Gary Payton is regarded as one of the most tenacious defenders in the history of the NBA. When Payton came into the NBA in 1990, he was a part of a new generation of players: they were brash, flashy, unafraid to speak their minds, and conversant with hip-hop. Nevertheless, he began his career with the Seattle SuperSonics as a player whose defense – hardly the most glamorous skill was his most well-defined ability. As quick as any guard in the league, Payton was an intense, nightmarish defender. Even as he evolved into a deadly playmaker and imaginative scorer, the nickname that stuck to him – and the one that he, in turn, pinned his personality onto, was “the Glove,” for the incredibly close proximity that he maintained on defense.
Payton played college ball at Oregon State University. Selected second overall in the 1990 NBA draft, he headed to a Sonics team that was decent but looking for franchise anchors. However, both Payton and forward Shawn Kemp, who was drafted the previous year, needed time to develop.
In 1991–92 the Sonics had a respectable 47–35 record and finished fourth in their division. In 1992–93, with Payton and Kemp assuming greater roles, the Sonics went 55–27, finished second in the Pacific division and were one win away from making the NBA finals. The following season, the Sonics posted the best record in the NBA (63–19). However, they were stunningly upset in the first round by the Denver Nuggets.
Payton was the consummate point guard. He was able to dish the ball to Seattle’s many scorers; the lob passes he served up to Kemp for the latter’s thunderous slam dunks have led many to call the duo the most impressive alley-oop combo ever. The Sonics took the mighty Chicago Bulls to six games before ultimately losing in the 1996 NBA finals. Kemp left over contract issues in 1997, but Payton remained the mainstay of the Sonics after that – a perennial All-Star and the primary reason the team continued to contend for the playoffs each season. It is a testament to his all-around excellence that Payton lost his chief collaborator yet still stepped up to take on the added responsibility.
During the 2002–03 season Payton was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks; the following summer he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, joining a team so stacked with talent that it started 2003–04 as the popular favorite to win the title but ultimately fell in the 2004 NBA finals. After a stint with the Boston Celtics, Payton signed with the Miami Heat in 2005. Led by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat won the NBA title in 2006, and, with a championship to cap off his legacy, Payton retired after playing an additional season with Miami.
He went into the league ahead of his time and ended up setting the standard for all subsequent point guards. Payton could slash with the best, but it was his attention to passing and defense that put him up with the greats. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.