By Glenn Nelson
The Seattle Times
OAKLAND – The rhythm of the streets emanates from the pumped-up stereo system of a ragtop BMW 325i that cruises High Street, a barren thoroughfare in the heart of East Oakland.
High Street is scarred with vacant, boarded-over storefronts – most victims of the area’s endemic crime. Businesses hearty enough to persevere are braced by steel bars – mini-fortresses against the street’s elements.
The litter and burned-out automobiles that mark the inner cities of the East Coast are conspicuously absent here. The infamous mean streets of California’s Bay Area are surprisingly clean.
Welcome to Payton’s Place.
“Whatever you’re looking for, you can find here,” says Gary Payton, pilot of the sleek, black craft and rookie point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics. “If you want to get into it, you can get into it.”
In East Oakland, the dirt is hidden, ground-in dirt.
Like an experienced dry cleaner, Payton can head right to the grime. Eightieth Avenue – home of the 80 Boys. Seventy-seventh Avenue – home of the 77 Boys. A project on 69th – home of the 69 Vils. During Payton’s childhood, East Oakland was carved into pieces and parceled out like franchises to the drug gangs.
Payton’s neighborhood, a cozy, middle-class oasis amid East Oakland’s desert of crime, is closest to the turf of the High Street Bank Boys. Their grip loosened when Little D, the gang’s leader, was busted for dealing. Little D is a long-time companion of Payton’s who hung out and shared meals at the Payton household.
Respecting Payton’s basketball talent, and its potential for ushering him off the streets, Little D never tried to recruit his pal into the High Street Bank Boys. He offered cars and money to help ease Payton’s stay at Oregon State. Payton accepted only friendship.
“It makes me feel good that he’s in jail, bragging on me,” Payton says. “Just because a person sells dope doesn’t mean he’s bad inside. I couldn’t put him down because that was the life he wanted to be in.”
Payton speaks openly of his life-long association with East Oakland drug dealers (“I probably know every dealer in Oakland,” he says). While he always embraced them as people, he never embraced their lifestyle. It wasn’t until recently that most of them returned any respect for his.
“There was a lot of jealousy over Gary because of basketball,” says Payton’s mother, Annie. “He wasn’t safe out there. They respect Gary now that he’s moved out of Oak-town.”
Once, Payton took every available means to remain inconspicuous on the streets of East Oakland. Now he does everything, save deck himself in neon, to remain visible. Tipped by the 2 GEE PEE vanity plates, area residents herald the passage of Payton’s automobile with tooting horns, waving hands and cries of, “Yo, Gary! Sign that contract yet?”
He is East Oakland’s new, unsullied symbol of prosperity.
“See this Caddy?” Payton asks, accelerating his BMW past a gold Cadillac. “The kids grow up seeing the drug dealers cruising around in cars like this. This is what they grow up thinking they want. They grow up thinking selling drugs is the way to get it.”
Payton knows better. He hit the books hard enough, and the open man often enough, to make the big score. He dealt assists instead of drugs and shot jumpers instead of dope.
That’s the message Payton delivered to youngsters at the East Oakland Development Youth Center and during basketball camps in Seattle last summer. He does the same during frequent visits to old teachers, counselors and coaches at Skyline High School.
“I made a big impact on the kids here, I guess,” Payton says, tooling his BMW off the Skyline campus. “So I come back as often as I can.”
It took 22 years to get away.
East Oakland was a battleground where the Payton family fought the streets and their drug-tainted temptations for control over the soul of their son and kid brother. It was a war the Paytons didn’t expect to wage. The area changed dramatically during the seven years that intervened between the birth of Al and Annie Payton’s fourth child, Alfred, and their fifth, Gary.
“The other kids we never worried about,” Annie Payton says. “But we were worried about Gary getting out of here. Things changed so much by the time he came along, and he was the kind of kid who was easily led.”
That being so, Al Payton was the perfect father. Reared in Mississippi by a great aunt on old-fashioned Southern values, he is the kind of man who is easily followed. In recognition of his no-nonsense ways, the kids he coached during summers in the Oakland Neighborhood Basketball League dubbed him, “Mr. Mean.” That’s what it says on the license plate of his Nissan 280Z.
