We featured the story of Payton’s honor last week. The honor was due much to his play in the NBA, which included a long and impressive list of accomplishments. Before he retired in 2007 Payton had been voted to nine-time All-Star teams, was a nine-time All-Defensive player first team player (including being the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year). Payton also played on the two Olympic gold medal USA teams in 1996 and 2000. Not to be overlooked though are Payton’s accomplishments, and indeed his overall contribution to the level of excellence and the history of OSU basketball in the 1980s and 1990s.
In order to introduce Gary’s OSU connections I want back up a bit and tell a little of my own story. I went to school from 1988-1992 and was honored to be a student during half of Payton’s own time at OSU. Gary played from 1987-1990 and has been described as legendary coach "Ralph Miller’s last great bit of coaching at Oregon State." (Oregon Sports Hall of Fame). Now I can’t claim to have known personally Gary while he was at OSU for I never have met him, but being connected to the same traditions and communities it was an experience watching him play that I will not forget.
Payton was from Oakland, California and he brought with him an unknown quality to the program, but he also brought from the start a strong sense of confidence and basketball sense. He was flashy and talkative as anybody out there, but what I think is overlooked at times is how smart of a player he was. This really was highlighted in his shutdown-in-the-opponent’s-back-pocket defense, which earned him the nickname "The glove." This defense was stifling and aggressive, but it also worked not only because of Gary’s athleticism but also his court smarts. Over time this combination of athletic ability, confidence, and basketball intelligence brought out in Gary an on-the-court star status, but it also earned him a place as a team leader on the court. Indeed many of his accomplishments at OSU revolved around assists, such as leading the team in assists all four seasons, is still the Pac-12's all-time leader in assists with 938 (which is 11th overall all time in for NCAA D1 basketball), continues to hold the top four spots on Oregon State's single-season assists list, and set the school record with 15 assists vs. Arizona State on November 30, 1989 (Oregon State Highlights).
Is it any wonder then that in the ensuing two seasons hardly anybody outside the green glades of Corvallis has recognized that bad, baaad Gary Payton, son of Mr. Mean, is at the same explosive time the coolest, edgiest and most trash-talkin' player, the slickest defender, the deadliest passer, the cockiest leader—in short, the best college basketball player in America? (Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, March 05, 1990)
Now back to my story and I came to OSU as a big time Ralph Miller fan and my guy was A.C. Green. I loved A.C.’s athletic play and work ethic, and personally I had no idea how the program could improve on this. Payton though brought in another level of play not seen before and not seen since at OSU. In 1987 he was elected Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and over the course of his college career was instrumental in leading the Beavs to three NCAA appearances and one NIT appearance.
Even with this I was still unsure about how one fairly talented but brash kid could really replace the memories of A.C. Green, Steve Johnson, and Charlie Sitton dominating teams in the paint and on the boards, or indeed ever come close to matching the buzz and hype of the 1980-81 "Orange Express" team. What changed my mind was a Wednesday game played on December 19, 1989. It was my second year at OSU and was in the stands when the team was playing the Paul Westhead run and gun scoring power of Loyola-Marymount. Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers led the Lions unbelievably high scoring offense; it was an offense averaging over 100 points a game coming in.
All the hype was around the high scoring offense and how difficult it would be for the Beavs to hang with the Lions’ under ten seconds standard of individual offensive possession time. The game lived up to the hype and was one for the ages. Kimble exploded for 53 points (Gathers did not play), but coming a bit out of nowhere (for the time) was that Payton matched Kimble almost shot for shot and scored 48 points himself. And what is even more impressive about this is that Gary went 0-2 from the 3-point line and only shot four FTs (making all four); and in a telling comparison Kimble had zero assists to Payton’s ten. In the end Payton fouled out and the Beavs lost 117 to 113. Even with the loss it was a game I walked away from thinking this is where we saw Gary go from a raw talent with potential to a college basketball star. Gary did not look back from here. Indeed 48 points was only a preview of more to come with highlights including Payton's OSU record 58 points vs. USC on Feb. 22, 1990.
Gary had his edge that is for sure, but he could also channel things at the right time and what I think is overlooked in his college career is how he did mature into a team player and leader. Again he not only held the OSU career records on his leaving Corvallis for points, field goals, three-point field goals, and steals but also assists.
"As coaches, it's been a touchy thing for me and Jim [Anderson]," says Miller, who retired after last season. "But you cannot take away this kid's style. His cockiness is what makes him tick. Gary just belies himself with the glares and the lip and the other stuff. He also never looks like he's paying attention. But he is. He has the best eyes and ears I've ever known." (Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, March 05, 1990)
He carried over both the energy and edge to the NBA, where he did get criticism about being too hotheaded and tough to deal with as a teammate. At the same time though one does not earn accolades such as: "Payton is also considered one of the best defensive opponents of Michael Jordan" (Wikipedia//Adande, J.A. (1998-05-25). "The Jordan suggestions – page 4 | Sporting News, The". Findarticles.com. Retrieved 2010-09-21) and "Payton’s defense on Jordan cemented his legacy as one of the finest defensive guards the league has ever seen, a legacy that endures in basketball lore to this day" (Dime Magazine) by being passive and nice to one’s opponents.
Nowadays Gary has moved well into his retirement from playing basketball and focused on his charity work, including The Gary Payton Foundation and raising money for HIV awareness and supporting the Boys and Girls Club, and on his family life. For his connections with Oregon State it has been a bit of a rocky road. Payton’s commitment back to the University and basketball program took some hits from alumni players, some fans, and commentators questioning the level of commitment. But Coach Craig Robinson has bonded well with Gary and we have seen a wonderful resurgence of a Payton presence on campus as well as games on the road. The mere sight of seeing him and A.C. Green in the seats together supporting the new kids on the court has been a joy to this longstanding fan.
Back to my story though and what made Gary special goes to a place I am not sure NCAA basketball is at nowadays. Gary represented all that was grand about the sport in the days of four year commitments, non-disco tech team introductions, and before huge multi-million dollar conference specific network deals, and so on. Gary came to talk the talk and walk the walk. He came to play the game. Maybe times are better now for the game and I know there are great college basketball players out there still, but I have my opinion and not seeing a player like Gary cross through OSU basketball, and indeed I would contend the State of Oregon since his leaving school says a lot to me.
But I guess beyond saying something about the sport itself nowadays, I think it still says more about a legend of the game, and a player that I could identify with as part of my own connections and experiences as an OSU student and alum living the OSU traditions. At a certain level I feel that we both can share the experience of having many of our growing moments come about as college students.
"I've loved my days at Oregon State," says Payton. "If I had gone to New York, maybe I'd have made All-America two years ago, but who knows what trouble I might have gotten into in the big city? Here, I settled down, slept a lot, started to take care of my body. The trash-talking and stuff—I've calmed down. At this level it's all business." (Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, March 05, 1990)
This probably all in all is overstated for two people who never truly crossed paths personally, but you know in the end I can say at the least I saw him play and represent our school with an edge and with style. As the cliché goes: Thank you for the memories Gary!