Gary Payton showed up at Las Vegas’ Spring Valley High School one evening in late 2010 waiting to be impressed. His son, Gary Payton II, was a junior, and the beneficiary of a recent growth spurt that made him nearly as tall as his old man. Payton saw the rough outline of a basketball player in his son — long arms, springs in his legs — but something was missing.
The elder Payton noticed none of the competitive fire that made him a Hall of Fame point guard. For a man who had no reservations about talking trash to Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals, watching his son’s passive, almost apathetic approach to the game drove him mad. So Payton got up and left the stands.
Payton sought out Darrel Jordan, Payton II’s AAU coach and trainer, and told him he didn’t think his son had the attitude to be a good player. Then, back at home, he lit into his kid.
“He was soft. He was really soft,” Payton told SB Nation. “I told him, I just told my son straight up — I don’t like your game. I don’t think you’re good enough to play at the next level or any level. I don’t have to waste my time coming here.”
Going through adolescence with the same name as his famous father was difficult enough for Gary Payton II. Playing a game he wasn’t sure he loved under the ruthless guidance of a legend only made things harder. The truth is that Payton II has never been wired the same way as his dad: while the senior Payton’s brash personality became synonymous with his incredible talent, the younger Gary Payton had a disposition more in line with his mother, Monique.
GPII was calm and thoughtful, decidedly nice and universally liked by anyone who met him. Only in the cutthroat world of sports can those descriptors become pejoratives. Payton II acknowledges today this was a time in his life when he dreaded the thought of his father coming to his games.
“I didn’t know how to handle it with him in my ear,” Payton II said. “It really got to me. Just playing in high school, he used to be there yelling and screaming. I broke down and really got off my game. I didn’t want to play.”
The same tough love that almost broke Payton II eventually prompted hard work, motivating him to spend his summers in the gym working on his body and his game. That timid high schooler who once wore his father’s legacy like a burden is now attacking it at Oregon State, hoping to power a school back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since a senior guard named Gary Payton last led them there in 1990.
Despite his celebrated name and those famous genes, Payton II‘s star turn was far from a given. He’s only able to speak with perspective about the past, and excitement about Oregon State‘s future, because he knows how far he’s come. “It’s just life,” Payton II said. “There’s lessons you learn.”
Before his criticism finally struck a nerve, the senior Payton wondered if the difference in upbringing between him and his son was too much to overcome.
Gary Payton was raised in Oakland by a stern father affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Mean.” By all accounts, Gary took after his father, Al, who did all he could to keep Gary away from the neighborhood temptations of drugs and gangs. “I probably knew every drug dealer in Oakland,” Payton once told the Seattle Times, but most of his life’s drama revolved around hopping fences and getting into fights to play pickup ball.
Gary Payton II did not grow up that way. He was raised in mansions and with expensive cars, acting as the ball boy at NBA arenas before he ever truly grasped the magnitude of his father’s career. If Payton II didn’t exactly understand everything he had, those around him would never let him forget.
“Growing up it’s kinda tough to follow in the footsteps of a legend,” Payton II told SB Nation. “When your dad is a Hall of Famer, you know they expect you to be great instantly — just pick up those genes and follow behind that. I kinda shaded away from that.”
For a while, basketball felt like a chore for GPII. To hear both father and son tell it, the turning point was a byproduct of a late high school growth spurt and the inspiration that rose from Payton Sr.’s razor critiques.
Payton II decided to fully dedicate himself to the game the summer heading into his senior year, working tirelessly to become stronger, more agile and improve his skill set. Little by little, the quiet kid began to gain confidence and started looking like a late bloomer.
Still, in an era when high school recruiting rankings carry so much weight, Payton II’s name was nowhere to be found among elite peers. A non-academic qualifier, he spent a year at Westwind Prep School in Arizona, then transferred to Salt Lake Community College.
It was at junior college that Payton II really started to come into his own. Suddenly, GPII was stuffing the stat sheet on the way to being named a second-team NJCAA All-American. He had several D-I offers, including one from Oregon State. Gary Payton Sr. never believed he would take it, thinking his son would rather carve out his own name at St. Mary’s, a WCC school a fraction of the size of OSU.
After weighing his options for months, Payton II sent his family a long text message. It began by thanking them for their support, and ended with two words: “Go Beavs.”
Payton II would have been uneasy in his father’s shadow a few years earlier, but the decision to attend his dad’s alma mater proved that he was no longer scared. And once GPII felt free of that load, he was ready to write his own story.
