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Gary Payton And The Art And Strategy Of “Talking Crazy”

Gary Payton of the Seattle SuperSonics sneering disdainfully at Jerry Stackhouse, who is trying to guard him in 2002. The cover of Rafi Kohan's book "Trash Talk" is at upper left.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Excerpted from Trash Talk: The Only Book About Destroying Your Rivals That Isn’t Total Garbage by Rafi Kohan. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Links to purchase can be found here.

The first time Phil Taylor saw Gary Payton play basketball, the NBA legend—a college senior at the time—was literally trash-talking the air. It was the end of practice, and Taylor, on assignment for the National sports newspaper, waited as Payton went through his final shooting drills, talking a whole lot of noise ... to nobody in particular.

Put your hand down. You can’t stop this.

Too late. Take the early bus and get here quicker next time.

Don’t even turn around. You know it went in.

Ooh, another one. How’d that feel?

Despite Payton’s already growing reputation for in-game chatter, the sportswriter didn’t know what to make of the young point guard and still marvels about it decades later: “I was just like, ‘He is talking to nobody!’”

For many trash-talkers, the goal behind their verbal assaults is to put psychological pressure on an opponent—to turn the rhetorical screws on that person and make him more acutely feel the stresses of competition; to add mental stress to what are already serious physical demands. When Payton entered the NBA, no one in the league was as relentless with his in-game antagonism—as committed to the loudmouthed craft—as the man who once taunted air. Taylor would hardly be the last person stunned by Payton’s volubility. In the middle of his second game as a professional—he was drafted in 1990 by the Seattle SuperSonics—Detroit Pistons superstar Isiah Thomas picked up the ball in the middle of the court and gawked at the gabbing rookie in disbelief. “He was talking so much trash,” says Thomas.

According to longtime Portland Trail Blazer Damon Stoudamire, Payton’s talk knew no bounds. Per Stoudamire: “This dude would follow you to the parking lot if he could.” Cheryl Miller, the Hall of Fame hooper and former NBA sideline reporter, tells me Payton is “the most intrusive human being on this planet,” while former Sonics teammate Michael Cage perfectly captured the mental and emotional fatigue of competing against him when he said, “When you’re done, you just want to go find a library or something, someplace totally silent.”

It wasn’t just the nonstop nature of Payton’s chatter. It was his hounding, hands-on defense and the infuriating way he’d manage to disparage your game even when you were succeeding against him. “If a guy scored on him, he would talk trash,” says Taylor. I hope somebody got footage of that shit, man, because you know you ain’t going to do that again. It was the way he’d chew his gum and bare his teeth, the way he’d cock his head and stick out his jaw—what veteran NBA reporter J.A. Adande calls his “presentation”—and then spit out some truly dismissive provocation or just some nonsensical shit, like threatening to hoist a jumper from the wrong side of the court. Dude, I will pull up from seventy-five feet! “He was just so cocky,” says Taylor. “He was so sure of himself at such a young age.”

Payton had a way with words, too. In contorting the English language to his competitive purposes, he somehow transformed the simple act of speaking into a kind of performance art. Everything just sounded different coming out of his mouth. “He would make up phrases and terms or change something with the pronunciation,” remembers Adande. Payton also had a nickname for everyone—players, coaches, executives, trainers, whomever—which revealed what George Karl, who coached Payton for seven years in Seattle and had a courtside seat for countless games and practice sessions, calls his “ways of seeing things.” Karl explains, “Instead of calling the referee a referee, he’d call them mayor or governor. ‘Who made you boss?’”

In his book Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season—a season-long meditation on race, the NBA, and Gary Payton, in particular—David Shields muses that “sometimes I think he is a machine meant solely for the production of language.” And while that language may not have made complete sense on occasion—“I could not understand what he was saying,” Sam Perkins, who spent six seasons as Payton’s teammate, has admitted—Payton always got his message across: he was coming for you, ready or not.

In many ways, talking trash was Gary Payton’s inheritance. The son of Al Payton, a man known as Mr. Mean throughout Oakland, California—it even said so on his license plate—Gary was an apt pupil of his father’s many lessons, which often centered on toughness and respect. Per Payton, “I got good at talking trash for one reason and one reason only. Because I saw my father do it so often in the streets.” Mr. Payton would also talk from the sidelines, as a youth coach in the Oakland Neighborhood Basketball League. It was the same attitude he wanted to instill in his kids. He’d tell Gary in particular: “If they talk shit to you, talk back to them.”

