Gary Payton played point guard as fearlessly and with as much intensity on defense as anyone has ever done. He’s equally as bold when it comes to dishing out his opinions about the sport he still loves.
The nine-time NBA All-Star believes he could impart a wealth of defensive wisdom to current players, but isn’t convinced that it would be time well spent, even though Tim Grgurich, a longtime NBA assistant coach, has discussed the idea of establishing a Payton camp for point guards.
“Since there’s not too much defense played in the NBA now, to get a guy, who wants to be in his mentality and say, you know what, ‘I’m going to go play defense just like Gary Payton because I’m going to figure it out with him,’ it would be great to do that. And I think a lot of guys want to do that, but nowadays you don’t have to do that because ain’t nobody going to guard you like that and then you can score as many points,” Payton said with a hint of regret.
During a recent stopover in Tokyo, Payton, now 44, described the typical mind-set of players today.
“I can get 35 and you get 30 and I won. It doesn’t equal out to me,” he told Hoop Scoop. “To let somebody get 30 points on you, and you feel good because you got 35 on them, that’s not good for me, you know what I’m saying? If I get 35, I want him to get 12 or 14 because that means I’ve done something. I’ve done my job. I went out there and played hard and did what I had to do.
“I’ve been thinking about doing that and I think guys would come to the camp, and I think I would get the guys who have that tough mentality to say, ‘yeah, I want to buckle down and do this.’
“It would be good if I can get it started but my main concern is I would have to have guys who want to be dedicated to do that. I don’t want to waste my time.”
Payton played in the NBA for nearly two decades, 1990-2007. During that time, Payton, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 Draft (one spot behind New Jersey’s Derrick Coleman, and one ahead of Denver’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who closed out his career in 2011 with the Kyoto Hannaryz) out of Oregon State by the Seattle SuperSonics, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team nine times.
Only Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan have also been selected to nine All-Defensive First Teams.
Defense was Payton’s signature trait, but he excelled as a complete all-around guard. The 193-cm star averaged 16.3 points, 6.7 assists and 1.8 steals in 1,335 regular-season contests for Seattle, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, including a championship with the Heat in 2006.
Payton helped run the NBA 3X Japan activities on Oct. 6 in Sendai, working with around 60 school-age students. The events at Xebio Arena included a 3-on-3 tournament as well as a Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Shootout, 2-Ball Challenge and Free-Throw Contest. Oklahoma City Thunder Girls and Rocky, the Denver Nuggets mascot, also took part in the festivities.
A week earlier, former NBA guard Muggsy Bogues participated in similar events for NBA 3X Japan in Tokyo.
For Payton, this was his fourth trip to Japan. He previously came here for the first time in 1992, while playing for the Sonics. On Nov. 6-7, 1992, Seattle and the Houston Rockets opened the NBA regular season with a pair of games at Yokohama Arena, with the Sonics winning both.
“We had a lot of great moments,” Payton said, reflecting on the 1992 trip. “For the ceremonial opening, you had your family here. As a matter of fact, I had my parents here . . . your family was going around (on the bullet train) and everybody was having a good time. My wife was pregnant with my son at the time, and so it was great things that were happening.”
Five years later, Payton was back in Japan for a Nike-sponsored trip, “going around to a lot of different cities, and a lot of different stores that we were going to, a lot of crowds out in the stores,” he recalled. “It was chaos everywhere.”
As he ascended to stardom in the NBA, and his fame grew as one of the world’s elite players, Payton also suited up for a pair of Olympic gold-medal winning squads, Dream Team II (1996 Atlanta Games) and Dream Team III (2000 Sydney Olympics). Before Team USA went to Sydney, Payton and his teammates came to Japan to prepare for the Olympics by facing a Japanese team.
“We couldn’t go out too much because of too much security that we had, but we played the game here one time and then we left,” he said. “I remember all the sightseeing and all the great things that were going on at the time.”
Visiting Sendai for the first time after the March 2011 disaster, Payton was inspired to spread a positive message for the people of the region.
“More guys like myself need to go over there and give them people a little more support and tell them to hang on, because it happened, and give them a little more motivation to work harder, knowing that help is going to come,” he said candidly.
Informed that longtime NBA center Dikembe Mutombo and soccer legend Pele have also made visits to Miyagi Prefecture in recent months, Payton agreed that high-profile celebrities have a duty to make a difference as Tohoku continues its road to recovery.
