad, and they'd give it to me once my dad left. [laughs] They used to just beat on me, and that gave me the mentality at a young age to say, “Look, I'm gonna play this game. And I'm going to get real good at it.” I played every day. I'd shoot on that hoop for hours, and then I'd go around to the playgrounds and play at Jefferson.
Then, all of a sudden, I started getting good and my name started circulating around Oakland. People were saying, “You guys gotta go see this kid called Young Payton.” I started dominating a lot of the players around there. I started dominating junior high. I dominated high school, and then we started playing AAU, which was called the BCI at the time. I didn't start dreaming about going nowhere until I got to high school. My 10th-grade year, I didn't play for the whole year, and I was ineligible. I did a lot of crazy stuff, and I didn't play my whole 10th-grade year.
Q: What sparked that change for you?
Payton: We got a new coach, Fred Noel, and he changed my whole mentality of basketball. He made me think about future first, and then think about basketball. I gotta get there [academically] first, before I can start playing basketball. School became the main thing, and he got me to start coming early in the mornings. My junior and my senior year, I started getting recruited by a lot of people and my grades were picking up. Then, my reality started coming. I realized I could go to a lot of colleges, I could get out of Oakland and I could make something out of myself. I could be the first one to go to college and try to graduate from college. I knew that my parents couldn't send me to school if they had to pay for it. I got a scholarship, and I still wasn't really dreaming about playing in the pros until my junior year of college. I started to think that I was pretty good, and people were saying that I might get drafted, but I never grew up in Oakland thinking about Golden State. I just never grew up like that.
I wanted to go to the Golden State games because I wanted to see George Gervin, who played for the San Antonio Spurs. That was my idol, and I loved him. I had all of his posters and his cards on my wall, and I was always wanting to go to the game when the Spurs came to play Golden State. I'd try to sneak down at the old coliseum, even if I had to be way up in the rafters at the very top to start. At that time, it was $3 seats, and there was nobody at the Golden State games really. They weren’t that good. I used to try to go down and hope that the ushers wouldn't mess with me. [laughs] It was one of them things, and George Gervin was a big thing to me. I always wanted to say that I could get to the NBA and play with him, but he was before my time. When I got to the pros, and all of a sudden I became who I was, I got to meet him, and it was amazing.
Q: People always talk about the point guards from New York or Chicago, but Oakland has always had guards that had a certain toughness and demeanor that get overlooked. Why is that?
Payton: I think it's because we grew up playing on the playground and in the street. I think the New York kids and the Chicago kids are the same, but we had an extra chip on our shoulder because we were never noticed. You'd see them in the papers or in books, but when you come out here to northern California, they didn't ever talk about none of us point guards from Oakland. It wasn't until we got into the NBA and started making ourselves known. We weren't known in high school for that, and we all had a chip on our shoulder. I had that chip on my shoulder whenever I used to go play against the New York kids and all of the teams in those tournaments. I used to go at 'em so tough, and I was like, “OK, you guys think you're good, but we got playgrounds, too. You got Rucker and all of that, well we got Mosswood Park.”
That was a really, really hard and ghetto park. We got players and playground basketball just as much as you do. We went at 'em. That's where I got really known, from going at them guys. When St. John's University started recruiting me, they told me, “You're better than most of these East Coast guards and the Midwest ones.” I was going at 'em.
Q: I'm glad you brought up Mosswood there, because I was going to ask about that specifically. What was the park like, and what was the atmosphere and intensity like back then?
Payton: It was so great. You'd go up there on a Saturday, and it'd be full of a lot of people. You'd get on the court, and it was almost just like Rucker. Rucker is a little more structured than what we had at Mosswood Park. There, you'd go in and you'd say, “I got next.” But [at Mosswood], you'd have a lot of hoodlums and thugs around there, and they'd actually be running the games. You'd have people sellin' dope out of the park, but you'd just mind your business. There were a lot of guys that'd come around, because they wanted to see the best players and see who could get down. Once you'd get on a team, you'd get your 5, and you'd stay. There might be a fight here or there. There might be gunshots here or there. Everyone would scatter, and then we'd come back about an hour later once everything would break up and was back to normal. [laughs]
That's just the way it was. We had guys that were our rivals. The people from west Oakland played, the people from north Oakland played and the people from east Oakland played. There were rivalries, and it was right in the middle of the city, by downtown, so that's where everybody came to meet. The best people from each area would come by, and it was, “Bring your crew, we'll bring our crew, and we'll see what happens.”