Al Payton was hard on his son. He never gave Gary the satisfaction of a compliment, while the threat of punishment always hung overhead. When Gary started acting up in school, his dad showed up to class to set him straight. Early magazine profiles of Payton refer to a turning point in his sophomore year, when his dad embarrassed him in front of his classmates. According to Mr. Payton, “I kind of spanked him in front of everyone”; according to Gary, “Wasn’t spanking. That’s a beating.” The previous year, a former classmate tells me, Mr. Payton did almost the same thing: “He came up to the school for the whole week. He sat in classes, came to practices. I’ve never seen nothing like that in my life.” Gary had to endure his teammates clowning him—Man, you got your daddy coming up here?!—but no one messed with Mr. Mean, who made clear to his son there could be a cost to flapping his gums, whether in school or on the court. He told Gary, “If you trash-talk and you can’t back it up, and you come home and you whooped, I’m gonna whoop you, too.”

On the one hand, he was instilling ideas about courage and accountability. But growing up in Oakland in the 1970s and ’80s, where drugs and violence brutalized the neighborhood and where perceptions mattered, he was also offering seminars in survival. “One of the things I always noticed, because I was good in every sport—it was rough and it wasn’t nothing but trash talk, everybody wanted to be hard,” says Bernard Ward, a onetime athletic standout, who played for Mr. Payton and shared a backcourt with Gary in the ninth grade. “I think it’s a defense mechanism. You had to be like that out here just to survive. If people see you on the street, and you’re weak, they’re going to take advantage of that. Know what I’m saying? Even if you ain’t tough, you got to act like you tough.” And talking trash was a way to act tough—to signal you were no pushover.

No one ever doubted the Paytons’ toughness. “When I played, I liked to hurt people,” the elder Payton once said. As a kid, Gary would travel to different neighborhoods around the city and challenge players on their local courts. Even there, on alien asphalt, he would bring his swaggering verbal game, which broadcast a message of unblinking toughness. “You knew you had to do it or you’d be punked all the time,” Payton has said. At times, Gary’s mouth would get him into trouble, even as a preteen. Guys at the park would conspire to jump the young player—to rough him up and exact a physical toll for his big talk. To see how tough he really was. But Mr. Payton wouldn’t allow that. He’d intervene and tell them to take it up with him instead. And then, as Payton puts it, “my dad’s suddenly in the middle of a brawl on the playground.”

Official games weren’t much better.

In high school, as a star guard for Skyline High, Payton competed in the Oakland Athletic League (OAL), which infamously played in the afternoon instead of the evening and typically under the surveillance of armed guards. “How crazy is that? We had to play our high school games, varsity games, at 3:30 p.m. because of the violence and the stuff that was going on. A part of that was trash talk,” says Ward, who played for a rival school. “I remember one year they banned the fans.” Fred Noel, who coached Payton at Skyline, described the verbal battles in the OAL as being “as important as the game itself.” He said, “There is a lot of taunting back and forth, a lot of putting my reputation against your reputation.” It wasn’t just the players that would talk. As Payton told Sports Illustrated in 1990, “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.”

For Payton, trash talk was in the air and in his gene pool. It was an environmental and cultural imperative. But it was never perfunctory. As a child of only ten or eleven, he recognized his brash talk was already eliciting emotional responses from opponents on the playground—his father’s sideline scuffles testified to that—and understood his words were doing more than communicating the neighborhood language of necessary machismo; they also held utilitarian value. If Payton could use his mouth to mess up another player’s performance—to disturb or anger that player—that meant trash talk was a legitimate tool of competition. As Payton says of those early observations, “They started getting mad and they started changing their game. I was like, ‘You’re mad at me, but I am killing you.’ I just said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ And I kept doing it.”

He did it in the playgrounds, where he built his name. He did it at Skyline, where he induced boneheaded fouls and sent rival players to the bench. He did it in college at Oregon State University, where he grew even more self-assured, more aggressive, barking at opposing coaches (Get somebody out here who can guard me! I’m going to tear his ass up!) and terrorizing their guards with that Oakland-grown bravado (Man, why are you out here?!). And he did it in the NBA, where he entered every game with a plan to “talk crazy,” as he puts it, or do whatever else might be required to upset the equilibrium of an opponent. One go-to tactic, for instance, was to pseudo-encourage an opponent by saying, “Come on, pick your motherfucking game up,” and then: “POW! Slap him on his ass hella hard.”

Payton assures me, “That will get somebody mad.”

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