You talkin' to me?
You talkin' to me?
—TRAVIS BICKLE, to himself in the mirror
(Played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver)
Maybe it's because he looks so nasty when he plays—his glare piercing, his jaws flapping, his angular body rippling, snaking, curling itself across the court into the shape of the very snarl that binds his face. Or perhaps it's because Gary Payton is nasty. Call it genetics. The license plate on his father's 280 Z back home in Oakland reads MR MEAN, because, as Al Payton says, "I am mean. I taught the kid the look, the intimidation, yeah, the meanness. When I played, I liked to hurt people."
Maybe it's because Gary's Oregon State Beavers perform nearly exclusively on cable, and long after much of America has switched to Arsenio Hall discussing great art with Shelley Winters. The only time during Payton's college career that the Beavers have been seen by more than a network regional audience was in 1988 in the final of the Pac-10 tournament, when Arizona blew them away and Payton, a sophomore, fouled out.
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?
Does Payton blithely refine his image as a street tough in front of a cracked looking glass—You talkin' to me?—as he coldly prepares to lay out another opponent with all those points (27.1 per game it week's end), assists (8.6), rebounds (4.8) and steals (3.6)? Or is he truly as vicious a wastrel hot dog as he seems? "Get somebody out here who can guard me!" Payton screamed at the Stanford bench during an 84-70 victory on Feb. 3.
"Forget this one," Payton woofed at Washington's players in the midst of the Huskies' 66-57 upset of Oregon State on Feb. 15. "Y'all still draggin' last in the conference!" (They were actually ninth.) In that game, Payton had twice as many turnovers (six) as baskets (three) in what was easily his worst performance since somebody other than the folks of Williamette (Ore.) Valley figured he should be a Player of the Year candidate, right up there with all those Rumeal Robinson and Larry Johnson types.
For a guy who appears to have a chip on his shoulder as wide as the Cascades, who sometimes chews out his own teammates and who chests up the entire Pac-10 with hardly a chest of his own—Payton is 6'4", 180 pounds, most of it barbed wire and nerve endings—the biggest shock of all is that nobody has ever smashed his face to smithereens. "A shack bully," is how Washington State coach Kelvin Sampson once described Payton. "He's like a bounty hunter, always out there looking for you. But I think he gets more respect than any player in the league."
"Payton doesn't mean any harm with his trash," says Washington guard Eldridge Recasner, who did some harm of his own in that Husky victory, outscoring Payton 28-13. "It's just his competitiveness. He doesn't get in fights, because he backs up everything he says. He's not out there mouthing off, then playing like a girl." (Whoops. Washington's women's team was ranked fifth last week by the AP; Recasner and his mates were closer to 105th.)
Southern Cal center/forward Chris Munk says, "Gary talks it, Gary walks it."
At least Payton didn't have to adopt a second sport—or second name—to get some attention. Nearly three decades ago, Oregon State basketball player Terry Baker made a national splash. But he was more famous as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Two other Oregon State graduates had to leave Corvallis before becoming well known—as Betty Crocker and Bozo the Clown.