JUST SEVEN MONTHS ago, one of the most important role players on a club desperate to return to its dynastic reign and the son of the legendary Seattle Supersonics’ Gary Payton, was preparing to apply for a desk job in the team’s video department.
Seven months ago.
Gary Payton II, 30, has had a basketball career full of rejection. He has been cut from teams four times in six years and spent five years toiling in the NBA’s G League.
And he’d just been cut again.
Payton knew there was an opening in the Golden State Warriors‘ video coordination department, so he approached assistant coach Jama Mahlalela.
It was an opportunity, he thought, to still contribute and participate.
“I was dead serious,” Payton says. “If I get cut, I’m going to audition for that job. … I was just trying to stay around. I’d still be around the game, I could still help, travel whatnot. And then figure it out from there.”
But Mahlalela had other plans.
“I just talked to him about the criteria for the video room: A willing learner, someone who can get on the court still and play, whatever. And he’s like, ‘I’ll do that,'” Mahlalela says. “And I’m like, Gary, I’m not letting you do that. There is no chance in the world you are going to do that. You are playing for this team.”
Payton was ready to do what he’d always done: adapt.
When he was in the second grade, Payton was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects 10 to 15% of the U.S. population. Those with it often struggle with word recognition, spelling, reading comprehension, language and visual processing.
After nearly two decades of learning to adapt in the face of adversity, Payton was signed to Golden State’s 15th and final roster spot four days after his conversation with Mahlalela.
He has finally found a home in the NBA and become one of the best defensive guards in the sport.
WHEN THE THREE Payton kids were young, their mother, Monique, made them read 30 minutes each night. Gary’s brother, Julian, and sister, Raquel, had no problem completing the task. But Gary struggled and couldn’t figure out why. Monique constantly heard him mumbling to himself as he tried to get through the pages.
“Speak up, speak clearly,” she implored her son. But no matter how many times she reminded him, Gary continued to stumble.
When he was in second grade, his teacher approached Monique and suggested that Gary be tested for dyslexia. At first, Monique was defensive. She didn’t want to think anything was wrong with her son, she says now.
“I remember crying because I had been so hard on him,” Monique says. “I didn’t realize he had a learning disability.”
Gary struggled to read. His brain often swapped letters, particularly Ds and Bs. When he was asked to read out loud in class, he tried to count ahead to which paragraph he would be assigned, so he could practice ahead of time and identify words he didn’t know. He had a hard time learning the chronology of things, like the order of the seasons.
Two years after his diagnosis, the Payton family moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. On the trip there, Monique saw her oldest son crying on the plane.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to be dumb,'” Monique says. “I’m like babe, you’re not dumb. You learn differently.”
Accepting this difference did not come easily to Gary, who says he struggled academically.
“After I found out about it, I was more embarrassed to ask questions and speak out in class because my classmates didn’t know, and I didn’t want to hint to them that I had a disability,” Gary says. “I just wasn’t trying to be different than everyone else.”
Gary says he struggled to understand concepts when teachers explained them verbally. He says he often approached them after class to ask follow-up questions. Eventually, he learned to ask for the concepts to be written out so he could see them.
After their move to LA, the Paytons enrolled Gary in an academic tutoring program tailored to young kids with learning disabilities. Shortly thereafter, they learned their son was a visual learner, common for those with dyslexia. The news wasn’t surprising — Gary always had a knack for picking up new hobbies after watching them a few times.
“If you could just write it out and show me, I will get it,” Gary remembers telling his teachers.
He still does this today. When he needs to spell something, he has to write it out, even if it’s in the air, or he will ask Siri on his phone.
“If you look at the phenomenology of visual learners versus auditory learners and kinesthetic learners, the current understanding is that we all learn in all ways, we just have preferences,” says Dr. Francesco Dandekar, the associate director of sports psychiatry at Stanford University. “And we also have ways of compensating for potential deficits. So often when people say they’re visual learners, it’s more that they have difficulty processing auditory input … so they’ll gravitate toward things that they can see.”
Gary and his mom, a former player herself, watched his dad’s games together — over and over again. On his own, he’d watch other games and footage of other players. He’d study them, picking up parts of their game he liked. To this day, Gary says, he incorporates moves that he saw from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Watching basketball, I mean, you can see it,” Gary says. “You can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s a really big help. I think it’s easier for me to visualize something and then apply it to my game than the other way around. I try to watch as much film as possible.”
But his love for the game, and the preparation it requires, didn’t come naturally — or easily.
