Talking Smack And Pool With Gary Payton

July 23rd, 2015
by Laggin' Len

supersmakHe’ll Mock You, Taunt You, Dog You and Then Finally Beat You. So Why Is Gary Payton Still Everybody’s Best Friend?

GARY PAYTON IS FLAT-OUT PISSED. The Seattle Talking Smack point guard is standing tall and talking tough on the top floor of Jillian’s Billiards Club in Seattle. Nearby, startled pool players impulsively clutch their cue sticks tightly, then are amused when they realize the commotion is coming from the table of the NBA’s best guard, who also just happens to be the league’s least-guarded player off the court.

The sight itself is unusual: a pool table surrounded by several oversized men. But the loudest sounds are coming from one of the table’s smallest guys, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Payton.

“HOW COULD YOU STRIP ME OF MY TITLE?” asks Payton, GP to this crowd. “I WAS THE CHAMP 30 MINUTES AGO. No. 1. AND NOW I’M NOT?”

“Your title became vacant while you were inactive,” explains GP’s old high school pal Trev, who looks like a bouncer and enforces the crew’s daily pool-hall rankings with the toughness of one.

“Gotta work your way back up, GP,” says OP, Sonics center Olden Polynice.

“INACTIVE? I WAS JUST DOING AN INTERVIEW WHILE THE UNDERCARD BOUTS WERE GOING ON. EXPLAIN TO ME HOW I LOST MY TITLE.”

“Just pick up a stick and earn your title back–the hard way,” says Vin, a.k.a. All-Star power forward Vin Baker, the newly anointed No. 1-ranked billiards man among this crew.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU TOOK THE TITLE FROM ME. I GET TREATED JUST LIKE TYSON! SOMEONE’S GETTING KNOCKED OUT! WHO AM I BEATING?”

“You’re playing me, if that’s what you’re asking,” says OP. “For $200.”

“I’M PLAYING YOU? YOU’RE LIKE No. 7,000 IN THE POWER RANKINGS.”

“I’m gonna beat you just the same,” says OP.

“NO WAY POSSIBLE. LET’S JUST END THAT THOUGHT RIGHT THERE. START RACKING.”

SuperSonics guard Hersey Hawkins: “Gary became an elite-level guard in this league when we named him captain a couple years ago. Once he was captain, he learned that you needed to talk to different people in different ways. I’m one of the best examples of that because I’m a quiet guy by nature, which isn’t Gary’s nature. When he was named captain, he started talking to me differently. He’d pull me aside and whisper in a calm tone, `Hey, Hawk, we need you to do this.’ Someone like OP, though, who’s demonstrative and loud, he’ll know to talk to him in his own language. Gary will be like, `OP! Set the pick? That’s why young guys in the league and old guys in the league all like Gary–because he can relate to them all. He’s real. He’s gotten a little bit more mellow over the years. I don’t know if it’s because he’s married or he’s getting older. It’s probably a combination. But he’s the type of guy everybody wants to have as a friend. If he’s your friend, he’ll stand and fight for you no matter what. It makes you want to do the same for him.”

GP vs. OP

The game on the table is winding down. GP and OP each have three balls to go. Dressed head to toe in stylish Nike sweats, GP is talking on his cell phone to his wife Monique, getting an update on her day and their three kids. Munching on chicken wings and eying OP at the pool table, he tells her about new coach Paul Westphal’s three-hour practice. The 7-foot center interrupts his shot and GP’s phone call to ask, “Who you calling? Minnesota Fats for advice?” Payton covers the phone and bellows, “I DON’T NEED MINNESOTA FATS TO BEAT YOU!” GP hangs up the cell and goes on a roll. One ball sinks in the comer pocket, two others in the side. Each made shot is greeted with a “THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT RIGHT THERE.” After sinking the eight ball, GP is ready for his next tune-up fight. “THERE! NOW THAT I TOOK YOUR CHUNKY $200, OP, GO SIT DOWN!”

Seattle Times Sonics beat writer Nunyo Demasio: “The first time I met Gary I was telling him how I played Tarik Turner, the point guard at my old school, St. John’s, and that he only beat me 5-4 in a one-on-one. Right then, Gary said, `That ain’t happening here.’ I said, `What are you talking about?’ He said, `You ain’t ever getting four points off me if we play, so let’s just end that thought right there.’ I wasn’t even thinking of playing him one-on-one, but that’s how competitive he is. I was just telling him an old story, and he took it as a challenge.”

