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In the pantheon of NBA legends, few names loom larger than Jerry West. In addition to his playing career — you know, the one that earned him the honor of being the Association’s logo — the West Virginia native spent plenty of time in front offices. There, he played a role in creating the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant dynamic duo, got the Memphis Grizzlies on the right track, and contributed to both the Warriors and the Clippers. But did you know that he also set Gary Payton up for basketball success without saying a word?

Yes, you read that correctly. Let’s take a trip back in time to the Glove’s college days and revisit the time he offended Jerry West and changed NBA history.

Gary Payton drop-kicked the ball the length of the court against UCLA, which caused Jerry West to call it a night

Gary Payton (L) and Jerry West (R)
Jerry West didn’t seem to be a fan of Gary Payton’s antics in college. | Tom Pennington/Getty Images, Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

If you’ve watched any amount of sports, you’ve seen countless athletes lash out when things aren’t going their way. During his time in college, Gary Payton did just that.

As recounted in a 1990 story preserved on the Orlando Sentinel’s website, the guard’s exploits included throwing a piece of chewed gum at an Oregon cheerleader and drop-kicking a ball the length of the floor at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. A Washington Post write-up contained some further details about the latter incident.

“Jerry West was there the night Payton pulled his Garo Yepremian act at Pauley,” David Kahn recounted. “A few minutes after the incident, West, the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager, was seen leaving his seat.”

While the story didn’t specify, it’s safe to assume that West, the Lakers general manager, was there to scout the Glove to gauge his professional potential. His reaction, however, suggests that he had seen enough.

That didn’t mean that Payton came out a loser, though. If anything, the NBA legend’s early exit helped send an important message.

“News of West’s walkout was passed along to Payton, who vowed to scrub clean his on-court behavior,” Kahn continued. “With help from his closest friend, Aaron Goodwin of Oakland, Payton has made long strides this season toward toning down his extracurricular activities. Payton still loves to ‘talk a good game,’ as he puts it, but he is several decibels quieter than before.”

Without that lesson, who knows what would have happened to Gary Payton

Both in sports and life, there are moments that prove to send someone down one path rather than the other. In Gary Payton’s case, it’s possible that hearing Jerry West walked out got him on the right track.

Beyond Kahn’s Washington Post story, the event and Payton’s subsequent change of behavior were also noted in Curry Kirkpatrick’s March 1990 Sports Illustrated piece about the guard.

“Payton has toned down,” he explained. “Last season he kicked a ball in disgust at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, shortly after which Los Angeles Laker general manager Jerry West left the game. Friends of Payton’s say that’s when he realized the pros were tiring of his antics.”

Shortly after that story hit the press, the Glove went second overall in the 1990 NBA draft. He landed in Seattle and, after some growing pains, emerged as a legitimate do-it-all player. He eventually left the Pacific Northwest and bounced around a bit before earning a championship ring in Miami and ultimately calling it a career.

Now imagine if Payton hadn’t gotten his attitude in check. Perhaps he would have slipped down the draft order and landed on a team where he wouldn’t have been more than a bench warmer. Maybe he would have started to flex his metaphorical muscles, only to get suspended and lose all momentum. Ask any veteran sports fan, and they can tell you about a player who possessed all the talent in the world but couldn’t keep on track at the professional level.

So let’s pretend that, for whatever reason, Gary Payton dropped off the NBA map before he ever arrived. Beyond the on-court impact — Seattle would have probably ended up drafting Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who, despite some solid seasons, wouldn’t match the Glove’s status — there would be some further ripple effects.

Consider, for example, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. As the story goes, both of those stars received a defensive crash course from Payton. Without those lessons, they’d be different players, at the very least. In a more drastic scenario, perhaps some NBA championships would have gone to other teams.

And on the subject of titles, Payton also played a key role in the Miami Heat’s 2006 championship run. While he was past his prime by that point, the guard still commanded plenty of respect in the locker room. When he told everyone, including Shaquille O’Neal, to let Dwyane Wade run the show, they listened. From there, the rest is history.

And to think, if Gary Payton didn’t drop-kick that ball, everything could look rather different.


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