He has been called the Glove, because he covers opposing guards as snugly as one, but the nickname has never caught on. The Mouth would be more appropriate, and it will be until Gary Payton shuts his, which Indiana Pacers guard and former Payton teammate Ricky Pierce once estimated would happen "about two months after he's dead." Payton, the Seattle SuperSonics' loquacious point guard, is the NBA's preeminent trash talker, a mantle he has carried with some pride during his six years in the league. To play against him is to risk being buried under an avalanche of verbiage so deep that according to another former teammate, Cleveland Cavaliers forward-center Michael Cage, "when you're done, you just want to go find a library or something, someplace totally silent."
In Payton-speak, talking trash is "yapping." It is an art form he learned on the Oakland playgrounds of his youth, and he has built up a lengthy yap sheet. He once ran by the Minnesota Timberwolves' bench and admonished 6-foot Sidney Lowe, the Minnesota coach at the time, to "shut up, you little Smurf." He looked around a mostly empty Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey once and told guard Kenny Anderson, then with the Nets, "at least nobody will see me take the ball from you." Teammate Hersey Hawkins calls Payton "a little Charles Barkley," but Payton, 27, is more like a big pest, a 6'4", 190-pound gnat buzzing around, willing to do anything to annoy an opponent, as he showed earlier this season when he punctuated an evening of running commentary in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers by inexplicably blowing in Lakers guard Eddie Jones's ear.
But it's hard to build a career on a foundation of words. And even with Payton's considerable accomplishments—three All-Star game appearances, his selection (announced Monday) as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for 1995-96 and this season's league-leading average of 2.85 steals per game are but a few—words are what he is best known for. The biggest difference in Payton this year is that he has come to realize that sometimes words obscure deeds. One afternoon last summer he sat out on the deck of his house in the Oakland hills and looked down at his children, Raquel and Gary II, playing in the pool below. The sneering, glaring bravado that has come to be associated with him was nowhere in evidence. The Mouth was not roaring. "I think I've grown up a lot," he said softly. "I mean, I'm always going to talk, but I know how to control it better now, when to tone it down. I don't worry that much about what people think of me, but nobody wants to be known as a loudmouth his whole career."
Nor does he want to be known as a player who talks a good game but doesn't back it up in the playoffs. Payton knows as well as anyone that after the Sonics' upset losses in the first round the last two seasons—in which point guards Robert Pack, then of the Denver Nuggets, and Nick Van Exel of the Lakers played especially well against him—that label was about to be applied to him with superglue. "I know I have more to prove than anyone on this team," he says. "This is the year I have to step up in the playoffs and show what I can do."
For Payton, the time has come to put up or shut up. And he's putting up. His maturation was clearly evident through the first six games of the playoffs—the Sonics' 3-1 victory over the Sacramento Kings in a best-of-five first-round series and their sweep of the defending champion Houston Rockets in the first two games of their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal, which resumes Friday at Houston's Summit. At home in Key Arena, Seattle demolished Houston 108-75 in Game 1 last Saturday, and the Sonics followed that up on Monday by defeating the Rockets 105-101. Payton was Seattle's leading scorer for the six games and, as usual, its best defender, especially on a key last-minute strip of Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 2. More than that, Payton provided a steadying influence.
When All-Star forward Shawn Kemp was suspended for Game 1 against Sacramento, Payton took it upon himself to reassure his teammates that they could survive a game without Kemp. Then he showed them how, with 29 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 97-85 win. "Gary had big shoulders for us," Seattle coach George Karl said afterward. "We just rode him all night long."
A loss in Game 1 to the Rockets could have damaged the still fragile psyches of the Sonics, who were euphoric over surviving the first round for the first time in three years. But Payton set the tone with four early three-pointers and finished with 28 points and seven assists to lead the Seattle runaway. In the Game 2 win, he dropped in 18 points and had five assists. "He's just the key to everything they do, that's all," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich after Game 1. "He's the engine behind their offense with the way he penetrates and pushes the ball on the break, and he sets the tone for the way they attack you on defense. Nothing he did surprised us." Well, maybe there was one surprise. "He really didn't talk all that much," said Rockets swingman Mario Elie. "He was all business, which I didn't expect at all."
Perhaps Payton was just conserving his voice. He nearly lost it in Game 1 against Sacramento, when he played with a cold and a sore throat. Still showing the effects of his illness, he wasn't at his best for Game 2, finishing with 10 points and seven assists. Not coincidentally, the Sonics went down to a 90-81 defeat. It was yet another indication that although Kemp is Seattle's leading scorer and rebounder, Payton is the player most crucial to Seattle's success.
This season he has been more aware than ever of the responsibility that comes with that role, thanks in part to counseling from Sonics veterans like swingman Nate McMillan and forward-center Sam Perkins. "He's definitely grown up," McMillan says. "He still has his mouth and his attitude, but where in the past he might have gotten so caught up in talking trash or complaining to the officials that he took his head out of the game, now he seems to know when to pull back. He might get a technical, but then he'll close his mouth so he doesn't get the one that will get him thrown out."
Houston seems to bring out the best in the Sonics—they had beaten the Rockets 11 consecutive times after their Game 2 victory—and the best in Payton. He averaged 28.8 points on 59.2% shooting in Seattle's four regular-season victories over Houston and showed no signs of cooling off in Game 1, when he hit five of 12 from beyond the arc, thus foiling Houston's strategy of giving him the outside shot to protect against his penetration. But Payton was an equally important force on defense in Game 1, spearheading Seattle's constant pressure on the Rockets' perimeter players, which made it difficult for them to get the ball inside to Olajuwon. The Dream shot only nine times and scored a mere six points, his career playoff low.