One Tough Player
Payton grew up playing street basketball in Oakland, California. From a young age, the other young men he played with there taught him how to be tough. "You learned that you can be friends before the game and after the game. But once the game starts, it's all about business. No jive," he told Sports Illustrated contributor L. Jon Wertheim in 1999. "[T]hat's one reason I love it and go back to visit every summer." Then, when he was in high school, Payton's school played in a league where it often took several carloads of police to get the opposing team out of the building safely after games. What those experiences did not teach him, his father, Al Payton, a man who drove a car with the vanity plate "MR MEAN," did. Even today, the elder Payton will call his son after watching his NBA games on the television to critique his performance.
Only rarely does Al Payton have reason to criticize his son, who leads the NBA in technical fouls, for not being tough enough. Gary Payton's on-court persona is legendary. His "conversational tone in the heat of battle is as soft as a loan shark's," Dave D'Alessandro wrote in the Sporting News. Even when playing against the Chinese team in the 2000 Olympics, Payton trash-talked the entire time, despite the fact that the most of the Chinese players did not understand a word of his insults. "I'm always gonna be talkin'," Payton told Wertheim. "It's nothing personal, but it's at the point where if I change, people will say, 'Oh, he's soft now.' That ain't never gonna happen like that."