Gary Payton is a Hall of Famer and one of the best point guards to ever play in the NBA, gaining a reputation during his career as a fierce competitor who was aggressive on both offense and defense, earning the nickname “The Glove” for his ability to lock-up opposing players.
He also talked an (almost) non-stop stream of trash to his opponents, first with the late, lamented Seattle Sonics and later with the Bucks, Celtics, Lakers and Heat. A season after winning a championship in Miami alongside Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, Payton retired and is now an analyst for Fox Sports Live (one of his recurring features is the amusingly titled “Glove Actually.”)
Rolling Stone spoke with Payton about his first love – the point guard position – and his second (talking trash), and how both have become endangered in today’s NBA. He also weighs in on his toughest opponents, former NBA commissioner David Stern and LeBron James’ nomadic ways. Here’s the Glove, in all his unfiltered glory.
How do you think a point guard fits into a team’s defensive scheme?
Nowadays, that is not a big priority. We had a defensive scheme set with George Karl in Seattle, and that was our whole plan. Once we played defense and created turnovers, we made the game a lot easier and that started with me. If I was on top of the ball and I was hawking a point guard from end-to-end for 94 feet, and I made it hard for him to get the ball up in 12 seconds, by the time he gets to the half-court line, he only has 12 seconds to set up his offense or a play. That would help us a lot because it would put pressure on them to get a shot off, penetrate or do something. That was my whole thing: to turn a guy at least three times.
And when the other four guys see me up at the front working my butt off, they would say, “OK, we can’t make it easy for this guy to pass the ball, let’s get the passing lanes, let’s get a steal and reward Gary for what he’s doing.” That’s the way I used to approach the game.
You said that’s different now. Have NBA rule changes caused that or has the game just changed?
The game has changed, because right now, it’s all about scoring. Kids want to see guys get dunks, kids want to see guys get 30-40 points and get into a rhythm and make basket after basket. That’s what they’re about. Now you don’t see a guy hawking somebody 94 feet.
The only guys that would probably do that now are [Patrick] Beverley from Houston and Tony Allen from Memphis. With the rule changes that say you can’t touch anybody, they can do it the best because they’ve already established to the referees how aggressive they are. I think Rondo can do it in the half-court when he wants to.
So who were some of the best offensive players you had to guard?
The people that I was really concerned with were the people that had the ball most of the time of a basketball game. John Stockton, Rod Strickland – he had that type of game where he could get to the basket any time that he wanted to. Tim Hardaway was a guy who had his crossover and then he could shoot a jump shot and he could get to the bucket.
But Stockton was the most difficult one. He would only take 10, 11 shots and make about eight or nine of them and also get to the free-throw line a lot. So it was very hard to read him. He would set picks, he would pick-and-roll you. He would keep active so much and Jerry Sloan used him in a great way by only letting him play 30 minutes a game, but it was 30 minutes of effectiveness.
You’ve also said Stockton wouldn’t say anything back to you when you would try to bait him by talking, that you could never get a read on him.
He wouldn’t say nothing to you. He knew that that motivated me a lot – if he started talking back to me. What he would do is, if I started talking, I would get into a situation where I’d get into a good rhythm, he would start using his head: setting picks, getting the offensive fouls. When I would get on the block he would flop or fall down and the referees would give him calls and that was because he was the marquee point guard at the time.
But as I started growing and becoming an All-Star, they started letting us play a lot and wouldn’t call those cheap fouls on me. Then I stopped reacting to the things he did and we started playing heads-up. I started having great games against him.
People say this is a golden age for point guards, even though a lot of these guys play the position in a non-traditional way – guys like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. Who are some of the point guards you enjoy watching today?
People want to watch the Westbrooks and the Kyrie Irvings and the Stephen Currys, but you have to understand that when these guys were in college, they didn’t play the one. They played the two, and they were moved to a one guard when they came out of college. So they already had the mentality of scoring.
The point guards that I like are the ones that are playing like point guards. You got Chris Paul, who I think is the best point guard in the NBA right now. And I’d say Tony Parker is next. He scores, but he plays the right way because of the system in San Antonio. And I think Rondo for Boston is that one guard, too, who can always get you a triple-double. He reminds me a little bit of Jason Kidd, of how he can get a triple-double.
I think there are two young guards in this generation that can become really true: Damian Lillard and John Wall. I think they’re the guys who are changing their games to become a point guard and get assists. Damian scores a little bit more than John, but I think John scores when he has to.
