Best Series: Best “On The Ball” Defender of All-Time

Gary Payton / ESPN

By: Rob Botts

What is the absolute first rule of defensive basketball? You hear this phrase yelled at the top of coach’s lungs across hardwood floors spanning the globe and in many different languages. This singular message is delivered to many different age groups and skill levels as well. From the elementary school levels up through college and on into the professional ranks. You hear it said to bench warmers, off the bench guys, starters, all-stars and heck, even future hall of famers. This one statement is the first and most important building block of the soon to be constructed defensive wall. What is this invaluable and very much OBVIOUS piece of basketball advice? “STOP THE BALL!”

To stop the ball from progressing on its way up the floor, you need an excellent on the ball defender. And usually it is the opposing team’s point guard that is dribbling the rock up the floor looking to do damage to the defense that is trying to stop it. A good on the ball defender must be quick in ether direction, have great hands and be able to anticipate (much like a goalie in hockey or soccer) which direction the opponent might be heading in next. They must also have quick hands to poke at the ball without fouling and have the overall temperament of a hungry hyena shadowing it’s moving prey. Also, they must be able to have a bit of thespian in them as well. If that opposing point guard puts his shoulder down into them after they have effectively beat them to the spot, they need to be prepared to go into full shrieking monologue mode. Hands go up, neck jerks back and they are flat on their back trying to get a whistle from the referee for an offensive foul. If their audition doesn’t go as planned and they are turned down by said zebra with a subtle smirk or non blowing of the whistle, they are quick enough to spring back up and recover to the opponent. They also must possess one heck of a mouth to dispense the needed verbal assault that will get inside the other point guard’s head.

Just who is the best “on the ball” defender of all time? Well, it would be none other than a man whose nickname is quite appropriate for this title. He played in the pacific northwest for most of his hall of fame career before making multiple NBA team stops on the way to hanging up his “kicks” for good. His nickname was “The Glove.” His real name was Mr. Gary Payton. He played point guard for 13 years for the old Seattle Supersonics team where he holds franchise records in points, assists and steals. Even though he won a title with the Miami Heat later on in his career, his best and most effective days were in the Emerald City.

What made Gary the best? Even though he was a gifted athlete with tremendous work ethic, it was his attitude and how and when he used his tools that made him the best on the ball defender that the NBA has ever seen. It was the way he shuffled quickly into his defensive stance just as the ball would have been inbounded to the other team’s point guard’s hands. He was a one man full court press. Think of the best Rick Pitino, college full court press teams all put into this one man’s body. Back when Gary played they could use a forearm shiver or two, to slow a dude’s forward progress but he hardly ever needed that. Although he would throw a few perfectly timed physical jabs to match his verbal ones. It was like a 1-2 punch combination in boxing. His elbow was “left”and his mouth was “right.”

Payton always kept a very wide footed stance on defense and slid his feet with lightning speed. As his feet slid, his hands were jabbing back and forth like a honey badger poking at a bee hive. Unrelenting and in flurries. He would bump his body up against the other point guard while allowing his head to get that much closer to deliver some perfectly timed trash talking. If a player ever tried a spin dribble against him it was curtains. When said player had finished that ill-fated spin move, he realized that Gary and the ball he used to posses were on their way to the bucket together at the other end of the floor for two points. Now Gary had just gotten the best of the player and some new material to use on the next excruciating trip up the floor.

“The Glove” was just that. The opposing point guard would have to wear him all game whether he liked it or not. His lightning quick hands would ruin the line of sight for the player while Payton’s feet would interrupt his forward progress. It was like driving a car through a hurricane of flying debris and having to slam on your breaks every couple of seconds to avoid another detour sign. Payton would punish his opponents in every way described above and then some. In addition to those already stated, he would make sure that it was almost impossible for his man to set up the offense or get rid of the ball once the player had picked up his dribble because of the frantic defense pace Gary would play for 48 minutes.

Gary Payton was a defensive force. He was unrelenting. He was unforgiving. He was the best “on the ball” defender of all time.

Rob Botts
About Rob Botts 101 Articles
Rob is a Boston native and huge fan of the Pats, Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins and Revs. He used to coach sports camps back in New England. He is a published writer, cartoonist, actor and college basketball player.