As we approach the best time of year for a sports fan, March Madness, I can’t help but think of some of the greats in college basketball over the years. You see, not only am I an Oregon State fan, but also a mammoth sized North Carolina Tar Heel fan. Fear not Beaver nation, when it came down to Carolina and OSU in those back-to-back College World Series, my allegiance was clear: orange and black.
Through the last couple of decades following college basketball, I have seen them come and go. Wearing the Carolina blue were the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, George Lynch, Ed Cota (the best Tar Heel passer ever), Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashaad McCants, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough, Kendall Marshall, Ty Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. Quite a list to reflect upon.
I can honestly say, despite all those guys I came to appreciate and log many hours watching (not to mention LSU’s Pete Maravich, whom I never saw and averaged 44 points a game before the three point line was established), the best college player I ever saw was former Oregon State Beaver Gary Payton. To this day, I believe the phrase, “You’re the man,” might have been coined for Payton. He was THE man. If you ever had the chance to see him play, you could see he was so much better than everyone else.
I remember watching Wayne Gretzky’s last hockey game. It was fascinating to watch him skate. Even in the end, it was evident Gretzky was still the best player on the ice. I always fashioned that game in the same light as Payton’s last game. Everything about him oozed basketball superiority.
Only two times have I seen someone take a basketball shot where I was so certain he was going to make it I could have bet my life on it. Michael Jordan once took an inbounds pass while the Chicago Bulls were trailing, stepped over the mid court line and let it fly. Nothing but net. He had time to get closer but had an uncanny confidence level to shoot knowing the rock was going in. The other time was Payton playing in the Pac-10 Tournament against Arizona State. The Beavs were behind late and were in desperate need of a bucket. Payton raced with the ball down court, recognized the urgency and fired up a 25-footer. Swish. He knew he was going to make it. The whole building knew it. The television audience knew it. That’s called crazy good. The guy was the best player out there, flat out.
Does Payton belong in the same conversation as the best ever with Gretzky and Jordan? Probably not. A difference maker? Without a doubt. A lost treasure? For sure.
Payton played 17 seasons in the National Basketball Association. In 2006, he won an NBA Championship with the Miami Heat. He was a nine-time all-star and NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1996. The only point guard to ever do so. It was there where he received his nickname, The Glove, for his standout defensive abilities.
But I will remember him for what he did for OSU. When he arrived in 1986 out of Oakland, California, he kept the Beavers on the map. During his four years, Oregon State went to the NCAA Tournament three times and the NIT once. Four post season appearances in four years. Today, he still holds the OSU record for career steals (321). When Payton left Corvallis for a successful NBA career, the map went with him. Because since then, oh say, 1990 to be exact, Beaver basketball has not been the same.
NCAA appearances since 1990? Zero. NIT appearances? One. Brrrr. Is it getting cold in here or is it just me? The Beavers need someone like Payton. A game changer, playmaker, leader and let’s say it…a basketball stud. I understand recruiting is difficult when trying to lure someone to small town Corvallis where the Northwest weather gets to everyone eventually. Plus battling big name schools such as Duke, Carolina, UCLA, Arizona and Uncle Phil’s Oregon makes the job even tougher.
I get it. Attracting blue chip prospects takes a convincing argument. But you never know when a diamond in the rough is going to come along. Wherever the recruiting trail has led for the past 20 years, perhaps it is time to look in unlikely places. The OSU staff needs to change it up. Go to Idaho, Wyoming or New Mexico, or somewhere you have not been before or where others neglect.
And I don’t know how much communication goes on between programs, but Coach Craig Robinson should compare recruiting notes with Mike Riley who has always maximized potential with his players. Furthermore, get former players more involved. I’m not sure what The Glove is doing these days, but if Robinson doesn’t want to call him, hand over the phone and I’ll give him a buzz. We all know a version of the saying if the glove fits, wear it. It would be a pleasant change of pace to be recognized again and put back on the national basketball map.