Happy Birthday, Gary Payton! His Top 5 Trash-Talking Moments

Elected to the Basketball Hall Of Fame earlier this year, Gary Payton turned 45 years old today. Unbelievable. As a kid growing up in the Northwest, the Sonics of the Shawn Kemp/GP/George Karl era were my favorites for reasons I couldn’t have detailed at the time. But they played fast, Kemp was like a video game character come to life and Payton carried an attitude that was unmistakable, even at age 8. Too young to remember the Portland Trail Blazers’ glory years, the Sonics ran the Northwest as far as I was concerned. Payton was their ring leader and it’s obvious why.

It would be interesting to ask a fan 15 years old or younger what they know about Payton’s legacy. I’d be willing to bet that his legendary trash-talking — the kind that gave former Sonics teammate Ervin Johnson the “Tragic Johnson” nickname and told a teenaged Jason Kidd he wouldn’t get a shot off — would come up before a mention of his defense, the kind of defense that spawned “The Glove” nickname. He was just that good at running his mouth… remember, he made our list of the 20 best trash-talkers of all time.

In honor of Payton’s birthday, here’s a trip down trash-talk’s memory lane, with one of the best point guards in NBA history — and a guy who let anyone who doubted that fact know all about it.

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GP went from Oakland to Corvallis, Oregon, for college — about as disparate as two cities could be from one another. He brought his game, and his peculiar level of discourse, with him. From a 1990 Seattle Times feature:

As a freshman, Payton hit a male Oregon cheerleader between the eyes with a wad of gum. The cheerleader, who’d invoked the inner-city fighting words, “hookhead,” against Payton, had to be restrained. Payton was not; to his relief, Pac-10 officials never invoked a code of silence against him.

With such impunity, Payton was his trash-talkingest best with the homeys in the Bay – Cal and Stanford. “Get someone out here who can guard me!” he screamed at the Cardinal bench when Stanford’s physical tactics “got under my skin” last year. He maintained a running verbal feud with Bear fans during visits to Berkeley.

“I started talking back, and it was like thousands against just Gary – who’s going to win?” Payton says. “It hyped me up. If somebody talks to me from the crowd, I can talk back because I can back it up. As soon as I do something good, they’re going to shut up.”

After his NBA career was well over, Payton naturally lent his voice to the broadcast booth. In arguably his finest moment while an analyst, he took on Kenny Smith with a verbal shakedown like the two were playing again.

When Gary Payton got called for popping off at Jordan during the 1996 NBA Finals (in the video below), it wasn’t the first time they’d gone after one another.

It would seem natural and, frankly, not that impressive to go after MJ in the Finals. By this point Payton was an established star, an MVP candidate, Defensive Player Of The Year and playing on the biggest stage possible. There’s little risk to run to bark at someone when you’re both near the top. The story gets better because Payton was like this from the very beginning of his career. As a rookie in his first preseason game Payton says he talked trash to Jordan, too, while MJ rested on the bench.

“It was an experience. And I had to go against Michael Jordan and had a good game. When it came to the season Michael Jordan remembered and at the first tip ball he said, hey, I got the young fella. He said don’t forget I remembered about preseason and what you did and he had 35 on me.”

“… I was talking real bad and he doesn’t real play that much in the preseason. … I had like 19 points and he was still on the bench and I was still talking.”

From a 1999 ESPN The Magazine interview with Dan Patrick, Payton revealed how what might be considered “normal” talk from him caught a role player off guard.

DP: Is there somebody who has no business TALKING TRASH?
GP: Jamie Feick. He said something to me. I said, “Man, you won’t even be in the league next year.” And then Scott Burrell came over and said I hurt Feick’s feelings.

Star or role player, Michael Jordan or Jamie Feick, GP didn’t discriminate in who got his talk.

All of Payton’s trash-talking was constructed around an overriding philosophy: Nothing is off limits. In a segment of NBA TV’s “Open Court,” Charles Barkley said he enjoyed the ’90s era of trash talking because no one got personal and everyone had fun with it, but Payton’s riff here would contradict that. He said he’d use whatever he could to throw opponents off, then usually apologize afterward if it went over the line.

What’s the kicker to all of Payton’s achievements in trash talking? Chris Webber said in 2001 that Payton didn’t enjoy getting talked back to.

DP: You majored in psychology at Michigan. Who’s the easiest to psych out?
CW: GARY PAYTON. It won’t affect his points but he won’t enjoy the game as much.

Who’s the best trash-talker ever?

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