Gary Payton had quite the opportunity in just the second NBA game of his career. Payton’s Seattle SuperSonics hosted Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, giving GP the chance to go against one of the greatest point guards in the history of the game. But The Glove cared little for showing Zeke the slightest bit of reverence in the first meeting between the two.
Today, Payton is regarded as one of the most formidable trash-talkers in NBA history. As Thomas stated, GP worked for that label from the very start of his career.
Gary Payton talked smack to Pistons legend Isiah Thomas in his second-ever NBA game
Gary Payton never crossed paths with Isiah Thomas as he rose through the ranks.
Born in Oakland, Payton went on to star at Oregon State. The Sonics made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft as their point guard of the future. Meanwhile, Thomas already cemented himself as an all-time great, with the Pistons winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 and earning dynasty status in the process.
Still, Zeke’s gravitas and the Pistons’ status meant very little to Payton. Although GP likely understood how Zeke and the “Bad Boys” impacted the game, he wanted to compete. So when he met Thomas in just his second game, he went right after the Pistons great.
Zeke said (via The Athletic) that Payton barked at him throughout the contest, despite Thomas having no clue who Payton was at the time.
“I catch the basketball, and all I hear is, ‘(inaudible sound).’ I can’t repeat what [Payton] was saying. And I’m holding the basketball, and I’m looking at him. And then I had to turn around, and I was like, ‘Is he really talking to me?’ He was talking so much trash.”–Isiah Thomas on his first time meeting Gary Payton
Thomas said that Payton’s chatter totally threw him off his game.
Zeke explained that The Glove kept running his mouth every time he caught the ball and started dribbling. Thomas felt so shocked by the rookie’s audaciousness that he picked up the ball “just to, like, look at him.”
Payton had provided quite the introduction. The stats also reflect the impact his trash-talk had on Thomas during that Nov. 6, 1991 meeting.
Payton shut Thomas down
The Glove’s numbers in his first matchup with Isiah Thomas and the Pistons hardly jump off the page. He took just eight shots and scored nine points, also dishing out six assists in 31 minutes.
However, true to form, GP made his presence felt on the other end of the floor.
Payton helped hold Thomas to just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Zeke also committed five turnovers, with The Glove racking up three steals. That defensive effort bolstered the Sonics en route to victory.
In many ways, Payton’s performance against Thomas provided an appetizer for the remainder of his career. The brash Sonics star went through growing pains, getting choked by a teammate and learning not to mess with Larry Bird.
Ultimately, though, the nine-time All-Star became one of the best point guards of the decade, thanks primarily to his superb defense. Indeed, Payton always backed up his talk with on-court brilliance.
The Glove had a Hall of Fame career
Gary Payton became a beloved figure in Seattle as he charted a path to Springfield.
The Glove made nine All-NBA teams and nine All-Defensive teams in his career. He won the 1995-96 Defensive Player of the Year Award and led the Sonics to the Finals that same season.
Despite Michael Jordan saying he had “no problem” with GP, Payton’s relentless efforts resulted in MJ posting his lowest field-goal percentage in a Finals series. The Glove still says John Stockton proved harder to guard than Jordan.
But while Payton backed up his talk with big-time game, he had to wait for quite some time before adding the crown jewel to his NBA resume. That finally arrived in 2006 as a member of the Miami Heat. Interestingly, Payton made an offensive play to change the ’06 Finals, as his baseline jumper with nine seconds left gave the Heat life in a series they previously trailed two games to none.
Payton’s arrogance and skill helped make him one of the best point guards in league history. The same can be said of his ferocious competitiveness, which Isiah Thomas learned from the jump.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.