Forty-three years ago in Oakland, California, a future NBA great was born. After learning the game on the streets of Oaktown, Gary Dwayne Payton would go on to amass 21,813 points, 8,966 dimes, 2,445 steals and one Championship during a stellar pro career. Today, we’re celebrating by posting the cover story of SLAM 67 (March ’03), the second issue of SLAM that Payton graced the front of. (Here’s the first.) Happy born day, GP!


words Ben Osborne / portraits Clay Patrick McBride

Last night the Seattle SuperSonics lost, at home, to the Orlando Magic. In the locker room, most of the Sonics dressed quickly and quietly, though Desmond Mason and Brent Barry shared a couple laughs with some local reporters. Gary Payton, however, saw little to smile about. His stat line—14 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 turnovers—was his worst through the first month of the season, and he knew he’d hear about it. Not from the media—the glare he shot reporters as he gathered his keys made that clear. And not from the fans—he just ignored them on his way out of the arena. Instead, Gary heard it from the man who got him here. His father Al.

It’s the day after, and scowling Gary has been replaced by charming Gary. Despite last night’s loss and the fact that Sonics coach Nate McMillan has just reamed out his team in front of the media, Gary is in wonderful form. He follows up practice with a presentation on behalf of his Gary Payton Foundation, donating 400 Thanksgiving meals to a local shelter. Now, he’s decked out in a sharp, gray Jordan Brand athletic suit, his patented rocks throwing off crazy glare. And there’s a lot to discuss.

To casual NBA observers and box score checkers, Payton’s career has become Stockton-esque in its efficient march up the NBA’s list of all-time greats: Just five missed games in 12-plus seasons, all of which have been spent in Seattle and 10 of which have ended with playoff trips. Eight straight trips to the All-Star Game. Nine straight first-team All-Defensive honors. Two Olympic gold medals. His name always among League leaders. Like his homie E-40, the Glove has been on the grit and grind for a long time. But look closely at those box scores, or check the Sonics in person, or order LeaguePass—as some people do, solely to watch the Glove do his thing on Key Arena’s tasteful court while Kevin Calabro goes nuts on the mic—and you know there’ve been some additions to the Glove’s game.

Imagine several bedsheets hanging from a clothesline on a grimy rooftop. Now picture a furious man, with a knife in hand, set upon those sheets, ripping ’em to pieces until there’s only shreds left. Now picture him taking those seemingly useless pieces and reconfiguring them into a beautiful quilt. This is what it’s like to watch Payton play. GP’s shockingly slight, 6-4, 180-pound frame doesn’t glide or float; it slashes and attacks. It’s calculated basketball violence, and through early December, it had produced 21.3 ppg, 10.3 apg, 4.2 rpg and 2.1 spg, all while leading the Sonics to the upper reaches of the Pacific Division, a place few expected to see them. The assists are the most remarkable number, since he’s never averaged more than 9 per, and since, at age 34, he’s on pace to become the oldest player ever to lead the NBA in assists for the first time.

“At the beginning of this year, I told Gary that he was going to lead the League in assists,” Sonics GM Rick Sund smiles. “And sure enough…there’s now a trust factor between him and Brent, between him and Rashard [Lewis], and between him and Vlad [Radmanovic] and Peja [Drobnjak], who are great spot-up shooters. There’s also a trust factor between him and Nate as far as what plays we run. For a guard, Gary can get you assists in a lot of ways—on the break, driving and kicking, set plays, and, in the last couple of years, from posting up, drawing double teams and kicking it out to the shooters we have. And he’s doing it on a much younger team than he used to and that needs him to deal with guys’ mistakes in a way that’s corrective for them, but not self-destructive for someone as competitive as he is.”

And how does Gary think it’s going? That’s what he’s brought us into his office—well, the team’s office, but they’ve been essentially the same thing over the years—to explain.

SLAM: Is this team really up to something?

GP: I think a top-four finish in the West is legit. Dallas is playing well, and you know you’ll have Sacramento, San Antonio and the Lakers once Shaq gets going again, but I think we’ll be right there. The young guys are stepping up and we’re having a lot of fun.

SLAM: What’s it like to hear, “Gary Payton, first in the NBA in assists?”