It didn’t take Wayne Tinkle long to realize what he had in Gary Payton II. Tinkle wasn’t the man who recruited him to Oregon State, that would be former Beavers coach Craig Robinson. But prior to replacing Robinson, Tinkle had scouted GPII in junior college as the head coach of Montana.
Tinkle knew Payton II could run and jump with anyone. He was impressed by his feel for the game. And he was particularly struck by the way Payton II never let his foot off the gas in practice.
“When he got here people said, ‘He’s a gamer,'” Tinkle said. “He’s not going to give you all you want in practice but come game time he’ll be ready to go. He’s changed that now. He’s bringing the energy and game-type intensity to practice every day.”
“Gary II is every bit as competitive as his father. He just has a different personality.”
Despite his name, expectations were measured for Payton II when he arrived in Corvallis. His play quickly changed that. It only took him nine games to do something no other Beaver since his father had done: record a triple-double. Payton II proved his defense was incredible right away, and his offense was further along than anyone anticipated.
In 2014-15, Payton II led the country in steal rate, according to KenPom.com, on his way to becoming Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in his debut season of major college basketball. He also led the team in scoring and rebounding while finishing a close second in assists and blocks.
Oregon State finished 17-14, which surprised even Tinkle himself. For the Paytons, there was no doubt bigger things were waiting this season. Bolstered by a strong recruiting class led by Tres Tinkle, son of the head coach, and Stephen Thompson Jr., son of an Oregon State assistant, Payton II knew reinforcements were on the way. Now he had to take his game to the next level.
To do that, Gary Payton took his son the place he knows best: Oakland.
“This was probably his hardest summer,” Payton said. “I took him away from a lot of things. Gary usually wants to be around his friends in Vegas. I had him come here by himself. Just me and him.”
Payton Sr. stressed the importance of individual workouts, rather than the friendly, group atmosphere many of today’s players train under. When Payton II did go against other people, it wasn’t his friends: his father helped recruit Oakland native Damian Lillard and Compton’s DeMar DeRozan to show his son what the next level was going to be like.
Payton II will admit it wasn’t always fun, but at this point, there’s no arguing with the results.
Thanks to the summer workouts Payton II has taken his game to a higher place as a senior, and he’s taking the Beavers with him.
Oregon State went 9-2 through the non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a loss to then-No. 2 Kansas in a game OSU led by 11 at halftime. The Jayhawks’ comeback was swift and unforgiving, but Payton II said the game gave his team the confidence that they can play with anyone. Three weeks later, the Beavers beat in-state rival Oregon to start Pac-12 play. His team has showed its youth lately by losing three of four, but there’s still hope for a postseason run with its record at 11-6.
In the process, Payton II has embraced his role as Oregon State’s primary offensive option. He’s bumped his scoring average from 13.4 to 17.2 while dishing out two more assists per game. He’s done it while raising his efficiency levels across the board: shooting 51 percent from the field now, and improving behind the arc to a 32.3 three-point percentage.
Payton II is also capable of putting up some eye-popping rebounding numbers for a point guard, like the 15 boards he pulled down against Colorado or the four other times this season he finished with 11 rebounds.
“The only downside of it is our bigs sometimes just expect Gary to go get every one of them,” Tinkle joked about Payton II’s rebounding ability.
He’s also started to become a regular on highlight packages. The kid who couldn’t dunk a basketball until his senior year of high school is now making SportsCenter’s top plays by cramming on the Jayhawks and in-state archrival Oregon. As Payton II will be quick to point out, his father couldn’t get up like that.
Along the way, Payton II has shot up draft boards despite the fact that he’s four years older than many of the freshmen that will be taken in the lottery. ESPN’s Chad Ford had him at No. 21 in his latest Big Board. His father, now often seen in the first row cheering on both his son and his alma mater, isn’t leaving the gym out of frustration anymore.
“He’s done it on his own and he’s done it his own way,” Payton said. “A lot of people are saying he’s got big shoes to fill coming from the same school as his dad, but I told him at one point, make your own name. And that’s what he’s done. He’s made Gary II his own thing.
“He’s got his own style that a lot of people are recognizing. It’s not what he can do like his father. Now it’s what Gary II can do. And that’s what I like.”
As his profile has grown, so has the temptation to follow up on his father’s infamous nickname. Gary Payton II just wants you to know one thing: don’t call him ‘The Mitten.’
“I’ll let my dad have ‘The Glove’ thing,” he said. “My mom actually came up with a pretty good nickname. She calls me ‘The Thief.’ I pick a lot of people’s pockets. We’ll go with that.” His name, his choice.