The story about how Gary Payton became the Glove dates all the way back to the ’93 Western Conference Finals between the SuperSonics and the Suns, and it’s all thanks to GP’s cousin. He owns the copyright to Payton’s iconic nickname.
After being battle-tested throughout the first two rounds, going to game sevens in both series against the Jazz and the Rockets, Seattle was looking to advance to the NBA finals for the first time since ’79. The team that was in their way was the Charles Barkley led Phoenix Suns. It was the battle of two of the deepest teams in the association, with the star power advantage going to a team from Arizona.
The SuperSonics’ post-season pattern continued, as the series against the Suns also came down to a win-or-go-home game. It took Barkley’s 44 and 24 game seven performance for Phoenix to advance past Seattle, and make it into the Finals matchup against Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
The series in and of itself was incredibly close, with an average margin of victory being a single point. Now don’t let it mislead you; it was a series of moderate blowouts from both sides, with a couple of games that went down to the wire. Overall, it was a great display of team basketball, but the story of the series was in matchups. And that’s exactly how GP got his nickname; because of his matchup against Kevin Johnson.
K.J., along with Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson is the only player in NBA history to average 20 PPG and 10 APG for three straight seasons. The guy was elite, and it was on 22-year-old Gary Payton to try to stop him. Looking at the numbers, Johnson’s performance in the series was comparable to his regular-season output, around 16 points and 7 assists per contest. But regardless of that, GP did a helluva job defending K.J., with a game 3 standout performance, when he held Johnson to only 6 points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field. That’s when GP’s cousin came into play as he painted a perfect picture of Payton’s in-your-face defense on the Suns’ point guard.
“You’re holding Kevin Johnson like a baseball in a glove.”
Gary’s cousin, that’s a great way to put it. GP was a pest, ever since he first entered the league. But the series against Phoenix was when Payton established himself as one of NBA’s best perimeter defenders. K.J. had also seen it that way, as he gave Gary his credit for the way he was guarding him throughout the series.
“You think of guys with great hands like Maurice Cheeks and Derek Harper. Gary is like that. But he’s also a great individual defender and a great team defender. He has all three components covered. That’s very rare.”Kevin Johnson
All GP did afterward was to improve as a defender, to the point when now he’s described as one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history. And fairly so, as the guy was the 95-96 DPOY and has 9 All-Defensive team selections to his name. But I would say it all started with his performance against the Suns. That’s when GP became “the Glove.”