“Everyone has a vet.” That statement from Kevin Garnett has stuck with me. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. It’s the circle of NBA life. You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose career was not set on its course by a veteran in his first locker room. Those who become vets themselves pass those lessons along. These are their stories.
From 1994-2002, Gary Payton made the All-NBA roster and the All-Defensive First Team each season, finishing a 17-year Hall of Fame career ranked third all-time in steals and sixth in assists. He still ranks among the top 10 in both categories. The No. 2 overall pick by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1990, Payton played in three NBA Finals, famously taking Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six games in 1996 and winning alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat a decade later.
Arguably the greatest defensive floor general in the history of the game, The Glove’s reign as the last guard to win Defensive Player of the Year has lasted 24 years and counting. He might also be the best trash talker basketball has ever seen. The 51-year-old is still talking now, often at Yahoo Sports. Payton was in New York City on Friday to promote All-Star voting. We will get to that, but first ...
Who is your vet, and how did that relationship develop?
Payton: I was fortunate to have two of them: Xavier McDaniel and Nate McMillan. … I took Nate’s job as soon as I got to the NBA. They just gave it to me. I didn’t even go in there and earn it. It was like, “You’re our No. 1 pick, so you’re our starter.” That’s what’s happening now. You get drafted as a lottery pick in the top 12, you’re going to start, no matter what, because you don’t have anyone in front of you. You don’t have one of those veterans to teach you.
Nate was like a big brother to me, and we were very tight. Xavier was the same. They humbled me. Coming in here, I wanted to do things I wanted to do, thinking I’m from Oakland, California, and I’m tough, but they really, really made me understand that you have to respect people. It taught me a lot. It taught me how to be a veteran to young guys, and to teach them the same.
That’s why I like it when the San Antonios make their pick down low, because they bring in a good basketball player and [coach Gregg Popovich] grooms him to become something. He didn’t even know Kawhi Leonard was going to be like that. You get a veteran the way he got Tim Duncan and David Robinson to teach you the ropes. When I went in to Seattle, I had eight veterans who were in the league over six or seven years. That was a plus for me, to teach me how to respect somebody. Xavier McDaniel made me respect him. I thought I could do anything I wanted to. He grabbed me one time and almost choked me out. He said, “You’re going to do this. You’re going to go get coffee. You’re going to go get doughnuts.” It’s a game of respect.
What were some of your other rookie duties?
Payton: We used to have to get off the plane and put the bags on the bus when it was cold. They were big bags. We used to call our equipment manager Funky Bunch, and they would be like, “Look, man, get off the plane, go help Funky Bunch put them bags up in there.” I was a No. 2 pick, and I was probably making more money than all of them, but that was one of them things. You had to pay your dues and pay your respects.
Are there guys who you formed a bond with once you became a veteran?
Payton: I got a lot. I got Eric Snow. I got Vin Baker, who now is a little brother to me. Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry. Them are the four I really, really stay in contact with, because they were my younger brothers. Especially Jamal Crawford. Coming from Seattle, I raised him since he was a young pup. Jason Kidd, everybody knows I raised him since he was a pup. Jason Terry used to have my picture in his socks in college. He used to come to all my camps. Vin Baker came to Seattle and got into a lot of stuff. I worked it out with him to get him out of that, and now he’s doing very well as an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s things like that.
We drafted Eric Snow because he reminded the Sonics and myself of me. We needed a backup point guard to do that, and that’s what he did. These guys are still my guys, and I respect them. They went into the NBA, did what they had to do, learned and listened from me, and we still talk.
What was your welcome to the NBA moment?
Payton: I didn’t grow up admiring anybody but George Gervin, and I didn’t get a chance to play against him. That would’ve been one of my lifetime accomplishments. I probably would’ve went crazy if I played against him, because he’s like a father to me now.
I’m in the welcome committee for Michael Jordan. I watched him, seeing what he was doing with the Bulls at the time, and then I get drafted. I wanted to go at him, because they were always talking about him, but then he welcomed me with a 35-point game. I had like four or five points and didn’t play that much. As soon as I stepped on the floor, I went at him, and he said, “Nobody guard the young fella. He’s all me, all day.” Then, he came back over when I was on the bench and said, “Welcome to the NBA. This is the real joint.” That’s the type of stuff he did.