GP vs. Jeff

“JEFF? HE’S TERRIBLE. AND HE JUST GOT HERE WHEN ME AND OP WERE PLAYING. YOU’RE GONNA MAKE AN IBF, WBC, WBA CHAMP FIGHT A LATECOMING SPARRING PARTNER?”

“An ex-WBA, ex-WBC and ex-IBF champ,” points out Jeff, a perennial top-three Jillian’s contender who has the body frame of an NBA combo guard himself. The 30-year-old Payton, who finished third in the 1997-98 NBA MVP balloting, eyes his competition and simply says, “RACK ‘EM!”

GP and Jeff are locked in a game in which neither is making any shots. “I’M MISSING FREE THROWS HERE. SEE, THAT’S WHY I CAN’T BE PLAYIN’ JEFF. IT’S LIKE PLAYING THE CLIPPERS OR RAPTORS. THEY BRING YOUR GAME DOWN.”

Jeff finally sinks the first ball in this already long game. “Got me an uppercut right there.” GP shoots him one of those cockeyed stares he normally fixes on point guards like John Crotty. You know the look: He starts wagging his head and either shows his teeth, mocks you with his eyes or pulls his shorts up as if he’s riding Trigger. His body language screams to the Crottys of the NBA, “Do you actually think you can get your team into its offense while I’m guarding you?”

“UPPERCUT? UPPERCUT? JEFF THINK HE GAVE ME AN UPPERCUT. DIDN’T HE REALIZE I WAS JUST PLAYING ROPE-A-DOPE? ONE SHOT AND YOU START TALKING. I WAS JUST PLAYIN’ AROUND, AND NOW YOU DONE WOKE ME UP.”

Jeff misses his next shot, and GP gets in a zone, making his next five. The verbal spankings get louder: “SEE HOW HE TALKING! LIKE HE’S THE BEST SPARRING PARTNER IN THE WORLD. JEFF, WHY ARE YOU EVEN IN THIS ROTATION? YOUR RANKING JUST SLIPPED ANOTHER 10,000. YOUR GAME IS DISGUSTING. DISGUSTING!”

Vin grabs a white napkin and throws it on the table in a symbolic gesture. He hugs the blowout victim like a trainer would a disabled fighter and declares, “It’s over, Jeff. We’ll come back to fight another day.” CJ, Marty, Big Ed–the whole crew–break out in laughter. GP, howling, keels over on the pool table, grabbing his belly. Jeff is spared further verbal assault.

Payton: “These young people talking these days crack me up. I used to be the same way until I learned the hard way. Stephon Marbury said, `Allen Iverson is the best point guard in the game and Stephon Marbury’s second.’ Can you believe that? All that is laughter to me because he’s a young guy, and he wants to talk up his buddy. Me and Allen are very tight ourselves. I bet he laughed about it too. If Stephon got that much confidence in himself, he hasn’t proved it.

“Don’t go in the books and say it. Prove it. I play him and I remember stuff like that. And that’s all I do. I just take it to another level. He’s a great talent, I’ll never take that away from him. But he gotta understand, he gotta see me sometime. And Rod Strickland and John Stockton too. If he feels that way, he’s gonna see a lot of us.”

GP vs. Vin

GP wants his title back, and Vin is somewhat willing to give him the opportunity. “I’ll put up my IBF belt, but not my WBA or WBC,” says Vin.

“I WANT THE WBC ON THE LINE TOO.”

There’s a reason for the boxing rap. “WE ALL FIGHTERS AT HEART. ME, I’M TYSON FROM ’88, WHEN HE WAS GOOD. VIN, HE’S RIDDICK BOWE. HOPPS IS MICHAEL MOORER. OP IS A POOL COMBINATION OF GERRY COONEY AND FRANK BRUNO. JEFF, HE’S PETER McNEELEY.”

Ding-ding. The bout begins. GP has the advantage throughout, but then sinks the cue ball along with the eight ball on his game-winning attempt. “That’s a $100 mistake,” says Vin.

“DON’T TELL ME YOU WANNA WIN THE BELTS THAT WAY. DON’T TELL ME THAT, VIN.”

