Take a look through the ‘This Date in the NBA’ archive and you’ll find no end of memorable moments from the league’s remarkable past. In this new series, Sean Guest revisits key events from NBA history, evaluating their impact on the players and teams involved, as well as the league and the sport more broadly.
This time around, we travel back to the year 2000; when Sony launched the Playstation 2; Pixar’s Toy Story hit cinemas; and eBay made its online debut.
The San Antonio Spurs were the league’s reigning champs at the time, but it’s another Western Conference powerhouse that we’ll be focusing on. Namely, the Seattle SuperSonics and their All-Star point guard Gary Payton. On this day that same year, he became the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing ‘Downtown’ Fred Brown’s 14,018 points.
It was a significant achievement, built on the fact that Payton, who was really known for his defense, had averaged 21.1 points per game between the 1994-95 and 1999-00 seasons.
But it came at a time when Payton’s best years in Seattle were behind him. He and athletic big Shawn Kemp had made the team a dominant force throughout the 90s. But Kemp’s departure in 1997, followed by that of Head Coach George Karl, reduced them from championship contender to a team that barely made .500 in Payton’s final years in Seattle.
By 2003, Payton was on the move, and (via Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Boston), eventually found his way onto the Miami Heat team that won it all thanks to Dwyane Wade’s heroics in 2006.
But that’s not what Payton will be remembered for. It’s his time in Seattle that anyone who grew up watching the NBA in the 1990s will recall.
Well, that and his reputation for being one of the league’s best trash talkers. And it’s his match-up with Michael Jordan, in the 1995-96 NBA Finals, that epitomised him best.
That season, the Sonics won an impressive 64 games to top the West. They’d won 63 in 1993-94, before suffering a shock first-round exit at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. But, they learned from the experience. And began the postseason by disposing of the Sacramento Kings in four games, and sweeping the reigning-champion Houston Rockets in the second round. They then beat Jerry Sloan’s Utah Jazz in the Conference Finals, securing the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals since 1979.
Unfortunately for them, they were to face off against the Chicago Bulls team of all Chicago Bulls teams.
That’s right, the one that won 72 regular season games following Jordan’s return from his baseball sabbatical. The one that led the league in points scored per 100 possessions (115.2) and points allowed (101.8). The one whose average margin of victory that year was a whopping 12.24 in the regular season.
Along with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Jordan made the Bulls superiority felt through the first three games, blowing out the Sonics in games one and three, while also coming out on top in a close Game 2.
On the brink of elimination, George Karl made an important adjustment, allowing Payton (who’d been nursing a calf injury) to finally guard Jordan. The point guard, nicknamed ‘The Glove’ for his quick hands, was a good two inches shorter than Jordan, not to mention about 30 pounds lighter. But he stuck to him like glue, fronting in the post (skip to the 10 second mark in the video below), reaching in constantly, and jawing like crazy throughout Game 4.
It worked, as Payton limited Jordan to 23 points off 32 percent shooting, while putting up 21 points and 11 assists en route to an 86-107 victory.
Game 5 saw more of the same, and despite shooting 50 percent from the field, Jordan scored just 26 points, thanks largely to Payton, who put up 23 himself. The Sonics won 78-89, but would finally succumb to the inevitable in Game 6, as the Bulls claimed yet another NBA title.
Had Payton guarded Jordan from the start, things might have been different though. Over the first three games, Jordan averaged 31 points (while shooting 46 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep). But during the final three games it was a different story, as Payton helped limit him to just 23.7 points (while he shot 37 percent from the field and a ridiculously low 11 percent from deep).
Payton spoke about this in 2010, explaining how he’d succeeded in frustrating Jordan, tiring him out and making him work harder to get the ball than he usually had to:
He also spoke about how disappointed he was when the franchise disbanded its core, claiming that he believed that group (which also featured Detlef Schrempf and Nate McMillan) would have been good enough to win a championship had they stayed together.
Instead, he became a member of that 2004 LA Lakers team. You know, the one that paired Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with Payton and Karl Malone? Despite having four future Hall of Famers, the experiment didn’t quite come off and the championship the Lakers free agent additions (who both took significant pay cuts to play in LA) coveted eluded them. As mentioned, Payton eventually got his in Miami though, while Malone missed out entirely.
Meanwhile, the Seattle SuperSonics rebuilt in Payton’s absence. And went through the Ray Allen-Rashard Lewis era, before drafting Kevin Durrant with the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. The franchise was then famously relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008, after its ownership group failed to secure funding for a new stadium in the Seattle area.
Remaining deeply loyal to the franchise that drafted him and the city where he played the majority of his career, Payton has subsequently expressed his desire not to have his jersey retired in Oklahoma City. To this day, he remains vocal on the matter of bringing the Sonics back to Seattle.
Payton was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, having logged nine All-Star appearances, been named to two All-NBA First Teams, five All-NBA Second Teams, and two All-NBA Third Teams. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 1996 and also appeared on nine All-Defensive First Teams during his career.
Payton remains the Seattle SuperSonics all-time leading points scorer (18,207). He’s also played the most minutes (36,858), made the most assists (7,384), the most steals (2,107) and the third most rebounds (4,240).
He also still ranks ninth amongst the NBA’s all-time assist leaders with 8,966 and 33rd overall in points with 21,813.