GP: [Laughs] Well, the last couple of years I’ve been working at it hard, and the last two years we’ve had the best shooting team in the League. I know a lot of attention is going to be on me so I have to take the burden off myself sometimes and get assists. I’ve had to be a guinea pig at times, penetrating and kicking to see if guys could make shots, and they’re doing it. It’s very satisfying for me because it’s a new way for me to play at this later part of my career. I can still get my 20 points, but I can add 10 assists, and that’s really satisfying.

SLAM: Given your name and your place on this team, you didn’t have to go along with this as smoothly as you have. Is it new trust you have in these guys? Conserving your body?

GP: It’s a little of everything. I can definitely still take big shots, and Nate wants me to do that. But you have to get confidence in other guys to get wins. If I’m the only one taking big shots, the defense is going to focus on me at that point in the game and I’m going to be forcing shots. And showing confidence helps them too, because they’ll be like, “If G going to look for me in that situation then I’m not going to be out here just watching.” Now they’re ready at the end because they know I will give it to them.

SLAM: In the past you’ve said that you’re a defensive player who happened to have offensive skills. Is that still how you see it?

GP: That’s always the case. Now people ask that question because they’re seeing me do so much on offense with all the younger kids on this team. But I still love to play defense. It always starts on the defensive end. If you can shut somebody down and get a steal and start your offense, it gets your team motivated and revved up. I think you only win championships in this League with defense. You cannot win by trying to outscore people because there’s too many people that can score individually.

SLAM: On offense, you can pass off and play off the ball a little bit to lessen the load. Are there things you can do defensively to lessen the wear and tear?

GP: No. It’s gonna be the same. For a guy like me that plays the way I play, if someone tries to set up in the post on me I can’t let ’em get there. I got to fight and battle with them. If I ever stop doing that then it’ll mean I can’t play my defense and I got to get out of this game. I always think about how, if you’re going to play here, you gotta bring the fire. That’s how I play and I expect everyone to do the same thing. There’s going to be wear and tear but you’ve got to take the consequences.

SLAM: So your body is more honest on D?

GP: Yeah. If I can’t stop a guy then it’s time to hang it up.

SLAM: It’s actually entertaining to watch you play defense. Who else do you put in that category of guys who play such hard defense that you enjoy watching them?

GP: You got myself, Doug Christie, Artest from Indiana—he’s starting to be a great defensive player and he’s exciting to watch because he gets into you and makes it happen. That’s what I think defense is about: getting into somebody, making somebody watch out for you. When they put their offense over there, and you’re over here, then that’s when you’ve become a great defensive player. I take pride when a coach wants to go away from Gary or not run a pick-and-roll against me because they know that I can prevent that play from happening.

SLAM: Have you developed a style that’s true against any opponent, especially now that you can drop into a zone, or do you still have special approaches for different guys?

GP: I still study them because you got to know what different guys can do. John Stockton I know because I’ve played against him for so long, but I still have to mentally prepare and be ready to get gritty and grind it out with him. He’s not as fast as he once was, but he’s smarter, and he knows how to bait you into doing things. Jason Kidd has changed his game a lot. You used to be able to just play off him and make him take jump shots, but now he’s hitting jumpers so you got to study him more. Andre Miller you can still try to make hit jump shots; not let him penetrate and break down the defense. You gotta critique and you gotta watch film because guys do change.

SLAM: You mentioned Artest and Christie; those guys are swingmen. At the point position, are you still the best defender in the game?

GP: Yeah, I am the toughest. Jason Kidd is establishing himself as a good defensive point guard, and Darrell Armstrong will hawk you and do a lot of good things. But he can’t switch onto a big guy the way I can.

SLAM: Back to the offensive side, we talked a little about the assists. How have you become a better passer?

GP: Becoming a better passer is learning when to get rid of the basketball. Getting it to players in a situation where they can just get the ball and score. When I was a youngster I spent too much time trying to make an around-the-back pass, a flashy pass, but now it’s get the ball to a guy [pounding the table to emphasize his point] when he’s in a scoring position. Don’t get it to a big guy when he’s far from the basket and is forced to make a play or catch a charge. Get him the ball when he can make one bounce and dunk—or even better, catch and dunk.