O.G.’s Only

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Gary Payton, NBA / Retired - The Players' Tribune

Nowadays I don’t go out like I used to.

I’m a dad now, man.

Back in ’91, ‘92 though? I was just coming into the league. The Sonics got me with the second pick. Shawn had been there for only a year. We thought we was on top of the world.

Seattle — that was the center of it.

People forget — the Sonics was already good before I got drafted. It was a different era back then. Nowadays you got the top picks going to the worst teams. But the year before I got there, Seattle went 41–41. They had almost made the Western Conference finals right before that. I mean, the Sonics maybe tanked a little bit to try to get me. There was some luck involved. The lotto ball came out at the right time, and that was that. It was on.

You know what? My draft class doesn’t have any other Hall of Famers. I’ve been thinking about why that is. I went to a good team right out the gate — I think that’s a big reason. The Sonics had these O.G. vets who didn’t give a sh*t about who I was or what I done before. They showed me what was what. I fought them on everything, too, but they showed me.

My rookie year, K.C. Jones was my coach. K.C. thought I was an asshole.

I was an asshole.

He was always saying, “You ain’t ready. You ain’t ready.” I thought I was ready. He taught me a lesson. My first year, he wouldn’t play me. He’d be like, “I’m gonna start you because I have to — because you’re the second pick — but if you’re not playing good, McMillan’s gonna play all the minutes. Then I’m gonna start you again in the third quarter because I have to. Sh*t, then I’m not gonna let you back in the game, ’cuz you can’t do nothing for me.”

I talked back to him a lot. Now I appreciate what he did.

Like I said, those first couple of years, me and Shawn, the young guys on the team — we were doing a lot … we were out all the time, drinking all the time. We knew all the bars in Seattle. Closed them all down. We were like 22, 23, 24. At Oregon State over four years, I’d done a lot of growing up. But I was still East Oakland. Always Oakland. And overnight, the NBA money, it felt unlimited.

When you’re a kid in the league and you’re trying to do all that stuff off the court? It don’t work after a while. It catches up to you. The lucky thing about the situation was I had those veteran guys. Nate McMillan, Eddie Johnson, Xavier McDaniel.

Xavier — I was his rookie, so I had to do everything for him. One day in practice, I was done with that sh*t. I told him, “Man, nah, f*ck that, I ain’t doing sh*t you say.” Xavier looked at me and was like, “Young boy, you ain’t even did sh*t in this league and you’re trying to f*cking tell me what the fu*ck to do? You gotta pay dues like I paid dues.”

I said straight up, “What the f*ck you gon’ do? I ain’t paying f*cking sh*t.”

This is what Xav did. He grabbed me by my neck — middle of practice. And put me in one of those sleepers, right with everyone watching and everything. I was about to go out, and then he let me go. He told me, “If I have to beat your ass every time, you’re gonna listen to me.”

That sh*t was a wake-up call. After that, I did everything he said. What’s funny is that me and Xav are still tight to this day. Honest to God, no lie, my career wouldn’t have been the same if I had got drafted by a team with all kids my same age. I know that for sure. Most teams today don’t have a dude like Xav that’s gonna lay the law down on you. A dude like that who’s looking out for you.

It was like that for me and Shawn the first couple years. We had to get the lay of the land.

We would say to each other all the time, “This gonna be our team. This gonna be our city.” 

And, you know, before too long, it was.


Truth is, and everybody who knows me knows this — I wouldn’t talk sh*t if it wasn’t for my father.

He was Al Payton, but everyone in Oakland called my dad Mr. Mean. He had that sh*t printed on his damn license plate — MRMEAN. A lot of people were scared of my father. We were scared of my father. I got good at talking trash for one reason and one reason only. Because I saw my father do it so often in the streets. If somebody said something to him, he’d knock them out. That was it. I seen it a hundred times. And people learned not to repeat that mistake.

On the playground, growing up, my dad would always tell me, “If they talk sh*t to you, talk back to them.” I got good at it because it was a weapon — I knew I could have a distraction on the other guy. While they’re worried about me, I’m only worried about the game. So I ran my mouth, from a young age. And I didn’t care what was coming out of my mouth because I knew I was good — I could back it up with my play. Most kids couldn’t do that. In the league most guys couldn’t do that neither. Some people can’t talk the talk and walk the walk, you know what I’m saying? They try, but they can’t.

