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Benny Worthy Jr.
Gary Payton is a lot bigger than a lot of other Seattle-area landmarks. In fact, he towers over them all: Dr. Frasier Crane, Bill Gates, half-mocha half-regular iced cappuccino, rain clouds, the Space Needle. It is not only the fact that Payton is more than 30 feet tall, draped on a banner over the side of Nike Town. Payton looms large because he stands head and shoulders above his peers in the NBA and because he may be the best two-way point guard ever.
Once judged as a hounding man-on-man defender with a limited offensive game, Payton has spent the past decade rounding out his résumé. As he begins play Sunday in the Sydney (Olympics) tournament that will undoubtedly result in his becoming the 12th U.S. men's basketball player to win two gold medals, we now bring that résumé before the court of popular opinion to ask a tantalizing, almost scandalous question: If you weigh offense and defense equally, is Payton the best ever?
It's a query taken seriously in basketball circles. To understand why you must start at the defensive end of the court. "He's the Deion Sanders of the NBA," says Pacers coach Isiah Thomas, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in October. "I'm trying to think of how to say this without sounding crazy. Defensively, he's so fast, he's there. He's not moving to the point there appears to be no great effort on his part. He's just there. The person he's guarding, you can't just dominate him from the offense." "You think of guys with great hands," says Kevin Johnson, the warp-speed penetrator-turned-NBC commentator, "like Maurice Cheeks and Derek Harper. Gary is like that.
But he's also a great individual defender and a great team defender. He has all three components covered. That's very rare." Payton has a defender's mentality and a defender's body, with long arms and the ability to move in a deep crouch. His hands are impeccable; his speed practically defies analysis. Imagine how disruptive this can be to opposing players, especially point guards. They're trying to see the court, looking for a mismatch or a backdoor cut. But they don't have the chance to let plays develop properly because the Glove is there, like a 6-4 mosquito on a humid July evening
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