Despite the fact that he’s been out of the league for more than a decade, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many people who love basketball more than Gary Payton. The Glove has found ways to stay around and break down the game ever since he decided to hang up his sneakers at the conclusion of the 2006-07 campaign, making appearances across all forms of media to tell stories and provide analysis of what’s happening in the league at a given time.
With All-Star season just around the corner, we sat down with Payton to talk about the NBA’s mid-winter classic, which he made nine times over the course of his Hall of Fame career. Payton discussed the game, how he’d approach the unenviable task of having to guard a trio of the best players in the league, his time with the Miami Heat, and much more.
I wanna get your insight into point guard play. Who are your favorite point guards to watch right now and what is it about them that you find so much fun to watch?
Marcus Smart and Pat Beverley, because they remind me of myself. They both play defense. Pat, I think his offense, he gets a little bit more offense and do a little more things, he’ll be just like me. Marcus Smart, he’s doing a great job right now, he’s starting to shoot the basketball. Both of them have that dog in them where they don’t back down and that’s what I like about them. It’s one of the things where I like to see how I played in a basketball player, and them two are the closest two it.
How does having that edge make their teams better?
Well, when you got a guy like that that’s gonna lock down one of the top players and show the other four people, or other people on your team, that you’re gonna do that, it makes them hyped and they’ll do the same thing. And then they’ll get you a little edge when you know that you can shut somebody down and do that. So that’s the kind of edge that they have, because they know every night, when they go to war, they’re gonna go to war with them and they’re not gonna back down, so they know they’ve got a guy that’s gonna be there every night and that’s gonna do what he has to do to win a basketball game. He doesn’t care about anything else, all he cares about is winning. These two kids are showing that to their teams, and I know that their teammates would take them to war anywhere.
When you played, you were known as a very versatile defender. There are three MVP candidates right now who I’d like to ask how you would guard them if you got their assignment. The first guy is James Harden, how would you approach that?
Well, first of all, I would try to pressure him as much as I can, I wouldn’t want him to get free. James is a guard that, he needs rhythm. You see how he always dribbles the ball between his legs because he’s setting you up, so I wouldn’t let him do that. I would make him uncomfortable. And then, in our day, if he would come off of picks — because you start pressuring him, he’s gonna try to attack you. So then he’ll let you come off picks, and when you come off picks, he wants the big man to switch onto him. Then he gets an advantage, then he can go at you at the bucket, and then if everybody’s sucked in, he can throw a lob to Capela.
That’s what I wouldn’t want to happen, once he comes off that pick, I would want the big man to trap him, keep the ball out of his hand, and once he gets the ball out of his hand, then I would deny him as much as possible to make it hard for him to make it work. Golden State did a great job of that about three weeks ago and you saw what happened, Golden State did that and they took it away from him and it was successful.
Next up, the new kid on the block, Luka Doncic.
Well with him, I’d do the same thing. You have to pressure him, you have to make him uncomfortable. But what he does is he throws passes, not just lobs, he’s almost like a Magic and a LeBron, the same kind of vision as he’s been bigger. What we’d have to do is make him uncomfortable, make him take off-balance shots. He can shoot the stepbacks too, but if you can pressure him and make him see a lot of traffic and a lot of hands and stuff like that, you can get away with it. And I think that a lot of people have shown that once they collide on him. But, you can’t let him go downhill on you and then you think that you’re gonna meet him at the rim, because he’s too good at doing that.
Last one, you’re showing up to the arena against the Bucks and you know Giannis Antetokounmpo is gonna be on the other side. What would you wanna do to try and make Giannis uncomfortable.
It’s hard because he’s really strong and he takes the ball off the dribble a lot, and he likes to get in the open floor. I would tell people to start stepping in front of him and take charges, make him uncomfortable by taking charges because he’s really good on the fast break. Now that he’s hitting the jump shot, I’m still not convinced on that until he starts hitting a lot of them. I would step back and make him take jump shots all the time. He knows he likes to suck up a lot of the floor and he won’t take a shot, but he’s now in that mode where he wants to show people that he can shoot the shot.
So now, he’s shooting it and not trying to suck up the floor and get easier buckets and get dunks, now he’s shooting that. I would live with that, I would live with him shooting the jump shot. He would just have to shoot about 13, 14, 15 shots on me, because once he gets to the paint he’s unstoppable and I would try to take charges on him and get him in foul trouble and see how that works out.
You played on a number of teams and I can ask you about all of them, but I want to focus on the Miami Heat, just because I find it so interesting that they’ve had this basketball culture for years. What’s the importance of a franchise having that sort of culture to have success for years and years?