Some people can’t talk the talk and walk the walk, you know what I’m saying? They try, but they can’t.

I would be talking crazy during those playground games. To the point where people got mad. I remember times when they started plotting on the sidelines — you know, like, “We gonna get Payton,” and things like that. But if my father would catch wind of it, he’d confront them. “Ain’t nobody gonna do sh*t. He’s a kid. If y’all wanna get down, y’all can get down with me.” Sometimes that’s how it went down — I was 10, 12 years and my dad’s suddenly in the middle of a brawl on the playground. 

That’s why, in the NBA, I was never really scared of nobody. It’s like, coming from East Oakland — there’s big dudes and there’s street dudes. Big dudes are big. But street dudes are tougher than big dudes. Some of the guys in the league grew up the way I grew up, but it wasn’t really in the streets. Maybe they grew up in rough neighborhoods, but they were never a part of that roughness, you know what I’m saying?

My dad did his share of sh*t-talking and asskicking. But the respect came from another side of things, too. He was like everybody’s father in the neighborhood. Most of my friends, they lived with their mom. They didn’t have a dad around. It was the other way around for me — because after my parents divorced and I told my dad I wanted to go live with him. So my dad was like a dad to some of the other kids around the way. There was a lot of temptations and bad influences around us growing up, and for me a big thing was that my father gave me the confidence to say no to stuff.

My dad actually started a summer league in Oakland — it was like AAU before AAU. It was called the ONBL — the Oakland Neighborhood Basketball League. It started when I was in fifth, sixth grade. We had games on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We loved to play, but really that’s how me and my friends stayed out of trouble. I could’ve been out on the streets, trying to sell drugs, doing whatever I wanted to, but I didn’t because of my father. He kept tabs on me. He worked a lot but he used to call me up from work — he was a cook and did big catering jobs — and he’d say things like, “I’ll be there in a little bit. You stay in the house and get your work done. Don’t go outside.” So when I was a kid, if I wasn’t playing ball, I was in my house by myself — my doors locked. I listened to him.

My dad was always my coach, but the thing is, he’d never tell me if I played good. There was never a time my father would say, you know, “Nice game, you played great.” It was always, “You coulda did better.” I remember games where I would have 50 points, no lie, and he was still like, “Look here, motherf*cker, you still ain’t sh*t. You don’t play defense good, you don’t do this or that, you coulda had 60 or 70.” At that age, I would cry when he really gave it to me.

If we wasn’t up 40 on the team that he thought we should be up 40 on, he’d sit the starters until we proved we would play harder.

Those ONBL games got intense. To motivate us, before the game he’d say, “If they fight, you better fight. Or you can fight me … so y’all wanna fight them or fight me?” We were in like sixth grade! It worked, man. He used to have the backups playing 10 times harder than starters because they were so scared of him.  

The thing is, I knew my dad appreciated us. We all knew that. He showed it in his way. If we killed a team by 50, or whatever, he would always take us out to eat or buy everybody a pair of shoes when none of the kids could afford them. Or he might not say nothing to us after we won a game. Just silence. That’s how we really knew he was happy with how we did.

Before I got my scholarship to college, I remember how people in Oakland didn’t really think I was gonna make it out of there. It still seems crazy sometimes. People ask, “How did you get from East Oakland all the way to Oregon State?”

Mr. Mean. There’s your the answer to that.


I got an MJ story to tell you. 

It was a preseason game against the Bulls my rookie year. So it’s 1990. It was the Bulls but not the Michael Jordan Bulls yet, know what I mean? It’s before the first three-peat. They were still getting beat in the playoffs by Detroit, in like ’88 and ’89.

And so I’m coming in there, preseason, second pick in the draft. I don’t care who the hell Michael Jordan is. I’d seen him when I was coming up. To me it was like, O.K., he’s good … but he’s not all that.

