Q+A: Gary Payton

by October 15, 2012


SLAM: You mentioned MJ, who you famously guarded in the ’96 Finals. He’s a shooting guard, you’re a point guard. How was that, being assigned the task of containing Michael Jordan, putting the team on your back and trying to win a Championship?

GP: I wish I could’ve guarded Michael earlier in the series. People don’t understand that I started guarding him in Game 4. I was hurt for the first three games with a calf injury, and we went down 3-0, so I started guarding him kind of late. And Michael was having a great series at the time.

Down 3-0, I told George Karl, “Put me on Michael. We don’t have anything to lose, we’re one game away from elimination, we’re in the Finals.” I held him to 25 points in Game 4, and for the next two games I held him to 22 (Jordan scored 23 points in Game 4, 26 points in Game 5 and 22 points in Game 6 — Ed.). If I could’ve guarded him in the beginning of the series, we would’ve had a chance.

SLAM: A major part of your offensive game was posting up. As a point guard, how did you have such an effective back to the basket game?

GP: Tim Gurgevich (an assistant to Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV) added that to my game. When George came in, he grabbed Tim from UNLV and brought him here. Tim took me and Sean that summer, and personally worked us out himself. And he saw I was bigger than most guards and began to implement post up moves into my game. I started doing the fade-away from the baseline and the up and under. I started using my left hand. And I’m 6-4, so naturally I have a height advantage on most point guards. That’s why I posted up and I could always shoot over people. As the years went on, eventually 2s and 3s started guarding me. And then I would just spin off them because they would try to out-muscle me. So I added the post up to my game, and it really helped me a lot.

SLAM: Have you ever been scared of another player in your career, maybe even as a rookie?

GP: Never. Never.

SLAM: Do you think guys get scared in the NBA?

GP: I think so. A lot of guys get intimated. Like, Michael Jordan intimidated a lot of people. But he didn’t intimidate me because I didn’t care. Because my mindset was, “You’re going to play basketball just like anybody else.” And I thought I had the skills to stop him anyway. So when you think that way, and have that confidence in yourself, good things happen. And I knew that MJ couldn’t guard me on offense, because I was quicker than him, more elusive than him. I could spin off of him pretty easily.

SLAM: What are your thoughts and impressions on the top players in the NBA today? Could they hang with the top players from your era?

GP: You know what, it’s a different era. And I’ll say this: I’ll put Kobe in the old school era because he came into the League in ’96 and he went through his struggles in my era. People don’t understand that he struggled in every aspect. He couldn’t score, he was taking bad shots. And then he learned from that. He learned from veterans, like MJ, how to do things. And that’s why I think Kobe is such a good player now—because when he was struggling, he seeked out veterans to help him get his game on track.

But when you get to teams now, they don’t have that. The veterans are 22 years old, and they’re superstars. So If I’m 19, and you’re 20, why should I respect you, and how are you going to get me better? But when I was in the League, I had guys like Xavier McDaniel, who had already been in the League for eight or nine years. And they taught me the way to play the game. And then I had Nate McMillan, who was in the League for seven years, teach me how to play the game. So when I messed up, I had to sit on the bench. Today, when you play the game, if you mess up they’re gonna keep riding you and letting you do what you want because they drafted you so high. And they don’t understand that’s the wrong approach.

SLAM: One person who still has an old school approach is your former coach in Seattle, George Karl. How was it playing for Coach Karl?

GP: Man, I’m so lucky to have played for George. He’s got old school qualities that you need to have in order to win games. He tells you how it is, treats everyone equally and as a man, and if you are willing to put in the work he’ll be with you every step of the way.

I’ll never forget, in 1992, when he got to Seattle and put me in my place. He told me from Day 1, if you don’t get your game better, I’m gonna trade you. He told me and Shawn Kemp that. It wasn’t personal. He just said, “I’ve seen you on film, this team drafted you with the  No. 2 pick and you haven’t done anything in 2 years so why should I keep you?” And he told Shawn that, too.

To get us on track, he made us play summer league in our third year. And we played in the summer league in Utah, and we killed it. We were in Utah every day for a month and a half, just working because Coach ordered us to. And then guess what? Me and Shawn made the All-Star team the following year. So you know Coach Karl is going to make you earn everything you get and will maximize your potential, and that’s what makes him so great.

SLAM: You also won two gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. How were those experiences?

GP: Being on the Olympic team was amazing. The first time, in 1996, I played with Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon. It was a great experience for me. We were way more advanced than the European teams back then. The second time, in 2000, I was with the younger guys. I was the veteran on the team. That was great, too. There’s no feeling like putting your head down and putting the gold medal around your neck with everyone watching you.