Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Tribute to #20

Take your mind back for a moment. It is the summer of 1996, eleven years ago this June, and the best team in Basketball history, the '95-'96 Chicago Bulls are playing in the NBA championship. The Bulls were my Knicks eternal rivals, and naturally, I was rooting for whoever stood in their way… in this instance, the Seattle Supersonics. After he molested the Knicks in the second round, I was also pulling for whoever got the assignment of guarding Michael Jordan, that man was Gary Payton, who would go on to become my favorite player. Though the Bulls would win the first three, and then go on to win game 6 and the championship, Payton’s trademark defense was at its best, he held Jordan to 27 ppg, three below his average. I sat in awe throughout that series. Look at that swagger, that confidence! Look at how hard he works defending the ball (one of the best on-ball defenders of all time). How about that speed, the recklessness with which he penetrates, finishing ably with both right and left hands. And what about the passing, his terrific ability to stop, mid penetration, and make a quick pass to Shawn Kemp on a basket cut or to Detleff for a three. And of course, as my mom said, “he has that weird looking neck.”

Gary Payton was not the best point guard of all time, but he was among them. He captured my imagination as a kid and never let go. I’m eleven years older now, so is he. I have Gary Payton memorabilia coming out of my ass, 13 jerseys, around 100 cards, posters, and one (really cool) action figure. Payton has not had an all star season since around 2002, but I followed him nonetheless, routing for him on the Bucks, the Lakers, the Celtics, and (no!) the Heat. Now, the Heat are out of the playoffs (called it!), and Patyon’s storied career might be over. In that vein, I want to spend some time remembering him and how great of a player he was.

He was not the most memorable player of his generation. John Stockton was a better and more successful point guard, and like every other great player of the mid 90’s he perpetually lived in Michael’s shadow. Still, he is now universally recognized as one of the greatest players of the 90’s, and one of the NBA’s most underrated personalities. Gary was annoying. He didn’t just defend with his size and quickness, he defended with his mouth. There was no better trash talker in the league, no one was more capable of getting inside an opponent’s head than Payton, with his half smile and slightly off-putting northern Californian accent. His jaw was always moving, I’m convinced that he was talking even when we thought he was just chewing gum. Annoying? Sure. Effective? Most definitely.

Payton is a free agent and the rumor is that, having won his championship already, he is not coming back to pro basketball. Not that I blame him. It has been painful to watch his decline. The worst of it was in 2003-2004, when he was with the Lakers and his numbers and happiness dipped. I knew then I would not see the 1996 Payton ever again. His speed went first, no longer could he stay with the fastest player on the opposing team, instead being regulated to guarding the opponent’s shooting guard. His relentless drives to the hole were a thing of the past, Payton struggled to develop a jumper, to no avail. Unable to adapt his game to his age, Patyon’s minutes and usefulness decreased. What never changed was his fire, his desire to win, and his will to work as hard as he needed to get there.

I can’t say much is going to change without Payton. I’m going to miss his presence, but he hasn’t been the same for four years. I’ve found new players to idolize, Richard Hamilton, Shane Battier, and Tim Duncan come to mind, but no one player so captivated me and inflicted my love of basketball as the glove.

Because people seem to forget how good he was. Below are the numbers from Payton’s best season, 99-00, numbers that could have won him MVP and show exactly how spectacular this player used to be:

24.2 ppg; 49% fg; 8.9 apg; 6.4 rpg; 1.9 spg

Thanks for the memories Gary

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