They never had won a championship, we were the first ones to win a championship. But if you have a guy like Pat Riley who brings a championship caliber to that organization from the Los Angeles Lakers, when he had Magic, when he had Kareem, when he had Worthy, when he had Byron Scott, then that’s a little bit different, because he’s gonna bring that mentality to that. And when he did bring the mentality, he brought the hard work. People didn’t wanna go there because he would practice a lot, he’d make you go old school, but when you go old school, that brings you back to basic basketball and how to play basketball, and at the end of the day, when you go out and play and execute, it’s a great thing to do.
With that, you see what happens now — he goes and draft young players who know how to work, he goes and gets one superstar because he’s always used to having a superstar, and then he gets a boy like Butler, then he goes in and becomes the mentor of all these guys. You get Bam, you get Herro, you get a Nunn, then all of a sudden, you’ve created a basketball team. Nobody would think the Miami Heat would be where they’re at right now, but they’ve got a lot of young guys with a culture saying “let’s win and work hard,” and that’s what they’re doing.
When you joined them back in 2005, was that what sold you? The fact that Pat Riley knew what needed to happen for a team to win a championship?
That didn’t sell me, Shaquille O’Neal sold me. Then when I looked at the team and I saw Jason Williams, I saw Antoine Walker, James Posey, Alonzo Mourning, Shaq and D-Wade, they had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, they just needed one more to get over the hump. He was putting together a team where it was almost like everybody was like me — we didn’t have no care, no fear, nothing. And when it first started off, it wasn’t good, then he took over the team and we all started to play for ourselves, and when we all started playing for ourselves, we clicked, and when it all started clicking, it all clicked in the right way and then all of a sudden we won a championship.
But the one thing was we realized that Dwyane Wade was our star. He was only two or three years in the league, we knew that he was. Shaq had always been that man that put us over the top, but he was getting older and we decided, “Hey, let this young kid take us over the top,” and he did. He averaged 35 points and it was one of the things that, he was making big shots and we were playing defense, he would kick it to us and all we had to do was knock down an open jump shot, and that’s what happened. We fooled around, went down 2-0, then we won four in a row and won a championship.
Since you just mentioned him, can I get your favorite story from your time being teammates with Shaq?
I was with him twice, I was with him with the Lakers and in Miami. He’s like my younger brother. It’s always fun with Shaq because he’s always gonna keep it entertaining. He’s a jokester, his kids grew up with my kids, I’m an uncle to them. It’s a joy to always be around him because he’s always gonna keep it entertaining. You know he’s gonna come and get you 30 and 40 points a night — that was a big thing for me to come to the Lakers and to Miami, he asked me and said, “I wanna get you a championship.” That was it and we went and won a championship, I was grateful for him that he wanted me to come to the Lakers, he wanted me to come to Miami and be with him and be a part of it.
You made nine All-Star Games as a pro, what’s it like to get that call to learn you’re making it on an All-Star team?
It’s always a pleasure to do that because generally you’re one of the best basketball players in the NBA. To be a part of the 24 players that’s gonna make it is an honor and you wanna keep that, especially for me to make it nine times, it was really an honor. That means you’re playing well, your team is playing well, you’re doing something special in the league and you should be honored if they think you’re one of the best basketball players in the NBA.
There are plenty of no-brainer options — LeBron’s gonna make it, Harden’s gonna make it, Giannis is gonna make it, those guys. Who are the players who you most wanna see get a nod this year?
This year it’s Trae Young and Luka. I think they’re really worthy with what they’re doing right now. Trae doesn’t have a good team like Luka does, I think Luka is complementary of all his players to the point where we’re surprised that Dallas is doing what they’re doing, they’re only 2.5 games out of the second spot from Denver, and you didn’t expect that to happen. With him, being 20 years old and the things that he’s doing with the 30 points and the 10 (rebounds) and 10 (assists), that’s amazing, amazing to be in your second year and to play basketball the way he’s playing.
Trae Young, too. If they get a big trade — and I’m just talking, get Andre Drummond, that would be a big plus for him and Drummond and Collins to play together because I think that’ll change that organization around. But for him to do what he did the other night with him and Harden, to both have the first time ever in NBA history to have 40-10-10 in a triple-double, is amazing. I really wanna see these two players get in here and have that experience.
Made nine All-Star Games in your career, is there one memory from any of those weekends that really sticks out as your favorite one?
All of them, really, because nowadays, we didn’t do what these kids do now. They all are friends, they all buddy buddy, they go on trips together, they hang out with each other in the summer. We didn’t do that, we didn’t do that when I was coming up. So for me to be around John Stockton at the All-Star Game and to get to know him was a little different, but it was special, because I really respect him and I idolized him a lot. For me to get to know him at the All-Star Game and at the Olympics was a big thing for me.
Going into the locker rooms and knowing the Karl Malones, them guys who were in the Western Conference, the Kevin Garnetts, stuff like that, that was a big thing. After that, it was gonna be war again. I wasn’t gonna care about them no more. It was gonna be one of the things where after these two days, it’s gonna be hell for you when we play you. They knew that, so that was my big thing to always be around them and get to know them as a person.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.