“OK,” says Vin. “Rack ’em again.” He whispers to the onlookers around the hall: “He hates, hates to lose.”

Ding-ding. The bout begins and ends just as the previous one, with Vin telling GP before his game-winning attempt to “keep both feet on the floor.” Again Vin celebrates, this time in GP style. “I’m No. 1! I got all my titles!”

“I CAN’T BELIEVE HE GOT ME WITH THAT KEEP-YOUR-FEET -ON-THE-FLOOR ROUTINE. THAT’S MY LINE. CAN’T BELIEVE I LISTENED TO THAT.”

Trev, Hopps, CJ, Marty–personal assistants on GP’s payroll and his boyhood friends from either Oakland, Calif., or Eugene, Ore.–all smile and laugh with Vin. Trev, though, offers the most telling line. “Oh, this ain’t over,” he says. “Gary’s gonna want one more game.”

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire, Phoenix Suns guard Jason Kidd and teammate Baker:

Stoudamire: “G’s from the streets, and I think everybody knows that. But at the same time, he’s also a family man, a father, and those are probably things people don’t know about him. I think that’s the reason he’s popular with all the players. Growing up in Portland, I watched him a lot in college at Oregon State. He was always there for me when I had questions. He’s my big brother. He’s big brother to a lot of us younger guys. We grew up respecting him. When we signed our big contracts, G was one of the first people we called.”

Kidd: “Gary has always been my teacher and always will be. Since I was 15 and growing up in the Bay Area, and now that I’m an All-Star in the league, I still listen to everything he has to say. He taught me most of what I know.”

Baker: “I didn’t grow up knowing him personally like some other guys, but when I made the All-Star team for the first time when I was with the Bucks, first thing I did when I saw him was tell him how much I respected his game and his attitude. That was before I even knew him. Now he’s my best friend. He’s big brother to a lot of us. That’s what we call him, Big Brother, because he’s always watching out for us. And he’s so competitive in everything he does, he always finds a way to come out on top in the end and always makes everyone around him better. He definitely helped change my outlook on the game. No doubt, you could make the argument that he’s the best player in the game today.”

GP vs. Vin, the Rematch

“Big Brother,” says Vin to GP, “you ready to leave?”

“VIN, YOU KNOW YOU DIDN’T BEAT ME. I BEAT MYSELF. I KNOW YOU DON’T WANT TO WIN THAT WAY, DO YA? I KNOW YOU DON’T.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I SAY NOW WE CALL DON KING AND PUT ON THE BLOCKBUSTER PAY-PER-VIEW HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHT OF THE DECADE. THIRTY MILLION TO ME, THIRTY MILLION TO YOU. ALL THE BELTS ON THE LINE.”

“Let’s get ready to rumblllle.”

GP works the hand pads with Hopps, Vin gets the rubdown pep talk from Jeff. The two meet and the Brawl in the Billiard Hall begins. GP follows a successful break by sinking two stripes. Vin counters with two solids. The counterpunching continues until nothing but the eight ball and cue ball remain.

GP is left with an impossible shot. The cue ball is touching the eight, and his only attempt at a game-winner is to bank the shot off one side and into the opposing side pocket. “A 100-to-1 shot,” says CJ.

GP leans over the table, both feet on the floor. His diamond-studded earring sparkles brighter than ever, his two pagers hang from his sweats. Someone more devious than Vin would page him right now. Finally, GP strikes the cue ball and drops the eight ball into the side pocket. Payton knocks out Baker.

“YEAH! PUT THAT IN YOUR STORY! YEAH! YEAH!”

“Oh, I can’t believe this,” Vin says. “You see what I’m talking about? Remember what I told you, how he always finds a way to win? This is exactly what I’m talking about.” He then collapses on the pool table like the KO’d victim he is, covering it with his 6-11, 250-pound frame.

GP tries to revive his friend, saying, “YOU’RE GOOD. YOU’RE GOOD. I’M GREAT. BUT YOU FIGHT LIKE A SON OF A BITCH.”

As the crew exits the hall, Trev mutters over and over, “one hell of a shot,” while GP calls home to his main crew. Vin makes one last request. “When you write your piece, make sure you take care of my Big Brother, OK?”

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