“That’s what we need,” he said. “We need more of that. It’s not us three or whatever, we need 10, 15, 20 people to go around and give them the support. . .
“The NBA knows what’s going on,” the future Hall of Famer added. “That’s why we picked that city to do things. . . . The NBA picks cities because they want to help cities, and that’s what we did. That’s why we were there. It’s going to be more and more.”
Moments later, our conversation shifted to the overall state of Japanese basketball — which trails most of the world in development — and Payton insisted that the JBL’s one-import rule is a restriction that is hurting the sport’s growth here.
“To get their league better and to get their players better, they should have more foreigners,” he said.
Expand the roster to 15 per team was one suggestion he gave as a way to free up more roster spots for foreigners.
Japanese basketball is making strides, Payton said, but the sport still has a long ways to go here.
“A lot of Americans have come over,” he noted, referring to a top selling point of the bj-league. “They are getting better because they are playing against American players. If you keep that up and you keep the ability to play against the Americans, you will learn how to play against them to get better.
“And I think that you have to play against them to get better. If they play more against them and get more of the same workouts, more of the same drills, more of the same game experience, they can get better that way because they have the skills to do it.”
Payton is serving as an AND1 Live streetball tour coach, a 25-game commitment that’s one of his current projects.
In addition, these days, his NBA connections are also deeply rooted in Seattle, the city where he made a name for himself. Payton is actively involved in helping bring an NBA team back to the city. The Sonics left in 2008 and became the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Government officials from Seattle and King County have approved a plan to build a new arena in the city.
Seattle’s target is the 2015-16 season, possibly the Sacramento Kings, but first that team would have to be sold and relocated.
“I want to get that team back there and when that team comes back I’ll probably be in the front office or something with that. But I don’t really want to be a coach,” he revealed. “I want to be a guy who evaluates the talent and brings the talent there. I don’t want to have somebody evaluate my talent for me and then give it to me as the coach, the guy I don’t want to have.
“I know that I can pick a guy and I know he’s going to be good and I know that he’s going to be able to play. Some people stray away from headaches. I think I can take a headache and make him a great basketball player and talk to him.”
As self-assured of his playing abilities as he is in his talent evaluation skills, Payton believes he could have a long career as an NBA executive like Jerry West.
“I can (see that happening),” the Oakland, California, native, said. “I think so because of the simple fact I think people know I’ve got that kind of ability to scout these types of players.
“When I work people out, I work the best. I know who can play and who can’t play and I’m very straight-forward. . . . If you can play, you can play; if you can’t, you can’t.
“You don’t have to like me, but I’m going to tell you the truth. If you don’t like what I’m saying, then go out and prove it.”
After a call from his agent to Payton, Jeremy Lin worked out with the retired star in 2011 in preparation for the NBA Summer League, the latter tutoring the non-drafted guard about the finer points of the game. Lin went on to have a breakthrough season for the New York Knicks in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign before a knee injury cut short his season.
Lin has a new $25 million, three-year contract from the Houston Rockets and plenty of pressure to prove he was worth the investment.
“Now Jeremy Lin has to go to the Houston Rockets and become the focal point of everything,” Payton said.
The element of surprise that sparked Linsanity will no longer be there.
“Now you are going to be on the chalkboard when we walk into our locker room, and say this is what we are going to do to him. Now you are going to have a bull’s eye on your chest,” Payton said of Lin.
“Now this is when you have to step up. You are going to play against every point guard in the Western Conference,” he pointed out, citing the Clippers’ Chris Paul and the Lakers’ Steve Nash among the challenges.
“And now you are going to have to do something against them.”
In Payton’s view, the key to Lin’s success will involve not trying to be the perfect point guard.
The key, Payton said, is for him not to think he must have 25 points and 10 assists in every game while reducing his total turnovers. For Lin, realistic targets are 14 points and seven or eight assists a game, Payton suggested.
“Don’t go in there thinking it’s going to be the same (as last season),” Payton said. ‘You are going to play 82 games now, and let’s see what happens. You’ve got to make All-Star teams.
You’ve got to be on all-league teams before you can say that you are going to be a great basketball player. You have to prove something to me, not just for 17 games.”
If there’s one thing that Payton proved over the course of his 17-year NBA career, it was this: Consistency is perhaps the most important trait of all.