Conversations: Gary Payton and the art of playing the point


While working on the story about Damian Lillard and his hometown of East Oakland, I wanted to include as many basketball voices from The Town as possible. One of those voices had to be that of Oakland product and NBA great, Mr. Gary Payton.

Payton, known as “The Glove,” was named to the All-Defensive First Team nine straight times. And though he could also score – averaging roughly 20 points a game through the peak of his career in Seattle – Payton was also the epitome of a “pure point guard.” Payton averaged at least 8 assists in six seasons. Payton concluded his career as a bit of a journeyman – playing for four different teams in his final five seasons – and because his role was limited than that of nine-time All-Star he once was, Payton finished with a career mark of 6.2 assists per game.

When Payton and I chatted late last year, he mentioned the upcoming Hall of Fame ballot in which he should make his first appearance. And just a couple days ago, it became official: Payton leads the names of the nominees. But that’s not all Payton is looking forward to in 2013.

His signature retro shoe, The Glove, will be re-released by Nike in five colorways.

He’s pushing plans to open a school in Oakland.

“Almost like one of the schools, a boarding school or something where kids can get away and play basketball and get a chance to get to another level. Oakland is really turning bad for the young kids that’s around there that’s about 15 to 17 years of age,” Payton said. “There’s a lot of talented guys out there (and I don’t want them) to get caught in the streets. I’ve seen a lot of this happen because I lot of guys I played against got caught up in the streets and could’ve been in the pros just like me.”

Also, Payton will take the call this summer if his fellow Oakland native wants to learn defense from “The Glove.”

“Right now with (Lillard), I think that he’s playing really great. He’s doing everything he has to do. Like I’ve been telling him all along – a lot of us keep telling him – I think he could play a little bit better defense,” Payton said. “He’s gotten used to the bigger guys bumping him up. … That’s just something he has to learn and he will learn. He is learning. I know when the season is over – I guarantee you that he’s most definitely going to get Rookie of the Year – that he’s going to come back, he’s going to say ‘Gary, I need to learn to play defense, and I need to learn how to play defense against these dudes.’”

The Payton-Lillard connection

Although Oakland should be considered a major city – The New York Times is definitely a fan, check out No. 5 on its list of “45 places to go in 2012” – after reporting on this story, I got the feeling that it’s just a little town by the water. It seemed like people I wouldn’t have expected to know each other, were somehow intertwined. Payton knew Damian’s father Houston Lillard, even played pick-up games in the park with him long before Damian came into the picture.

“Well, you know. Houston was my buddy. He was just one of them guys, which he is now. He stays quiet,” Payton said. “Me and him were always tight. He always gave me respect and I respected him. … We both had respect for each other and that’s just the way it was, but Houston was really, really quiet. He wouldn’t ever say nothing to anybody.”

Damian and Payton even share the share representation, Goodwin Sports Management. And the Goodwin brothers, Aaron and Eric, just so happen to be from Oakland, too. This speaks to the city’s tight-knit basketball community. Oakland ballers look out for one another, and, I’ve learned, save their highest compliments for one another.

Payton has four favorite point guards in the league right now. Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Chris Paul… and you’ll never guess the last one! Okay, maybe you will. It’s the rookie in Portland.

“Well, to me, you know what? There’s only really, really four guards in the league that play like me, the right way,” Payton said. “They are the point guards (who ask) ‘what do I need to do?’ and first try to get my guys involved. Them four guys are the ones. Putting Damian in there, I just have to because he’s a pure point guard.”

“He’s so good and he’s so calm, he plays more mature than he is. Everybody always says that: he doesn’t look like a rookie, but he was doing that in college. He was getting to the bucket whenever he wanted to. And what people don’t understand, he’s a pure point guard. He’s not just a scorer. Everybody sees that he can score but he’s a pure point guard. And point guards nowadays (are) ball hogs. He’s not that. He shoots the ball and he shoots the ball very well. That’s the difference between us Oakland guys coming out. Me, Jason (Kidd), Brian Shaw. We didn’t have jump shots like Damian has and that’s his big advantage.”

Today’s NBA point guards

Just the way Payton pronounces “point” and “guard,” – how he emphasizes and punches out both words – shows you how much respect he has for the position. To him, the point guard is the team-first leader on both ends of the court. But, besides his favorite four, he thinks the position has evolved into something entirely different in today’s NBA. And not for the better.

When I specifically asked about popular point guards Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, Payton dropped this pearl:

“It’s nothing (against) Kyrie Irving, it’s nothing (against) John Wall. I think Wall is going to be there, too. I think he’s starting to learn how to do that, too. That he doesn’t have to score all the time, that he can get assists. And he’s long and he plays defense, too. And I think I can put him on that (list),” Payton said. “But the rest of these guards, they want to score, that’s the mentality of them right now. They want to have 30 and 40. They don’t care if they have two or three assists, but right now that’s what fans want to see. They want to see scoring, dunking and all that. That’s what the NBA has turned into. So that’s the way it goes. But if they would have played in my day in that era and they brought back hand checking and all that type of stuff, the guys would be in a world of trouble.”

But the conversation centered around Lillard and Payton had nothing but praise for him. After guaranteeing once again that Lillard would be win Rookie of the Year, Payton explained to me how Oakland lives in Lillard’s game.

“I think it’s his heart and the way he scores. He don’t back down to nobody. You can see it every time he plays,” Payton said. “That’s what I like about him. He doesn’t back down and he knows that he can score against anybody. That was the same way with me, I knew that I can score against anybody in the NBA. I didn’t care who it was – Michael Jordan, John Stockton, none of them guys. I didn’t care who it was and that’s how he plays. He plays the same way. He doesn’t quit or back down and I think that’s the most part of his Oakland game. And really his Oakland game is his Oakland heart.”

“When you let people punk you around and do that type of stuff, you will get punked a lot and everybody will test you. But if you have the heart to step up or stand up, people will respect you more. That’s what they’re doing right now in Oakland because they see what he’s doing in the NBA right now and scoring at will and doing what he wants to. Getting 28 here and nine assists. That’s just what it is. That’s just being gutsy and hard and going right back at the guy who goes at you.”

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