Q: How different was it then at the park versus nowadays? I still try drive around and try to find parks to play at, and there are just not as many people there for a pickup game anymore.
Payton: You know how it goes, you're giving these kids all the tennis shoes and the hardwood courts, and a lot of kids have a different mentality than what we did. They have so much access, and AAU is just giving them stuff. They're playing in the finest tennis shoes. We didn't have that. We had to go the playgrounds. We couldn't get a gym. It wasn't opened up to us like that. We didn't have these AAU coaches that were bringing you in and recruiting you like that. We had to go out there and get it ourselves. That's why you don't see nobody on the playgrounds now. They're thinking, “Oh, we're going to get hurt.” They think they're going to go out and play against dudes that are going to tear their heads off.
That's the toughness of it. That's where you get tough at. If a guy goes at you and wants to tear your head off, that mean they don't respect you. That's what I used to do. I didn't respect anybody. I'd say, “Man, I done played against tougher guys than y'all. Y'all think you got game, well I got some guys at this playground that are legends. I don't care about y'all, and I'm gonna go at y'all.” It was what it was. Now, you don't have that. They're talking about how they're playing for an AAU team and they're too valuable to play outside like that. They're getting recruited by so and so, and they don't want to play against someone that might try and hurt them. That's where the toughness comes from.
Q: Once both you and Jason got to the league, did you start to see the impact that you were having on the city and how you guys were putting on for Oakland by that point?
Payton: Yeah, we started to see it, and we started to notice that Oakland was getting on the map and more guys were getting recruited from Oakland and going places. J.R. Rider, Greg Foster, Antonio Davis and B-Shaw all started to make it to the NBA, and that was a big thing for us. People started to understand, “Hey, they got some players over in Oakland, and they got a lot of dog in 'em.” That was the start of us saying, “OK, J, we done made it happen.” People were saying, “We gonna be like J. We gonna be like Brian Shaw.” Kids were saying they wanted to be like us and were going to make it to the pros and be like them and wanted to do the things that we did.
Once we started seeing that, we had a landmark to say, “Oakland is a place where point guards are going to come at you tough.” Me making the Hall of Fame, and Jason about to make the Hall of Fame, it just made it even better, because we've still got kids like Ivan Rabb, who's going to Cal now. He's gonna get it, and do what he does at Cal and come out too. Bill Russell came from here. Paul Silas came from here. Bill Cartwright came from right down the street [in Elk Grove]. So we've had guys like that, and then we did it, and that's what we needed in Oakland.
Q: Obviously, Damian Lillard is the guy now, a generation later, that looked up to you guys. What's it been like to see his game evolve, and what do you think of the way he plays?
Payton: I've been knowin' his father since I was growing up. His father is a couple years older than me, and I knew him from around our little neighborhood playgrounds and stuff. He used to be out there watching for us and stuff. He always used to tell me, “You know, my little son is good.” I'd never listen to him. [laughs] Once he got to the league, he'd go, “See! You never listened to me!” To see Damian work so hard, it all comes from him working. He knew how hard he had to work, coming from Weber State. It was a small school, and people didn't know nothing about him. He made the trend. He did the same thing I did, going to Oregon State, which was also a small school then. It changed the program.
Everybody started seeing how he was scoring, and then they started to see him get drafted sixth by Portland (in 2012). Then, he goes and wins Rookie of the Year. Then, he comes back and makes the All-Star team, makes the All-Star team again and gets the big contract with adidas. He grew up in Brookfield, in East Oakland, and that was his park that he used to go to and do the same thing that I did at Mosswood. He'd just go out there and play hard. You might of had guys out there that did some stuff, but you played and you stuck to it. It made you better and better, and he's going to get better and better and be an All-Star for a long time.
Q: After spending some time back in Oakland more recently, what's it like to see the excitement and pride that the city has for the Warriors now?
Payton: It's crazy up in that arena. I think it's the best arena in the NBA. It's great for our city, and with winning the championship, we can build up. We can get hotels, we can start hosting things like the All-Star Game, and we can hopefully not have to transport it to San Francisco. Let it be right here in Oakland. Let Oakland be the place where we have stuff. It's just been great, and it gives us a great atmosphere here.
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