“I wanted to get away from the sport because of who my dad is, living up to the hype, whatever,” Payton says. “I just didn’t want to deal with it.”
But by middle school, Payton decided to give it a try.
“He was very lackadaisical,” Monique says. “I’m like dude, we’re dogs on the court. You’re either in or you’re out. Are you playing or playing? Are you serious?”
When Gary was a junior in high school, he decided to meet with Darrel Jordan, a family friend and basketball coach who was working with Julian in the AAU circuit. It was with Jordan that Gary’s footwork and other fundamentals of the game started to improve.
Gary received three scholarship offers from mid-major schools: Florida Gulf Coast, Florida International and Florida A&M. But he didn’t qualify academically. The voices from his childhood, telling him he wasn’t smart enough returned, filling him with doubt.
From Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Gary landed at Salt Lake Community College. And by 2013, his sophomore season, he visited Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California. The size of the school felt right, it was close to his parents in Oakland and Saint Mary’s was one of the top teams in the West Coast Conference.
But his dad asked him to hold off on making a decision on Saint Mary’s, requesting that they visit Oregon State, where he was an All-Pac-10 selection and both the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and conference Freshman of the Year in 1987. Former Beavers head coach Craig Robinson had made his own pitch, a tantalizing one that made it hard for Gary to turn down: He could be the difference-maker, Robinson said, to carry OSU back to national prominence.
It worked. Gary joined the Beavers in 2014 and played an integral part of leading the Beavers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990, becoming the first player to be voted the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year two times.
Yet, during all of these highs, the voice that filled him with doubt — that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t smart enough, that he wasn’t on any draft boards, the one he’d spent more than a decade trying to silence — remained.
“I didn’t know what I was going to be doing after school,” he says. “I [didn’t] know what I’m going to do if basketball doesn’t work.”
AS THE FIRST quarter was drawing to a close in Monday’s Game 2 tilt against the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors trailed by eight points.
As Jokic went in for the dunk, Payton — giving up 90 pounds and nine inches — came over the top and blocked Jokic’s shot clean. Otto Porter Jr. corralled the loose ball, took it down the court and passed it to Andrew Wiggins, who fed it back to Porter for a 3, cutting the Nuggets’ lead to five and forcing Denver coach Michael Malone to call a timeout. As Jokic headed to the huddle, Payton passed him with a slap on the butt, to which Jokic did not take kindly.
Payton headed to the bench and didn’t look back as Stephen Curry restrained the upset center, who is no stranger to meeting Payton at the rim.
In a mid-February game, Jokic caught the ball up high, this time outside the key. With less than five minutes remaining in the first half, he turned and faced a familiar foe: Payton.
Trying to back him down, Jokic instead turned to attempt his patented turnaround, one-legged fadeaway.
But as he rose, there was Payton, who matched the timing of the rise — and then the ball — and swatted it away.
Payton’s ability to slow Jokic is no coincidence.
“Film doesn’t lie,” Payton says.
Jokic has all but mastered spinning off defenders — a move that has become foundational to his offensive repertoire. But through the hours of film Payton and Mahlalela watched, they discovered how Payton’s size could throw Jokic off of his spin. It’s quite simple, they realized: it would present Jokic with a defense he rarely sees, and doesn’t have to fight through very often.
“The leverage he normally uses is against much bigger players,” Mahlalela says. “He has a completely different center of gravity with Gary guarding him. It’s all about learning and understanding how the game works. And knowing the players and knowing how he fits into the team really makes a difference.”
Ask almost anyone and they will tell you what makes Payton such a special player is his basketball IQ, something he’s developed his entire life by the unique way he studies the game.
“In dyslexia, there’s no link to IQ,” Dr. Dandekar says. “It’s just something that your brain has a little more trouble processing. There’s this misconception that success means you do everything well. Success is actually a lot more about understanding what you do well, understanding what you don’t do as well, playing to your strengths and finding ways to help yourself in things that you’re not as strong at.”
Payton has finally found success in the NBA, on a Warriors team that has a commanding 2-0 lead over Jokic and the Nuggets.
“They let me be me,” Payton says.
Seven months ago, he was preparing for yet another rejection, another instance where the lifelong whispers of doubt would again fill his mind. He had no idea if he’d be filling an opening in the Warriors’ lineup, or one in the club’s video coordination department.
“He knows his path, his journey has been riddled with adversity,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “He’s been released so many times. It’s just him preparing for whatever is next. But he played so well for us, that was never going to be a possibility.”