He was only 22, coming from Oregon State, but Gary Payton carried himself like a veteran from day 1. Trash talking everyone, always ready for a challenge. That’s what made him one of the best defenders in the game, but it came at a cost. As good and as fearless as he was, he was still a rookie.
His veteran mentor on the team was Xavier McDaniel. A no-nonsense forward, McDaniel provided leadership and experience to his rookie – sometimes verbal, sometimes not. You can imagine teaching young Gary Payton about how things are done was challenging at times. Still, they were a great fit because McDaniel was as fearless and aggressive in his game as Payton was.
“When I came in as a rookie, veterans across the league would go out their way to make rookies lives a living hell on the court. So the veterans on my team told me ‘Rook, you gotta fight through that’ so, that’s what I did. I fought. I had 13,14 fights my rookie year and got fined $500 USD for each fight. But I wanted to send a message I wasn’t going to back down.”Xavier McDaniel
Being a rookie means becoming a personal Butler to your mentor. He would have to get up a 6 am to get McDaniel some breakfast. If they were in a cold city during the winter, Payton had to help the hotel staff load all the luggage. Whatever and whenever your mentor needs, you have to oblige. One day, Payton decided he was done with all the tasks rookies get. He told McDaniel no more.
“Xavier looked at me and was like, ‘Young boy, you ain’t even did sh** in this league, and you’re trying to fcking tell me what the fuck to do? You gotta pay dues like I paid dues.‘Gary Payton, via Basketball Kingz
I said straight up, ‘What the fu** you gon’ do? I ain’t paying fcking 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.’
Can you imagine a star rookie, 2nd overall pick in the draft, getting choked out in today’s NBA? Everyone would lose their mind, and the rook’ would probably demand his mentor be traded. Things were different in 1990, and Payton believes it’s for the better.
“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.”Gary Payton, via Basketball Kingz
Karl Anthony Towns comes to mind immediately. While KG was mentoring him, the team seemed like they were developing in the right direction. Since then, Thibs and Butler left Minessota, and the main point of conflict was they were too harsh on KAT. I’m no Thibodeau and Butler fan, and I agree with many of their critics. But it seems like the rookies that make it in today’s league are the ones that accept “a dude like Xav.” We all need some tough love from time to time.