Reports Thursday morning revealed that former Seattle SuperSonics (I guess they’re all “former” at this point) guard Gary Payton has been inducted to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. The official announcement won’t come until Monday, but I can’t wait that long to talk about my second-favorite player of all time. (If you’re wondering who my favorite player of all time is, it’s Shawn Kemp, but the only Hall of Fame he will ever make is Bill Simmons’ hypothetical Pyramid, so I’ll gladly accept my second favorite player being enshrined into the real deal as a consolation prize).
It must be noted that Payton’s induction couldn’t have been timed more perfectly, considering when the mid-summer enshrinement ceremony rolls around, it’s very possible the team he is most associated with could be headed back to the Pacific Northwest. Also, Nike, taking Payton’s “No Duh” Hall candidacy into account, pushed his Zoom Flight ’98 (aka, The Glove) retro back to an October release, hoping to cash in on the moment.
It was exactly 20 years ago when I fell in love with Payton, and 100% due to the Payton-Kemp combo (the original Lob City, thank you very much). They were the flashy young guns of a veteran-laden Sonics team that pushed Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns to Game 7 in a hotly-contested Western Conference Finals. But aside from being the set-up man for highlight reel alley-oops, Payton was one of the fiercest defenders to ever play the game, while also being a devastating all-around player in his prime.
Exhibit A: 1996 NBA Finals, when a pissed off Glove (Defensive Player of the Year — the only point guard to win it) finally said “screw this” and told George Karl that he would be guarding Michael Jordan. It’s no coincidence that Games 4 and 5, the two games Seattle managed to steal from the Bulls, were two of Jordan’s worst Finals performances ever.
Exhibit B: The 1999-00 NBA season, aka the Post-Kemp, Post-Lockout, Fat Vin Baker Era* where Payton fully realized his all-around game. His stat line that season: 24 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 steals. The only thing he didn’t do was coach the team, which he might as well have, because those were the mediocre Paul Westphal years that every SuperSonics fan has blocked from memory.
Payton certainly had his detractors though. His mouth ran a mile a minute (a double-edged sword, in his case), there was the infamous gun incident with Ricky Pierce in the 1994 playoffs, and he constantly butted heads with coaches and management. He was eventually shipped off to Milwaukee in the 2002-03 season for Ray Allen (the owner who did the shipping: the one and only Howard Schultz!). In his final years, Payton went ring chasing, first with the Lakers and Celtics, before landing with the Miami Heat in 2005 (meanwhile, Schultz was busy trying to figure out the best way to shit on an entire fan base).
The following June was bittersweet, as Payton finally won a championship in South Beach (even if it took 4,967 Dwyane Wade free throws to get there), but he made a few key crunch time plays, and fans in Seattle were legitimately happy for him. However, just weeks after that moment, the SuperSonics, the team every NBA fan identified Payton with above all else, had been sold to out-of-town owners, and, well, we all know how that turned out. Yet, in an ironic twist, the intervening years have allowed Payton to bolster his legacy in the Northwest.
Since 2008, after the U-Hauls departed KeyArena, Payton has arguably been the most vocal supporter of bringing the NBA back to Seattle, and hopes to have a role in the front office of a new franchise. However, regardless of whether or not the Sacramento Kings are headed north this summer, the world will definitely know who the SuperSonics are when he steps on that stage in Springfield, because if there’s one thing we can all agree on with GP: the man loves to talk.
*It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a season-by-season registry of players’ weights, because according to Basketball Reference, Vin Baker weighed 232 pounds his entire career.