The Mean-mobile was Gary’s transportation of choice, though his father gave him a 1967 Chevy (license plate: MR ICY) in high school. Gary burned out two engines making the trek up the steep, windy road to Skyline High, but his father kept replacing them.
Al Payton didn’t stop at engines. If his son needed $100 sneakers, Al bought them. Gary also had clothes when he wanted them, and $5-10 in his pocket every day. Al Payton worked as a chef at a Hayward restaurant in the morning, another shift at a restaurant in Oakland in the evenings and, occasionally, took part-time work at a local cannery – all so his youngest son would never go wanting.
“Money changes people’s minds,” Al Payton says. “I made sure Gary never had to sell drugs to get any.”
In his efforts to keep Gary diverted from East Oakland’s drug scene, Al Payton found a natural ally in basketball. A good portion of the Paytons’ living room serves as a shrine to Gary’s basketball exploits; autographed balls, portraits and over 80 trophies jam converted bookcases. The collection began when Gary was in the sixth grade and his father entered a team in the ONBL, called it, “The Family” and left no doubts about who was its patriarch.
Near the end of every summer, Al Payton raised as much money as he could, often made up any shortfall, then piled an all-star team into a single van and drove all night to tournaments in San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
It was during those summers that Al Payton drummed into his son’s head the importance of defense and passing. Whenever Gary didn’t defend or pass to his liking, Al would level the ultimate form of punishment – he’d jerk his son from the game.
“I may have whopped my kids a few times, but I really believed that, rather than whopping them, I’d take something away,” Al says. “With Gary, I knew he loved to play. So if he did something wrong, I sat him down. Once I sat him down and put him back in, he’d take it out on the opponents.”
All the give and take essentially turned Gary into an Al Payton knockoff. His walk and talk, his attitude and style of play, his love for flashy cars and disdain of drugs all were inherited from his father. Al, who played his college ball at Alcorn A&M, even preceded Gary in donning a single diamond earring. Like father, like son.
“Gary was the baby, and Al put a lot of time and effort into him,” Annie says. “And Gary listens to him. Whatever Al says, Gary will do.”
One day, Al Payton informed his son that he’d be heading up the hill, instead of down the street, for high school. Typically, Gary obeyed.
Skyline High School sits above all the drug-related high jinx of East Oakland. It is nestled amid a prosperous, mostly white neighborhood atop the East Bay Hills, which offer spectacular views of Oakland and San Francisco Bay. It is a place of tanning salons and fresh-fish markets, an utterly different world offering almost heavenly contrast to the hellhole of crime and boarded-over storefronts that looms below it.
Skyline has one of the city’s more-renowned curriculums, but never had won a title in the Oakland Athletic League (OAL). Al Payton was more concerned with books than basketball.
Gary Payton was to follow his friends to nearby Fremont High School. Shortly before he was to enroll, a youth was stabbed to death during a fight on the Fremont playground, and his family’s worst fears were confirmed. Their petition to have Gary transferred to Skyline was accepted after some forceful lobbying by Al.
During his sophomore year, Payton was suspended from the basketball team for half a season because of poor grades and attitude. Skyline finished that
season a disappointing 1-9 in league play. After consecutive one-day suspensions for clowning around in class didn’t elicit a desired effect, a Skyline teacher finally put in a call to Mr. Mean.
Enraged, Al Payton stormed into his son’s math class and humiliated Gary into submission.
“Gary wanted to go to class and be a comedian,” Al recalls. “Because he was a basketball player, he didn’t think he had to do anything else. I went in there and told his classmates, `I’m going to show you all that he’s not a little man, he’s a little baby.’ And I kind of spanked him in front of everyone. That was that. Even in college, all anyone had to do was say, `I’m going to call your father,’ and Gary would straighten right up.”
What Al Payton did was set his son on a road that would unfold naturally as time passed.
