Gary Payton made a name for himself in the NBA through his quiet persistence and determination to lead his team to victory. Through his first 15 seasons as a pro, he never won a championship, but he refused to quit pursuing that goal. As a result, he made his hometown of Oakland proud with his tenacity and grit as he finally became a champion in 2006. Nicknamed “the Glove” for his defensive abilities, Payton was never the flashiest player, but he got the job done and earned his place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. This is his story.
Gary Dwayne Payton Sr. was born on July 23, 1968 in Oakland, California. After starring at Skyline High School alongside future NBA player Greg Foster, Payton accepted a scholarship offer to Oregon State University. He was sensational in his four years in Corvallis. As a freshman, he averaged 12.5 points and 7.6 assists per game. The Beavers finished the 1986-1987 season 19-11, losing in the second round of the NIT Tournament.
The following year, Payton averaged 14.5 points and 7.4 assists per game while the Beavers finished with a 12-6 record, second in the Pac-10. They lost in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to Louisville 70-61. As a junior, Gary Payton averaged 20.1 points, 8.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and three steals per game. The Beavers finished that year with a 22-8 record and a loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Gary Payton was sensational as a senior, averaging 25.7 points, 8.1 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 3.4 steals per game while being named the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American. The Beavers followed his lead and ended the season 22-7, first in the Pac-10 regular season. Unfortunately, his great senior season could not continue far into the postseason as the Beavers lost to Ball State 54-53 in the first round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament. When he had finished his time in Corvallis, Gary Payton was drafted second overall in the 1990 NBA Draft by the Seattle SuperSonics.
Gary Payton didn’t score much in his first two seasons in Seattle, averaging 7.2 points as a rookie and 9.4 points in 1991-1992. However, he proved to be a reliable assist, averaging 6.4 assists as a rookie and 6.2 assists the following year. His ability to assist would prove to be vital to his entire career. Beginning in 1994, he would be named NBA All-Defensive First Team through the 2001-2002 season. By his fourth year, he was an All-Star after averaging 16.5 points and six assists. It was the first of five straight All-Star selections.
During the 1995-1996 season, Payton, along with Shawn Kemp, led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals where they faced a Chicago Bulls team that had recently gone 72-10 in the regular season. Facing any team that is led by Michael Jordan is a daunting task but the SuperSonics refused to go down lightly, taking the series to six games. Before the Finals began, Michael Jordan had averaged 32.1 points per game during the playoffs but that changed when Payton guarded him. In the three games where Jordan was Payton's primary assignment, Jordan averaged 23.7 points per game, a drastic drop from where he was going into the Finals. Despite Kemp’s 23.3 points and 10 rebounds per game as well as Payton’s 18 point average to go along with his valiant effort in guarding one of the greatest players of any generation, Seattle lost to the Bulls. Despite the heartbreaking loss, 1996 was not a complete loss as Payton made the US Olympic team, winning gold in Atlanta.
Two years later, Payton entered the best offensive phase of his career. He would average at least 20.4 or more points in each of the next five years, reaching the All-Star Game four times. After the 1999-2000 season, he made the US Olympic team for the second time, winning gold in Sydney, Australia. In the middle of the 2002-2003 season, Gary Payton was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks where he averaged 19.6 points for the final 28 games of the year.
After more than a decade in the NBA, Gary Payton was getting desperate for a championship and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2003-2004 season. The Lakers were loaded with Hall of Fame talent. Joining players such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone, Payton knew that this might be his last chance at winning an NBA championship. Payton finished the regular season third on the team with 14.6 points per game and led the team with 11.5 rebounds per game. As expected, the Lakers made the playoffs and reached the NBA Finals where they faced a Detroit Pistons team that did not nearly have the level of talent as the Lakers.
Surprisingly, the Lakers lost in five games. Payton was devastated, figuring that he had blown his last chance at becoming a champion. He played in Boston the following year, averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 assists. After his lone season with the Celtics, he signed with the Miami Heat, joining his former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal. Little did he know that one last championship opportunity lay ahead.
Since their birth in 1988, the Miami Heat had been searching for their first championship. In 2003 they drafted Dwyane Wade and signed Udonis Haslem, an undrafted free agent. In 2004, they signed Shaquille O’Neal and in 2005 they welcomed back Alonzo Mourning after a two year hiatus. At this point in his career, Gary Payton was more of a role player and rarely started. He averaged 7.7 points and 3.2 assists per game while the Heat marched their way to the NBA Finals.
Against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, the Heat quickly lost the first two games and looked to be on the brink of a sweep. In the third game, they squeaked out a 98-96 victory. The Heat would go on to win the next three games to take the world championship. At last, Gary Payton was a champion.
He spent one more year in Miami and retired after losing to the Bulls in a four game sweep in the first round of the 2007 NBA playoffs. In 2013, Gary Payton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He now watches his son, Gary Payton II, who plays for the Golden State Warriors.