Any list of the NBA’s most notorious trash-talkers would be incomplete – wait, no, it would be an absolute, bleepin’ waste of time – if Gary Payton’s name weren’t atop it. In his Hall of Fame career with the Seattle SuperSonics (and four other clubs), white-hot and often profane on-court chatter was to Payton what long hair was to Samson, as much the source of his greatness as it was the soundtrack of his game.
But there’s more than one way to rattle an opponent. As Payton reflected on his NBA achievements and fast-approaching enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — he’ll join the Class of 2013 Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBA TV) at the ceremony in Springfield, Mass. — he saved his highest praise for a stone-faced rival who never engaged in much hardwood banter.
In 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, point guard John Stockton didn’t need to move his lips when he read, whether situations, openings or opportunities.
“Never,” Payton said of Stockton in a Q&A interview with Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports. “That is the reason I really respected him because you never could get in his head. He’s the hardest person I ever had to guard. I tried to talk to him, try to do something and he’d just look at me, set a pick and cause me [to get mad and] get a tech. And then all of the sudden it was over.”
Payton reiterated in an interview with NBA TV’s Kevin Calabro that no matter how much he would talk to Stockton during games, the Utah point guard would go about his business as if nothing happened.
Payton said Stockton’s no-nonsense approach taught him a lot. It also prompted Payton to seek out the Hall of Famer as one of his two presenters for Sunday’s event — new inductees are presented by previously enshrined players or coaches, and Payton will be ushered in by Stockton and legendary NBA/ABA scorer George “Iceman” Gervin.
Payton made them sound like easy choices, telling Spears:
“George Gervin was my childhood idol since I was little. In Oakland I had all his posters on my wall. The Iceman poster where he was on ice blocks in that silver suit. He presented to all my other Hall of Fame stuff for retired jerseys at Oregon State and my high school. John Stockton is because I liked him when I was playing basketball. Everyone said he was dirty. He wasn’t as athletic as us. But he was smarter than us. We knew what he was going to do. We knew he was going to set [tough] picks. We had all the videos on Utah. We were so dumb. We would get caught up with the picks and get mad at him. He would shoot eight times and make nine. Shoot eight free throws and make seven. He’d have 15 assists and four steals. A complete game. That’s just the way he was and I idolized him…”
Payton idolized Stockton in his own way, of course, jabbering as if it was a natural part of inhaling and exhaling while building his reputation as one of the greatest two-way backcourt players in league history. HTB denizen Scott Howard-Cooper talked with Payton recently, too, and got the goods on how close the NBA and its fans came to missing out on his skills and his feistiness.
Spears touched on other topics, including this notion that, for Payton, guarding Stockton was tougher than facing Michael Jordan. (When Jordan reads this, he might ask to edit and re-give his famously competitive Springfield speech, to put Payton in his place):
“Those battles were a little easier. I would have Jordan get mad at me and go back at me. He knew he was really talented and could do whatever he wanted to. But [Stockton] was more of a challenge to me than guarding someone that would talk back to me. When you talk back to me and say something to me it made my game go to another level. John was one who wouldn’t say nothing and you couldn’t figure him out. He’d keep going in the pick and rolls and he and Karl Malone would score a big bucket. At times I would guard Jordan and get him mad and into other things.”
Payton, 45, shared other opinions, including his appreciation of Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams (“same mentality as me”) and Boston’s Rajon Rondo. “He can’t score like I did but he does everything else like I did,” said the nine-time All-Star and No. 2 pick in the 1990 draft.
He talked about Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers and about the Sonics leaving for Oklahoma City, where Payton isn’t interested in having his No. 20 jersey retired to the rafters. That, he believes, should and will happen in Seattle.
“It will be there sooner or later,” Payton said. “It could be years. If I’m 70 and they get a team, hey, so be it. It will be great just as long as it will go up in Seattle.”
And the pesky, pain-in-the-rump playmaker known defensively as “The Glove” talked about his own induction speech. Too bad he won’t be making it as performance art — just imagine the entire speech given in trash-talk cadence and (ahem) vocabulary, challenging as that might be for the NBA TV producers.
Fact is, the guy whose patter could move some opponents nearly to tears might find himself on the other end of things, in that stage-light moment of memories, accomplishments and appreciative faces smiling back at him.
“Everybody wants to know if I’m going to cry,” Payton told Yahoo Sports. “You know what? I’m going to be real with you. I don’t think I’m going to cry. But I got to stay away from watching my mom because if she starts tearing up … That’s the hardest mama in the world to make cry. If she tears up and cries?
“I know Pops ain’t gonna tear up. If he does it, it’s just a bad thing. I’m just going to stay focused and look forward and try not to look anybody in their face.”
Should he need to, Payton can always glance across the stage. That’s where the guy with the stone face will be standing, a source of the edge with which Payton played and that he might need again to speechify.