Lillard’s from Oakland, your neck of the woods, and he definitely has that same confidence and swagger.
He’s really fun to watch. He can shoot the ball for a guy that came out of Oakland – none of us were considered jump shooters, we were all considered scorers. We’d get the ball to the basket and do what we had to do to put the ball in the hole. He’s a jump shooter.
We’ve been talking a lot – me and him have the same agent – and I’ve always said I would rather for him to become a better defender, get a few more steals and a few more layups. He can get you assists, but in the system that Portland plays, there’s not too much you can do there. A lot of those guys put it on the floor, like Aldridge; he dribbles a couple of times and takes that turnaround jump shot. Lillard could average 5-6 assists a game, but he’s got to be a better leader. That has to come from him being more vocal and he’s not that type of kid. But if they’re losing and something’s going wrong, let him get into a couple guys’ chests a little bit. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way.
How important is that communication among teammates on the floor?
It’s big. If they know when you get serious and when you’re playing, they’ll know: “Gary’s ready to go, he’s ready to do it.” Michael Jordan had that all the time. Those guys would be down sometimes and all of a sudden he’d come in there and clap his hands and say, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. It’s time.” That’s what we had and that’s what a leader is about. You gotta be able to do that and say “It’s time to stop playing.”
When I was talking a lot of trash, a lot of the guys knew that when I started getting serious was when I started getting a little bit quieter. If I started locking up somebody, then I’d start talking even more and I’d talk more aggressive. But once I stopped, they knew I was really serious. The trash talking would get serious. “Come on. Get me the ball, there’s a mouse in the house.” That’s when they know.
You’ve said there’s not as much trash talking in the NBA these days. Why is that? Is it social media, the microscope on guys with them getting mic’d up, or is it just a generational thing?
I think it came from David Stern. He figured that was something that didn’t need to be in the game. That was a negative. Kids were watching teams and seeing a negative thing. Our league after the strike was going down and he wanted to make it a different league. He wanted to cut all that out. There were too many techs going on, too many people talking and he thought that was a big negative for the sport of basketball, so he cut it out. He made the referees make everything a tech, kick a player out of the game.
So do you think trash talk can make a comeback?
I don’t think it will come back around. That’s a difference between our era and their era. You remember when the Lakers would play Boston and they would fight and then the next day nobody would get suspended. In our era, the Oakleys, the Laimbeers, the Jordans: they would knock each other on the ground real hard and get back up and talk trash. People loved that. But now, I give the example of Marcus Smart at Oklahoma State: when he went in the stands and the fans start talking crazy and he gets suspended and all that old stuff. That’s what they’re coming to now because a lot of these fans are very rude and very aggressive. Some of these players are reacting to that. All of a sudden, some kids can’t do this: they can’t talk trash and play. It’s not in their character.
You ended up in Los Angeles with Karl Malone in part because you had become friends and wanted to play together. What’s your take on players like LeBron going to the Heat or the Cavs to join Kyrie Irving and bring in Kevin Love?
I would never have wanted to play with Magic Johnson, I would never have wanted to play with Michael Jordan, I would never have wanted to play with Karl Malone or John Stockton in my prime. We wanted to play against the Shaqs, the Kobes. We wanted to go to the All-Star Game and brag about, “We beat you, we just won the championship, how ’bout you?”
These guys now, in the summers, they hang out with each other, they go on these Olympic teams, they get really close – which is no problem. They go eat dinner with their wives, they become best friends and then they talk about, “OK, in three, four years, the contracts are coming up: let’s play together.”
For LeBron, it worked out. They went to the Finals four years, won two, lost twice. Now he goes back home and I think he understood: “I should have never left home from day one, I should have made a dynasty here.” He knows that he can’t do it by himself. I don’t think any superstar can do it by himself, there has to be a good team put together for them to win games. Kyrie was already there, he saw that he had a point guard. And then they went and added Kevin Love.
You see Michael Jordan when he was with the Chicago Bulls. He got beat up a lot. Detroit beat him up first, the Knicks were beating him up. Everybody was beating him up and then all of a sudden: Scottie Pippen. Then Phil Jackson puts pieces together. He goes and gets [B.J.] Armstrong, he gets Luc Longley, he gets Scott Williams, he gets Kukoc. And they win six championships.
But in our era, I don’t think Michael Jordan would have been saying, “Let me call Magic, let me call Larry Bird.” I wouldn’t want to play with Hakeem. I wanted to beat them. That was just our mentality.