Q+A: Gary Payton


by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam

Roughly a week ago, on one of those rainy, fall-is-upon-us New York City afternoons, I hopped on a subway heading uptown to the Dunlevy Millbank Children’s Center in Harlem, NY. At the time, I thought I had a decent idea and understanding of how my afternoon would unfold.

Going in, here’s what I knew:

1) Mentally, I was on the verge of giving up.

Like usual, I “forgot” to bring my umbrella into the office that day, and quickly got drenched and flustered. In a hurry and without many options, I audibled to the classic “wrap a t-shirt around your head” tactic, which, I must say, didn’t help much. The rain continued to callously pour, penetrating through any artificial buffer I created, and I continued to get showered. Hair wet, face wet, chest damp. To top it off, my hole-ridden backpack was quickly filling up with water. No bueno, to say the least.

About to tap out, I took a step back, collected myself and re-evaluated the situation—it wasn’t as bad as I thought. As all my other umbrella forgetters can attest to, I remembered the golden rule of self-pity during a rainstorm: no matter how soaked you are, if your socks aren’t wet, you aren’t wet. I took a deep breath, and eventually nudged my toes—coast cleared. Phew!

2) AND 1 Live—the brain trust behind the revamped And 1 Mixtape Tour, which we featured in KICKS 15 and still boasts well-known ballers such as The Pharmacist—was holding a press conference and basketball clinic to introduce NBA legend Gary Payton as the team’s head coach, and to announce a partnership with the Milbank Flyer’s, one of New York’s premier AAU programs. AND 1 would be outfitting the Flyers with jerseys, sneakers and warm-up suits, continuing its efforts to give back to the inner-city youth.

3) Payton, a Nike endorsed athlete, 17-year NBA veteran and future Hall-of-Famer, has long been one of my all-time favorites. From his awe-inducing defensive prowess to his disregard for on-court etiquette to his classic facial expressions to the weirdly monstrous, always-present chip on his shoulder to being the face of the too-fresh SuperSonics to hailing from the rough streets of Oakland to so much more, Payton is, frankly, someone I’ve always looked up to.

I was excited to meet Payton, but based off past experiences at press conferences, I tempered any expectations before they could elevate. I figured that the keynote speaker—in this case, Mr. Payton—would arrive a few minutes before he was scheduled to address the crowd, recite a pre-written script and dip out soon after speaking.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Clad in an all-white Nike sweatshirt and a black tennis cap, Gary Payton was right there, in the middle of the youth-sized gym, early. Earlier than me, earlier than the crowd of excited middle and high schoolers, earlier than some of the AND 1 reps who organized the event. Payton was there because he genuinely wanted to be there, not because it was another required appearance that his manager or publicist had set up.

After a few moments of observing from afar, I approached Mr. Payton and introduced myself. Within seconds, we were intensely chopping it up. And from the onset, it was clear The Glove is a one-in-a-million type of guy.

Straightforward, down to earth, immensely knowledgeable, equipped with the perspective of a future Hall-of-Famer, and straight up as real as they come. I can’t remember exactly what we were discussing, but I think it was something about how, in today’s NBA, there’s no such thing as individual, man-to-man defense, and how today’s top point guards—who out-jump and out-run guys without truly understanding how to run a team—would have a tough time doing “anything” in the old days.

When the crowd settled into the Children’s Center—which has served as Harlem’s premier community facility for a number of years, providing services such as summer camps, sports training, after-school programs, arts and crafts and computer lessons—Linda Hill, Executive Director of AND 1 Live, took the podium.

Hill briefly spoke on AND 1 Live’s partnership with Payton, and pledged AND 1’s commitment and support for the Milbank AAU program. She stressed the importance of education, reinforcing the concept that the kids are student athletes—that is, students first and athletes second.

Next, Rob Purvy, Brand President of AND 1, spoke on the connection between AND 1 and the game of basketball. AND 1, he said, is all about the “love of basketball.” And since, in many ways, the underlying lessons and takeaways in basketball are parallel to the those in real life, AND 1 is about the “love of life.” Purvy also stressed how to use, and not abuse, basketball. “Use the game to keep you focused in school, maybe even earn a scholarship to college. But always remember that without school, there is no basketball,” he said.