Gary took up with Pam Sims, a 4.0 student and gifted athlete who later earned a full athletic scholarship at Stanford. At the same time, the NCAA passed minimum requirements for its student-athletes. Payton’s devotion to academics blossomed when it became apparent a collegiate basketball career was in his future. Charleen Calvert, Payton’s Skyline counselor, remembers arguing with Gary over whether he should take a physiology course. Payton relented, and earned a B.
“Gary will try to give credit to a lot of other people, but really he did it himself,” Calvert says. “I think a lot of it had to do with basketball, when he realized how good he was on the court.”
Fred Noel, Payton’s Skyline coach, says, “When Gary first came up, he was the cockiest mother – you just wanted to kick him in the butt. I learned that he will do anything necessary to play basketball.”
The basketball court was where Payton could indulge his yen for self-expression. As in the inner-city, talking long has been a central part of basketball’s culture. On the streets, verbal warfare is as much a preemptive measure against, as it is a prelude to, physical warfare. Intimidate, and not be intimidated.
“My way is to talk to my opponent so he makes it a personal thing,” Payton says. “He starts playing me one-on-one, and forgets about his team. Meanwhile, I’m still playing team ball and eating him up. Some guys tried talking back, but you can’t get a talker when a talker’s talking to you.”
Al Payton clearly was the one who set his son’s tongue wagging. Eldest sister Sharon, an accomplished trash-talking softball player who raised Gary while their parents worked, kept the banter going. Older brothers, Greg and Alfred, who played some college ball at San Francisco State, also encouraged the verbose approach.
“As far as talking on the court was concerned,” Gary points out, “the whole family was behind me on that.”
Any doubts were laid to rest during Payton’s junior year at Oregon State. The Payton clan showed up in full force, about 50 strong, to a game against California at Harmon Gym in Berkeley. The woofing in the stands turned the game into a sideshow.
At halftime, Oski, the Cal Bear mascot who according to the Paytons and other witnesses was emboldened by a few nips of fermented honey, approached the family with a frosted layer cake. Thinking the cake was a fake, Annie Payton bolted from her seat and taunted Oski, “Throw it at me! Throw it at me!” Wobbly, Oski’s aim wasn’t true. The cake sailed over Annie’s head, and scored a direct hit on Greg, a minister.
The mascot was suspended for the rest of the season.
The Paytons frequently served as buffers for their loquacious basketball prodigy. Wary of surprise attacks, Al and Alfred escorted Gary to and from all his Skyline games. Skyline High is a member of the raucous OAL, where all games are played in the afternoon, often under the vigilance of Oakland police, and post-game jawing is de rigueur.
“The OAL is really intense because it is a community thing,” says Noel, the Skyline coach. “Guys living in the same neighborhood are playing for different schools, so there is a lot of taunting back and forth, a lot of putting my reputation against your reputation. There was a lot more at stake. In Oakland, talking is at least as important as playing the game.”
Al Payton believes Skyline, then predominantly white, fared poorly in the OAL because it was intimidated by the league’s mostly-black powerhouses. “They were scared to win,” he says, “because if you won in the OAL, you usually had to fight your way home.”
The fear dissolved when Gary Payton arrived at Skyline, but the OAL’s you-win-you-lose-afterward ways did not. Fremont became Skyline’s most bitter rival, largely because Payton and his old neighborhood pals would call and “talk about what we were going to do to each other.” Payton did them in a big way his senior year, beating Fremont on a last-second shot.
Immediately, someone said something to someone else, and the woofing escalated into a full-scale riot. Things were getting out of hand throughout the league, and the OAL drew the line. Its schools played their next games in near-isolation because students were banned from attending.
“Schools not only wanted to prove who had the best teams,” says Greg Foster, Payton’s 7-foot Skyline teammate who is now with the Washington Bullets, “they wanted to prove who had the best fans. They got after each other as hard as the players did.”
Talk is cheap, even in basketball, if it isn’t backed up. But Payton said, and did. He and Foster led Skyline to OAL titles and a combined 39-12 record during their junior and senior years. His last year there, Payton averaged 20.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists and was named all-state. Skyline will retire Payton’s No. 20 when the Sonics play Golden State Dec. 13 in Oakland.
