After Anderson, who at the time was an Oregon State assistant under Ralph Miller, convinced his boss that they weren't wooing the Hillside Strangler, the skinny scamp with the gnashing teeth who always made the fur fly ended up as what he should have been all along: a Beaver. (Note to NCAA tournament committee: Insert following quote into pairings computer. "Gary might not tell you this," says Al, "but he just wants Oregon State to play St. John's—anytime, anywhere.")
Understanding the OAL is a prelude to understanding Payton's rough-and-tumble career in the previously tranquil north woods of Oregon. According to Skyline coach Fred Noel, in the OAL "verbal combat, the necessity to seem cool, was as important as the game itself."
That could help explain why, as a freshman, Payton hit an Oregon male cheerleader between the eyes with a wad of gum during a game in which the crowd at Oregon was taunting him by calling him "Hookhead." Upon Payton's arrival in Corvallis, the stern Miller had forced him to shed the inscriptions sculpted into his dome, though Miller did allow his infant rabble-rouser to keep the earring—Payton has since added a second one, a gold-nugget job, and a Rapmaster design of a necklace that reads, G-E-E-P-E-E—as well as the unique personality of his game. A stickler for defense, Miller had vowed to Payton that he would start only if he learned to guard people.
Check. As a freshman, Payton was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-10. (Did the league see the GEEPEE on the wall? That was the last time the Pac-10 had such an award.) Payton has started every game since he came to Corvallis.
"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."
It has always seemed an odd mix: the urban, volatile young firebrand of an All-America at ease in sleepy Corvallis—first with the crotchety legend, Miller, and now with the plump, homespun Anderson, whose passion is to complete three crossword puzzles a day. However, Payton has toned down. Last season he kicked a ball in disgust at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, shortly after which Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West left the game. Friends of Payton's say that's when he realized the pros were tiring of his antics. Moreover, Payton has found comfort in the strife-free timberlands around the Oregon State campus, where the biggest crime news of late was a break-in at the student union that netted the thieves a cassette player, some prime rib and a few pool cues. We are not making this up.
"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."
Payton only became a heavy scorer this season, after Anderson asked him to start shooting more. Assistant coach Fred Boyd, the former Beaver and NBA guard, worked on Payton's release and follow-through, and as a result Payton is shooting better than 51% from the floor and has exceeded his career average by nearly five points. But Payton will step in and run a pro team next season primarily because of an ability to control the floor and his wizardry in the art of the pass.
Meanwhile, as Payton's brilliant undergraduate career winds down—he will finish as the Pac-10 record holder in career assists and steals, and about fourth in scoring—Oregon State students use flip cards in the stands to count down the number of assists Payton needs to break the NCAA record set by Sherman Douglas of Syracuse from 1985-86 to '88-89. At week's end Payton had 918 assists in 116 games, 42 short of the 960 Douglas had in 138 games.
First, however, there are a few more games to win—maybe even a Pac-10 title, Oregon State's first since 1984, if the Beavers can beat Arizona at Tucson on Saturday—and a few more opponents to trash. "We talk about feelings and emotions, and we've always wondered if Gary shouldn't have taken a gentler approach," says Anderson, putting aside his beloved crosswords for a moment. "But he's been carrying us on his back for so long. Whatever else happens, he's been something very special."