BOSTON — It’s not uncommon for N.B.A. players to bring their children to interviews and perch the little ones on their laps, or in a seat next to them while they answer questions.
Gary Payton, one of the best guards of the 1990s, used to do it during his playing days. In one interview, as he held a young Gary Payton II on his lap, he was asked about his son’s potential future as a basketball player.
“I hope he grow up to be what he want to be, but I ain’t going to force him to be a ballplayer or nothing,” Payton said in that video. “But he’s OK. He’s around basketball, he’s throwing the ball and doing everything.”
The elder Payton then patted his son on the chest, as the child looked up at him, wide-eyed.
Gary Payton II loves seeing images like that. Before a practice with Golden State in Boston this week, he was shown a photo of himself sitting on his father’s lap during another interview and said it was his favorite photo of the two of them.
He remembered running around the court during practices when his father was playing for N.B.A. championships. The year the elder Payton first went to the finals with the Seattle SuperSonics, in 1996, his son was 3 1/2 years old, not really old enough to understand the importance of what was happening.
Nearly three decades later, Gary Payton II, 29, is playing in the N.B.A. finals, and is a critical part of Golden State’s defense. He made his finals debut in Game 2, returning to the court in an important game for the Warriors, who were trying avoid falling behind two games to none. Payton returned after missing a full month with a broken elbow. In his return, he made clear his importance.
“It was amazing,” Payton said. “I was itching to get out there. I was in the tunnel just walking back and forth, pacing, waiting for coach to call me.”
The Warriors’ medical staff cleared Payton for Game 1, but Coach Steve Kerr opted not to play him, saying he didn’t think Payton was healthy enough just yet. He would use Payton only if absolutely necessary.
“Special circumstances, we need one stop at the end of the game, at the end of a quarter, play him,” Kerr said.
Kerr called on Payton with 5 minutes 30 seconds left in the first quarter, and as Payton jogged to the scorer’s table, fans at the Chase Center in San Francisco first reacted with cheers and applause. Eventually, they rose to give him a standing ovation.
“I think just the energy that he brings, his character, how hard he plays, especially in the Bay Area, we really accept that and we embrace that,” guard Jordan Poole said. He added: “They just embrace him for the way that he plays and who he is as a person, and he makes it pretty easy to do.”
His journey is part of what draws both fans and his teammates toward him. Despite having a father in the Hall of Fame, he needed to make his own path to the N.B.A. He went undrafted in 2016 out of Oregon State and has played for six different G-league teams since then. This season, having seen him play on 10-day contracts at the end of 2020-21, Golden State gave Payton a chance to stick around with a one-year contract.
With Golden State working its way back into contending form, Payton made his presence felt as a defender throughout the season. He started 16 regular-season games, and the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals against Memphis.
In Game 2 of that series, Payton broke his elbow when Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks swiped him across the head while he was midair. The foul was deemed a flagrant 2, triggering an automatic ejection for Books. Kerr called the play “dirty.”
But since Payton had an upper-body injury, he was able to stay in shape and work on his conditioning even as his elbow healed.
“I wasn’t off the court but probably for a week or so to let everything heal, then I got back, get on the bike, running, doing hydro work, stuff like that,” Payton said. “My conditioning was still up to par. In game still a little different. The other night, first couple minutes I caught my second breath and I was fine after that.”
He played 25 minutes in his first finals game, and scored 7 points. Despite some concern about his shooting ability, he made all three shots he took, including a 3-pointer.
“I thought he was brilliant,” Kerr said. “The level of defense, physicality and speed in transition, it gives us a huge boost.”
Payton’s father was also known for his defensive prowess — he was one of the rare guards to be named the defensive player of the year, in 1995-96 — but the younger Payton said that wasn’t why he learned to focus on defense rather than offense.
“It was the only way I could get the ball and make a play on the offensive end,” Payton said. “I had to get the ball, steal it or whatnot to go score.”
His father comes to the games to support him. He even wore a shirt to Game 2 with an illustration of his son guarding him. This wasn’t a career the elder Payton, 53, pushed his son toward, and basketball advice isn’t part of their relationship now — no tips on being in the finals, and no questions about what it might be like.
“It’s just me and Gary. It’s our relationship,” Gary Payton II said. “There was a moment in time where he stopped talking to me about basketball. I think that’s because I was doing a lot better than before.
“Nowadays he really doesn’t say anything. We just talk about life, family, other sports and whatnot. But he stopped talking about basketball, so I think I’m doing a pretty good job.”