Still, when college recruiters looked at Payton, many of them saw trouble. Most who paid calls to Skyline were there for Foster, who with Noel urged them to consider Payton. St. John’s Lou Carnesecca, who noticed Payton at the summer tournaments in Phoenix, didn’t need much convincing.
Yet, with Payton dressed in Redmen warmups waiting for a press conference at Skyline to announce his choice, Carnesecca called Noel to revoke his scholarship offer.
“Gary was devastated,” Al Payton says. “But it made him a better ballplayer. He wanted to prove Carnesecca made a mistake. Gary just kept getting better and better, hoping he’d get a chance to play St. John’s.”
Payton came closest his freshman year at Oregon State, but the Beavers lost to Cal in the second round of the 1987 NIT tournament. The victory earned the Bears a third-round matchup against the Redmen.
Oregon State had been Annie Payton’s first choice, but she had been outvoted. Al Payton had good vibes about Ralph Miller because while leaving a recruiting
visit to the Paytons’ house, the venerable Beaver coach told Gary, “I’m not calling anymore. If you want to come, you call me. If you don’t call, Oregon State will go on.”
Payton made the call, but wasn’t that brash a Beaver – at first. The St. John’s episode had beaten him down.
“I was really scared when I went to Oregon State,” Payton admits. “I wasn’t sure I could play at the college level. Losing the scholarship to St. John’s like that put ideas in my head. I began to think nobody wanted me, and wondered why.”
Miller says, “He might have walked in a little questioning, but after the first week, he was sure he could play. From the first time he walked on the floor, it was clear he had talent.”
And an unlikely thing happened. Payton, the streetwise rap-master floor general, and Miller, who’s been around long enough to have known basketball’s founding father, Dr. James Naismith, entered into a blissful union. Miller insisted only that Payton lose his outrageous haircut, let him keep his earring and his on-court verbosity, and turned over the reins to his team if Payton promised to play tough defense.
Payton shaved his head, as a freshman won the last defensive player of the year award ever conferred by the Pac-10, started every game for four years and ended his Oregon State career No. 2 on the NCAA’s all-time career lists for steals and assists.
An even odder coupling was the tempestuous, ear-piercing kid from the streets with the sleepy college town nestled in the calm, tree-punctured Willamette Valley. There was little more to do in Corvallis than go to classes, play basketball, study and sleep. Payton grew accustomed to the pace, but only after ringing up hundreds of dollars in phone bills, begging for a trip back to Oakland and complaining to his parents about how slo-o-o-w the place was.
“It was still slow by my senior year there, but I was adjusted to it,” Payton says. “Every summer, I started getting anxious to go back. Even now, part of me is saying it’s time for college to start and go back to Corvallis.”
The Pac-10 discovered, however, that you can take kid out of the streets, but not vice versa. Until Payton came along, “in your face” was a polite expression reserved for the southern reaches of the conference (as in, “That sun is really shining in your face.”). A communications major, Payton deftly turned the phrase – and the conference on its ear.
As a freshman, Payton hit a male Oregon cheerleader between the eyes with a wad of gum. The cheerleader, who’d invoked the inner-city fighting words, “hookhead,” against Payton, had to be restrained. Payton was not; to his relief, Pac-10 officials never invoked a code of silence against him.
With such impunity, Payton was his trash-talkingest best with the homeys in the Bay – Cal and Stanford. “Get someone out here who can guard me!” he screamed at the Cardinal bench when Stanford’s physical tactics “got under my skin” last year. He maintained a running verbal feud with Bear fans during visits to Berkeley.
“I started talking back, and it was like thousands against just Gary – who’s going to win?” Payton says. “It hyped me up. If somebody talks to me from the crowd, I can talk back because I can back it up. As soon as I do something good, they’re going to shut up.”
Further unleashed when Jimmy Anderson succeeded Miller his senior year, Payton scored 58 points against USC – the second-highest, single-game total in the NCAA last year and ever in the Pac-10. He finished as the conference’s fourth all-time leading scorer, a consensus All-American and Sports Illustrated’s college player of the year. The Sonics, who paid a private detective to perform a background check on Payton, used the highest pick in their history to take him No. 2 in the 1990 NBA draft.
