Shall we get the award thing over with right away? Michigan's Robinson and LSU's Chris Jackson have been too up and down, UNLV's Johnson has not dominated the big games, and La Salle's Lionel Simmons doesn't get to play big games. Remove those players from their teams, and the teams would still be awfully competitive. Remove Payton from the Pac-10-leading-but-lord-knows-how Beavers (21-4 overall through Sunday, 14-2 in the conference), and Oregon State makes an emergency call to the NAIA. He is simply the strongest candidate for NCAA Player of the Year.
"I'd rather play against Rumeal any day," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, against whose team Robinson scored 27 points earlier this season. Payton had 25 against the Wildcats. Sampson, three years a head coach at Washington State and once a grad assistant at Michigan State, says, "When I think about another guy who made guys around him this much better, I think of Earvin [Magic Johnson]."
This is not the first time Payton has been linked with some fairly respectable history makers. Last Thursday he poured in 58 points in a 98-94 overtime win over Southern Cal to come within three points of the Pac-10 single-game scoring record set by Lew Alcindor in 1966-67. Afterward, USC coach George Raveling said, "That was as good a one-man performance as I've ever seen in the conference—be it Walton, Jabbar or whomever you want to name."
Earlier this season, in the Far West Classic, Payton scored 15 of his team's first 22 points against Boston University. On the final two nights of the tournament, against Louisiana Tech and Oregon, he made the game-winning shots to cap performances in which he had, respectively, 35 points and 12 assists, and 30 and 13. "This is a great player," said Boston University coach Mike Jarvis. "Does he have any relatives?"
Uh-huh. Besides Al, a restaurant owner in Fremont, Calif., and Annie, Gary's mother, there are four older brothers and sisters, including Sharon, whom Payton credits with inspiring the feistiness that is his hole card. "On the softball field, I'm tellin' you, Sharon would punch out boys," he says.
Payton attended Skyline High, which is in the OAL (Oakland Athletic League). OAL games are often played with armed guards on hand (OAL might as well stand for Offensive Agitation, Legal). Oregon State coach Jim Anderson remembers scouting an OAL tournament during which six squad cars were needed to quell a riot—and that was between games. "You talk about rowdy," says Payton. "In Oakland the players were on you. The refs were on you. The stands were on you. You had to talk back or you were a sissy; you'd get run out of the league. Afterward? Yeah, it was kind of a, uh, struggle to get out of the gym. Cops had to be everywhere. Which was lucky."
Payton was suspended from the team for half of his sophomore season for bad grades and a worse attitude. "I messed up—fighting, trashing teachers and coaches, everybody," he says. For about two months, Al had to trek to Skyline three times a week. Once, Al barged right into a classroom and read the kid the riot act in front of the other students. "I started growing up," says Gary.
Still, the Oregon State coaches are under orders from Al. "I told them if the boy ever gets out of line, slap him upside the head and tell him it's from me," says Mr. Mean.
Questions about his attitude caused several college coaches to back off. He also wore a diamond earring, and he was ahead of his time with such decorations as his initials, dollar signs and a champagne glass scissor-designed into his hair. A champagne glass? "Hey, class all the way," says Payton.
"He had an air, like a guy who might cause trouble," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who was the Pepperdine coach when Payton was a high school senior. One of Payton's Skyline teammates, Greg Foster, signed with the Bruins—he has since transferred to UTEP—but Walt Hazzard, UCLA's coach at the time, already had a first-rate point guard in Pooh Richardson, so he didn't go after Payton. St. John's coach, Lou Carnesecca, reneged on a scholarship offer at the 11th hour. "When I make a mistake, it's a real whopper," says Carnesecca now.