To conclude, Mr. Payton addressed the crowd in a short but sweet manner, vocalizing his guidance and support for the inner city’s underprivileged youth.

“A better day will come,” Payton said. “Right now, times may be tough and you may be exposed to some things you wish you didn’t have to see or go through, but if you stay focused, your day will come. Everyone’s not gonna go to the NBA. You need to go to school, get an education, learn and grown. And if you do, you will eventually make it out of the neighborhood and you will make a difference in the world.”

After the press conference concluded, the chairs and podium were cleared off the court and an hour-long workout commenced. Instructed by members of the AND 1 Live Mixtape Team, boys and girls of all ages worked through a series of drills—including dribbling around cones, coming around screens to catch and shoot, and working on rebounding positioning and technique.

During this time, I caught back up with the nine-time All-Star, seamlessly continuing from before. Our conversation, unplanned and unexpected, was extensive and all-encompassing. We began by discussing The Glove’s partnership and collaboration with AND 1 Live, and then delved into his playing career. We touched on his early NBA struggles, his longevity, how he became arguably the greatest defensive point guard in NBA history, the challenge of guarding Michael Jordan in the ’96 Finals, his experiences playing alongside Shawn Kemp in Seattle and the circumstances playing alongside Kobe/Shaq in L.A., winning a Championship in ’06, and much more.

SLAM: Tell us about your partnership with AND 1 Live and what it meant to speak to the kids today.

Gary Payton: Me and [Executive Director of AND 1 Live] Linda Hill have been collaborating together on several efforts to help underprivileged kids. We’re going to do a lot of things overseas, in the inner city, and in neighborhoods throughout America. When I met Linda, we instantly clicked because we had the same end goal, which is to provide guidance, advice and outlets for kids.

SLAM: What prompts you to come out to these events—helping out in the community, taking time and effort to travel across the country, taking on more responsibilities—when you could be doing so many other things with your time?

GP: The reason I give back is because I’m from the inner city myself. I’ve seen a lot of kids with tremendous basketball abilities get caught up in the neighborhood and never make it out. So I just try to give these kids some advice and guidance. If someone comes to me and says they have a good idea and a good program to help kids, I’m going to be a part of that. Because some of these kids don’t have an opportunity to get out of the neighborhood, so in a sense we can really save lives.

SLAM: Absolutely, that’s really admirable. Let’s shift to basketball. You’re widely recognized as one of the best defenders in NBA history, as you rank third all-time in steals and are the only point guard to ever win the DPOY Award. Where did your intensity and defensive pride come from?

GP: My defensive pride came early on. When I went to college and played for the legendary Ralph Miller at Oregon State, he was a defensive-minded coach. The first day I arrived on campus, he said, “Listen, if you put your mind to it, you can be one of the greatest defensive players to ever play this game. ” So I put my mind to it in college, and started getting better and better. Then, when I was drafted by Seattle, I took my defensive focus to a whole ‘nother level.

See, in my day and era, it wasn’t acceptable to go against somebody and trade baskets, and each score 35 points. That wouldn’t help, because those numbers equal out and you’re not helping your team win. So I said, I’ll take more pride in D’ing somebody up, stealing the ball and getting easy layups. And that’s how you get respect. People started saying, “You can’t get past GP.” I think you get more out of that, when somebody says you can’t lock someone up and then you do it.

SLAM: You get more of what… Respect? Satisfaction? Self-fulfillment?

GP: I think it’s more respect. I think a lot of people respect you more when you lock somebody down. If you can lock Michael Jordan down, if you can lock Kevin Durant down, if you can lock Kobe Bryant down—well, not lock them up, but hold them to 17 or 18 points rather than 35—that could be the difference between a win and a loss.

SLAM: How does a player improve defensively? Is it through watching film, improving footwork and hand skills? By getting stronger? How do you elevate your game defensively?

GP: It’s a mindset. When you know you’ve got good hands or good feet, you know you can be real good if you put your mind to it. So I think when people play defense, they gotta be dedicated to playing it for a full 48 minutes.

And kids today don’t understand that. They say, “OK, I’m gonna play defense for about five or six minutes.” And then if they’re not playing well on offense, it will get to them, and they’ll start using their energy on offense to try and score more points. What they don’t understand is, if you play defense and get steals, you’re gonna get your points off easy layups. It all adds up and feeds off each other.