When Gary Payton joined the Sonics, Shawn Kemp was in his second season. Kemp hasn’t quite maintained his, um, physical fitness, but he’s still around. And he watches his former teammate with admiration. “Even though there’s not too many guys 33, 34 still here in the NBA, I expected him to do it because he was so mentally tough and he worked so hard,” the erstwhile Reign Man says of GP. “And I don’t think he’s going to stop any time soon.”
Kemp is matter of fact about things, but 1990 was a long time ago. It’s also the year, even before the Sonics made him the highest Draft pick in franchise history, that Gary first became a household name on the strength of a Sports Illustrated cover that pronounced this previously unheralded Oregon State senior the college Player of the Year. It’s time to go back with an original member of Tha Hall of Game.
SLAM: I brought a copy of this SI along, since I think it’s when most people first learned about you. Am I talking to the same loud, exciting guy, or does that seem like a different lifetime?
GP: I’m the same guy, just a little smarter. A little bit wiser in the game. During them Oregon State days, when people were coming to see me and learning about me, I was a fiery, wild, real loose guy. Now I’ve settled down to the point of being a father figure and a mentor to these younger guys. I’m the oldest on this team. Twelve years seems like a long time, but it goes by fast. People don’t understand that. When these guys look around again, they’ll have been in the League seven or eight years.
SLAM: No matter how fast you say it went, there’s only four other first rounders from your Draft still in the NBA. Is it because of how you treat your body?
GP: I think I take care of my body a little better than most guys. Karl Malone has given me a lot of talk about how to keep my body in shape and always stay tough, and it’s been a real plus not to have a lot of injuries. I stay in a workout routine in the summer, and I’ve been teaching younger guys to do the same things: staying in shape and not eating stuff, drinking stuff and doing things that wear out your body.
SLAM: Were you using your summers like that from the beginning?
GP: I wasn’t. My first three years, I didn’t play that well. I was like, I’m an athletic guy, I got picked two, they’re paying me this type of money, I can play off instinct. But as I got into each year, and it wasn’t happening, and guys were more athletic than me and more fine-tuned than me and they were trying to take this from me, I realized I had to go work out. I got with Tim Grgurich and started working out with him in the summer and I’ve done it ever since.
SLAM: What about that sense of competition you’re famous for. Has it gotten harder for you to get up for games?
GP: Nahhh. That’s part of me. That’s my ritual. Anytime I go on a basketball court, I don’t care if I’m going against my mother or my father; we can be friends after the game. You can be my parents after the game. But when we’re on the court I got to go at you. That’s the fiery in me. That’s what makes it fun to play this game.
SLAM: That’s what your dad’s all about, right?
GP: Yeah, “Mr. Mean.” That’s what they called him, and it was true—he was a mean guy when he coached me. He coached me when I was little, and he was always on me. Even if I did something good he would be on me about how it could’ve been better. And he was always like, “Don’t never, ever be friends with anybody when you stop on this court. You’ve got to always play them hard. Once you be friends with someone, smile at them and everything, next thing you know he going to come back down and make you look bad; then I’m going to get on you.” So ever since then I been, like, If you my friend or whatever, we can be friends after the game. But right now I can’t let my daddy get on me. I gotta be serious all the time [pounding the table again] and go at you.
SLAM: You and your dad are still real close?
GP: Oh yeah. He was here for some of our recent games, critiquing me after the games, telling me what problems there were and what I should be doing. And I listen to him, because he’s the one who started this. He’s my coach. I listen to him all the time. He’s a big influence on me. He’s got the pay-per-view thing, so he sees every game and then we talk afterward.
SLAM: So that’s what happened last night?
GP: Yeah. When I got in my car, my first call was to my father, like always. He was upset, telling me, “We didn’t have it as a team so you have to be more aggressive.” I was like, Pop, can’t you give me just one game? He said, “Nah. If you want to win you have to be more aggressive.” He’s my coach, so I listen to him. And he was right in that situation.
SLAM: How about your coach with the Sonics, Nate McMillan? Is this the most comfortable relationship you’ve ever had with a coach?
GP: Other than my father, and George Karl was one of those guys, too. But as far as having played with Nate, and how he was like my big brother during that time, it’s more of a close relationship because he understands what I’m going through as a player. It’s been great. He talks to me. We have chats. He asks me about things, I ask him about things. I’ve got my input about things and he has input. It’s really good for me to have that at this point in my career.
SLAM: You’re saying your role on this team extends beyond what you do on the court? You talk to him about players, plays that you run—
GP: We have meetings. Just me and him. We talk about things. Before practice, during. We talk about more than just basketball, too.
SLAM: You’ve been with Nate for a while now, and in the Pacific Northwest even longer; does this seem as much like home as Oakland is?
GP: It doesn’t just seem like it, it is. Four years at Oregon State, 12 years with the Sonics—and I was in Oakland for what, 17 years? Oakland is where it all started and my roots are still there, and I’ve got a residence in Vegas now, but to me and my family, this is basically home.
SLAM: You’ve said you’re not talking about your contract situation, but let me put it like this: What would be a happy ending to Gary Payton’s Seattle career? [Gary’s finishing a 7-year, $85-million contract, and the Sonics have yet to offer an extension, prompting claims from GP’s agent that this will be his last year in Seattle].
GP: I’m not worried about contracts right now because when the time comes, that will get dealt with. We had all that controversy before the season, and the reason things are fun now is because we’re not talking about that. But I’d say that a happy ending would be winning a championship. For me, I’m going to think of the happier times—going to the NBA Finals, going to the Olympics as a Sonic, being an All-Star as a Sonic, winning 60-plus games. If I can win a championship this year you won’t hear me complaining. I’d love it. But if it doesn’t happen here, life will go on and I’ll deal with it.
SLAM: You don’t really have that sort of pop fan base that an Iverson or Kobe has, but the true hoop heads seem to love Gary Payton. Do you agree with that, sense that type of love?
GP: I do feel it and I like it that way. I think they like to see me play because I’m one of the original guys that just works harrrd. I don’t get all that fancy stuff in my game, crossovers and dunks. I just work at the game, keep it simple and play hard. And fans see that I know a lot of those hip-hop guys and that I’m around that type of atmosphere even while they see that I’m an older guy. The Allen Iversons and Kobe Bryants appeal to that younger crowd, actually going to their little hip-hop and rap things. But the fans you’re talking about know I’m more of an old-school guy and that it has been my life. I grew up with Too $hort. E-40 is my guy. And at the same time, I put suits on. I don’t wear jeans hanging off my butt. I’m more of a clean-cut guy and that’s what people respect about me and that’s why people want to see me play. I get the job done and I get it done the right way.
SLAM: Speaking of dunks, when was the last time you caught one in a game?
GP: I think I got one two years ago, but you know that’s not my thing. I call myself the Lay-up King. Even when I was catching dunks pretty easily, that wasn’t what I was about as a player.
SLAM: We’re talking about how true fans like you, and Hollywood has liked you enough to put you in movies: The Breaks, Like Mike, and even White Men Can’t Jump on the low. Do you feel you’ve gotten that same love from the NBA?
GP: During my younger days I did. Now they want to focus more on the McGradys, the Vince Carters, because they want to make basketball more exciting. But they’ve given me the opportunities to do a lot of things and I could never say they didn’t put me out there. As long as my basketball does the talking, they’re going to keep putting me out there.