MJ was on the bench most of the game — I didn’t understand that it was just preseason and MJ doesn’t play hard like that in a preseason game. So B.J. Armstrong had me. I gave him 19 points. And I’m a rookie, so of course I’m talking crazy. I’m talking sh*t to B.J. I’m running by the bench, saying sh*t to MJ. I’m staring guys down. I feel great.

A few weeks later, we had the Bulls for the first time in the regular season, at home in Seattle. I’ve been working for it, waiting for it, I’m ready. And of course, everybody’s talking about how it’s the Bulls — how Michael’s coming to town. I’m like, O.K. I gave them 19. I know I can get down on MJ, no problem.

So we go out there before the game, and everybody is shaking hands at the circle.

MJ wouldn’t shake my hand.

He turns to B.J. and he says, “Leave the f*cking rookie to me,” so everyone can hear it.

Sh*t, O.K., I’m thinking.Well f*ck it then. Bring it on.

The game gets going. I’m checking Michael, and I see Phil Jackson start calling plays — four, five, six times in a row, he’s calling plays for Michael. And Michael is scoring four, five, six times in a row. Michael is on a different level than I knew there was.

In a matter of minutes, I’m in foul trouble. K.C. benches me. I didn’t really go back in the game much more after that. I remember I finished with no points — played about seven or eight minutes. MJ ended up going for 33.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Near the end of the game, I’m sitting on the bench, and MJ comes over to our bench — comes right up to me while the game is still going on. Coach is standing right there. Everyone on the bench is staring at him.

Looks right at me. “That sh*t you talking in preseason?”

The wild thing is, MJ isn’t even mad or nothing. He’s chewing his f*cking gum.

“This is the real sh*t right here. Welcome to the NBA, little fella.”

The Bulls won the title that season, and then five more before he was done.

“when we together, we never talk about the game, we talk about what we being in competitive in at that time.”

Gary Payton describes the nature of his personal relationship with Michael Jordan. (2:05)

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We still tight, me and Shawn. I’m like his big brother. We still meet up from time to time. We still know how to have a good time — nothing crazy no more, but a good time. Now life’s about our kids for the most part. Our boys — Gary II and Shawn Jr. — they’re around the same age, and you know what’s the funniest sh*t of all time? These boys don’t listen to us, just like we didn’t listen to nobody back then!

Two years ago, me and Shawn went back to Seattle because our sons were playing each other — his son played for Washington, mine played for Oregon State. We sat courtside and got to watch our kids. It was the greatest time. Shawn looked over at me in the middle of the game, getting real animated like he does. He starts sweating when he gets animated. And he’s like, “Can you believe we used to do this and now we looking at our sons doing this?”

I shook my head: Nah, I couldn’t believe it, either. If you asked us back in 1991 if we could imagine where life would go, no way we had any idea.

It made me happy — seeing Shawn being a dad. Shawn’s had some tough years. I know people saw when he was going through his problems — and, you know, yeah, he got big stuff to deal with and big stuff to make right. I just know, people weren’t really seeing all of him, though, you know what I’m saying?

Over the last couple years, Shawn comes to me for advice — for stuff that he thinks he can’t share with anyone else. We talk about whatever is going on. I’ll be like, “Whatever you’re going through, we gotta think about it, man. We can figure this out. You got somebody else to live for, a lot of people to live for. You’re gonna get through it.” I tried to be kind of the motivating guy that stayed around for him.

You gotta see him when he’s around his kids. Around his kids — he’s just … he’s a dad. He’s a great person around the kids. They’re always having fun. We’re both like that as dads. We want our kids to understand that they can hang out with their dad and chill and talk to us about whatever. We want to make ’em understand, Look, your parents? We the homies. Y’all can come and talk to us. And Shawn does that well now. It’s interesting because we’re young parents — whereas my mom and dad were 30, 35 years older than me. My son Gary II is only 20 years younger, so we have a chance to be there for them in a special way. But, man, a big part of who I am is from who my dad was to me. He passed away two years ago. I miss him. I’m happy Gary II got to spend some time with him.

After that game in Seattle with Shawn, we all went out to celebrate. Our friends and family. It was good to be back in Seattle. Me and Shawn took it easy, but we were trying to get everybody else in the club drunk. We’re effective at that if we try.

I looked over at Shawn, thinking, Damn, everything changes but everything stays the same!

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