Make no mistake, Payton will be talking in the pros. For one thing, he’s signed the second-richest endorsement contract, after David Robinson, that Nike ever has awarded an NBA rookie. He’ll be introduced as a Nike personality during a commercial tentatively scheduled to air in April.
Payton also figures that, by adding his shaved dome to those belonging to expressive Sonic teammates Xavier McDaniel and Sedale Threatt, he’ll never be lacking for conversation topics with hostile NBA crowds. Payton predicts the trio will be tabbed the “Three Bald Heads.” If they talk enough trash, they’ll probably go down as the Garbage Men.
“I may not talk as much as I did in college,” Payton says, “but I will express some things.”
When he’s through talking on the court, Payton aims to continue talking alongside it. He will finish the 35 hours needed for a broadcast communications degree from Oregon State via a correspondence course administered by the University of Washington. That will make him the first of the Paytons to graduate from college.
It’ll also usher him toward another long-term goal: “I want to be the black Dick Vitale,” he says, referring to the motor-mouthed television analyst. Imagine, Dickie V and Gary P – basketball in surround-sound.
In the meantime, the voice likely serving as background to Payton’s lead vocals will belong to Al. Payton expects to set up his father and brother, Alfred, with a chain of sports bar/restaurants in Oakland, Corvallis and, likely, Seattle. They’ll be called Payton’s Place, of course.
Payton already has purchased automobiles for himself and his parents, a condominium on Lake Union, and other luxuries. He will make $13.5 million over the next six years from the Sonics, starting with $2.1 million in 1990-91, and a bushel of Nike bucks over the next five, so Payton can afford to live as large as he wants.
That kind of change also will allow Payton to fund his own urban renewal project. His will be a human bridge out of inner-city Oakland. He was the first to cross; Milton Jackson, his closest friend since he was 5 years old, will follow.
Most of their childhood, the two played hoops on the Jefferson Elementary playground, around the corner from the Payton house. When Jackson broke his leg, he quit basketball, started selling drugs and running the streets. Payton’s tolerance reached its limit when East Oakland’s drug-dealing lifestyle touched his old pal.
“You’re going to have to change your life,” he told Jackson, “or we’re not buddies anymore.”
The breaking point came one day when Jackson was hanging out at a colleague’s house. He had just called Payton to say he was on his way over. If Jackson had left five minutes sooner, he would have avoided the raid by the Oakland police.
“As I was pulling off in the squad car, there was Gary outside looking at me,” Jackson recalls. “He had this look on his face. It wasn’t a mad look. It was a sad look, something inside. I knew I had to do something.
“Nobody else had been able to talk me into stopping. Nobody else really tried. It got to the point where I wasn’t close to anybody but Gary. I had lost contact with my parents. I had no other real friends. And Gary and I couldn’t really hang out together. I had to worry about something happening to him because he was with me.”
Jackson moved to Corvallis, where he stayed for three months during Payton’s junior year at Oregon State. When he returned to East Oakland, Jackson landed the first legitimate, full-time job of his life.
Anticipating his basketball-rooted riches, Payton offered his friend a gift – anything he wanted. Jackson chose opportunity, a college education, the same opportunity Payton took to escape the clutches of East Oakland’s high life. Delighted, Payton agreed, stipulating first that Jackson had to stay off the streets. He’s now footing the bill for tuition at Seattle University, where Jackson is majoring in criminal justice.
“This is what I asked for – just a second chance,” says Jackson, who lives with Payton in Seattle. “A lot of brothers I know are dead now because they didn’t get a chance, or didn’t take advantage of an opportunity when they had one. If Gary gets me through school, I’ll do the rest. It’ll be like a stone I’ll step on, and just keep climbing from there.
“I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this program,” he adds. “I’m thinking about working with juveniles. Maybe they just need to hear it from someone who’s been there. If you can reach just one kid, you feel like you did your job. That way, I can give something back.”
Just like Gary Payton did. And Al Payton before him.
Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.