by Marcus Thompson / @gswscribe
Michael Jordan made regular Joes feel like they could fly. Allen Iverson had people feeling like they could mimic the magician’s crossover.
But Gary Payton revolutionized the game. He made you think you could play defense.
Normally the guys who took defense seriously in pickup wore a pair of beat up Brooks with some sweats cut into shorts. Or that dude in Timberlands and dingy jeans who was only playing to even out the teams and the only thing he could do was harass his man.
But GP had cats taking interest in the other end of the court. You could be irritating and pesky and still be respected. You could talk trash without ever having to score. You could be small and maybe not that skilled, but still have value. And his shoe always embodied that spirit.
Payton had already lent his credibility to the Nike Air Maestro as his career took off with the Seattle SuperSonics, and the Air Much Uptempo at the ’96 Olympics in ATL. But his personal shoe legacy began in ’97 with the Air Hawk Flights. Catering to the quick and shifty, the first shoe Payton endorsed became a cultural staple thanks to Zoom Air technology, metallic alien eyes on the side and an appearance in He Got Game.
But in ’98, Nike released the shoe that would solidify Payton’s place in sneaker history: the Nike Zoom Flight 98. They were aptly dubbed “The Gloves.” GP—nicknamed The Glove because of his smothering defense—said he brought the idea to Nike in the early stages of designing his first signature shoe. And when you put them on…oh, when you put them on…your feet sent jolts of bliss to your brain.
The debut of Nike’s Monkey Paw technology made the shoe suction to your ankles, unlike any shoe since the neoprene bootie in the Huaraches. Payton then took it to another level with the outer layer that zips up, locking your feet in place. With the Zoom Air cushion, you were ready to, well, zip around the blacktop.
The Gloves were revolutionary in design, fit and style. On the court, zip ’em up and pick-up full court. The simplicity of the design made them stand out. Just two colors when zipped, black and white, and a big Swoosh. Off the court, unzip ’em and fold them down. They became a fashion shoe, revealing just enough color on the lace loops and Paw to set off your outfit.
The precedent was set. Light and tight became a thing.
Nike took The Glove concept and ran with it, powered by Payton’s reputation as a menace on both ends with swag to boot. The Nike Zoom GP swapped the zipper for a buckle, continuing the lockdown theme. After a brief deviation, the Zoom GP IIIs resurrected The Glove concept, making the zip-up outer skin removable and the inner bootie interchangeable.
The magic from the original GPs was never quite matched in the four-shoe series. But Payton showed he still had pull in the shoe game, as his player exclusives became hits and are now classics. His colorways of the Zoom Ultra Flights in ’02, with Seattle and with the Milwaukee Bucks, were some of the hottest of the Alpha Project classic. When Payton went to the Lakers in ’03, he switched to Jordan Brand. His PEs of the Jordan XIIs are still one of the few shoes that go perfectly with a Lakers jersey. And good luck finding the GP version of the Jordan XIXs, all black with the gold accents and GP 20 etched into the Velcro strap on the back.
Fittingly, Payton won his first title in ’06 with Miami rocking the retro Zoom Flight 98s, colorwayed to match the Heat’s black-and-red.
Now, six years after retirement and with an impending induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Payton is still making noise in the shoe industry. He tweeted confirmation The Gloves were returning and now sneakerheads everywhere are salivating. Few are as deserving of the KICKS HOF as Payton. He was the everyman’s megastar. He built his own niche by shutting others down while never shutting up. He took a part of the game that was often thankless and made it sexy.