The entire purpose of any sport’s Hall of Fame, I am now convinced, is to create arguments about who belongs in them by people who have to pay to get into them.
That’s why Gary Payton being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame is such a letdown. Frankly, and I blame him for this, he was too obvious a choice for any truly spirited debate on the merits.
Payton, who did his early artwork in Oakland and then traveled the once well-worn road from there to Oregon State, is such an elemental choice that even the effort of looking on ProBasketballReference.com for comparables and outlying statistics is an exercise in pointlessness. He’s in, because he’s in. And besides, who would tell him he didn’t belong?
Payton is by no means the best guard in the Hall, and would never pretend he was. Trying to wedge him somewhere between Hal Greer and Oscar Robertson on the list of greatest guards in the history of guard-dom is a waste of time, even for people who like to waste their time in just such pursuits.
Indeed, Halls of Fame have actually become a story for those who are borderline candidates, because we as a nation are addicted to arguments rather than answers. We would rather have pitched street battles over Jack Morris’ candidacy because (a) we know they will never be settled, and (b) it allows young and old alike to curse their adversaries for being the wrong age.
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Payton does not inspire such puerile reaction. You say the name, and you get a “Oh, yeah, he’s in.” And then the argument just sort of dies. His years as an elite guard, as one of the great defenders of his or any era, his numbers and the competitive paint factory fire that fueled them – all of it made him that worst of possible things in our oh-yeah-sez-you culture.
The Hall of Famer you don’t have to argue about.
He didn’t flit from team to team looking for the best deal. He was the second pick in the 1990 draft, behind Derrick Coleman and ahead of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and played his entire career as the man who could never understand how he got so scandalously lowballed. He did 12-plus years in Seattle, including a quixotic NBA Finals against the newly risen Michael Jordan, then sought out a team in his twilight years just so he would win a championship, which he did in 2006 with Miami. He made plenty of money, but never seemed to make it the central focus of his career.
And he led with his face, a perfect example of the glower in action. He was Robertson in temperament, John Stockton in focus, and in all other ways the single most important figure in the history of the Seattle SuperSonics. Debate? Please.
But therein lies the problem. A debate would have meant looking at his career down to its subatomic elements, from year to year, taking a .500 team and seeing to it that it was never a .500 team again on his watch (save the strike-shortened 1999 season). The exhaustive Payton studies would have illuminated his career in a way that the “Oh, hell yes he’s in. Why are we even discussing this?” affirmations would not.
In sum, Payton gets weirdly overlooked on this, his day of greatest validation. Of course he’s a Hall of Famer. Why wouldn’t he be?
And the absence of a response to that last question tells you all you need to know. Still, he might have enjoyed a good argument over his candidacy; in fact, it would have been fun to watch him defend himself the way he did his opponents as a player.
But no, we are robbed of that because he was too obvious. Well, maybe he’ll run for office some day and we can argue about that. After all, he’s always up for a challenge, and Bill Bradley, Dave Bing and Kevin Johnson have already done the politics thing. Him getting up in a candidate’s grill would be well worth the price we would pay for never having argued over him as a Hall of Famer.