What would have happened in the 1996 NBA Finals if you started guarding Michael Jordan earlier in the series?
Payton: I don’t like to say what if. I’d say it probably would’ve been different. It could’ve been different. If he wouldn’t have started off averaging 30 points a game, it would’ve been a little different. He was averaging 31 or 32 on us, and when I took over he started averaging like 23.
I was hurt, and people don’t understand that. I don’t make no excuses. We played not to lose but not to win. It was one of those things where we finally realized we could beat that team. ...
They beat us by four [in Game 2], so that was one of the times we could’ve said “if,” but we can’t. We should’ve [had me defend Jordan] at that time, and then it probably would’ve been a different situation, but you have to understand that we didn’t have Nate McMillan, either. He would’ve done a great job, too, and then me and him would’ve tag-teamed trying to contain him.
Can a guard ever win Defensive Player of the Year again?
Payton: I don’t think there’s any way it can happen again, because the big men are changing this game. The simple fact is that a lot of the rules have changed. You can’t touch people now like I could. I could control people with my hands and the hand-checking. I was always 94 feet. Before they got to halfcourt, I would turn them three or four times, and that changes the game, because if I make you change direction three times, by the time you get set, there’s only going to be like 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Nowadays, you can’t do that. It’s going to be a foul.
So, the big man is dominating this game, because if you go to the bucket at any time, they’re blocking your shots. It’s like what’s happening now with Anthony Davis. He’s averaging two and a half blocks a game with [Rudy] Gobert. That’s why they win. When they block it, they start transition. That’s just the way it is. When I played, if I turned you three or four times, I’m going to rip you a couple of times, and then I’m going to change the game getting layups that way. ...
[Patrick] Beverley is trying to lobby for it. I’m not mad at him. I’m a big fan of his. I’m a big fan of Marcus Smart. But it’s going to be hard for another guard to win it, because you can’t use your hands and do the things you need to do to stop a basketball player or just trying to contain him.
If you were an All-Star captain this season, who would be your first pick right now?
Payton: I would probably have to go with AD. You have to start with defense. To me, he’s playing the third-best in the NBA right now. It would be hard not picking Luka [Doncic]. He’s playing very well, but right now if I was taking LeBron [James’] place and Giannis [Antetokounmpo] was the other captain, I would have to go with Anthony Davis.
[LeBron and Giannis] would be one and two. LeBron played with me, and I never played with Giannis — he’s a great basketball player, but I would go with LeBron and then Giannis.
Is there anybody now who could trash talk with the best of them?
Payton: Draymond Green was doing it for a minute, but he was guarding mostly forwards. Trash-talking is not a part of the game anymore. That’s not what it is. That’s not what it’s about. When we played, it was about fun. It was about who can take you out of your game. Now, once you start doing that, you’re taunting, and then you get a technical foul. The stuff that happened between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren, that’s typical. I would’ve done that, too. Butler made a point.
How would you fare in this point guard era, and does anyone remind you of yourself?
Payton: Nobody reminds me of the way I played, because I was a two-way guard. I played an offensive game and a defensive game. Nobody does that right now. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are close, but they’re not point guards. There are no point guards anymore. You took your two-guards and converted them into a one-guard, so their mentality is just to shoot.
The young boy Ja Morant is pretty good. He’s the one. He’s a scorer, too, but he’s not that type of passer. I think [Rajon] Rondo and Chris Paul are true point guards. They’re point guards. They try to get everybody involved. When you look at [James] Harden and Trae [Young] and Luka, they’re all-around basketball. Luka is almost like a Magic [Johnson] and a LeBron.
They get rebounds, they get triple-doubles, they do the same things, but you have to understand: In our era, we would’ve never gotten rebounds like that or triple-doubles, because we had a lot of big men who would tell us, “If you bring your little butt down here, even if you’re on my team, I’m going to bust you in your head, because you stole my rebounds.” Because they were getting incentives off of rebounds. Now, if you let your little point guards come down and get them, you weren’t getting any of your incentives.
Nowadays, their teammates are looking out for them to get rebounds, because they want to get the triple-doubles and things like that. The era has changed, and that’s just the way it goes.
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