Payton's NBA Career Will Start Back Where It All Began

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By John Denton
Oct. 26, 2014

ORLANDO – While Orlando Magic rookie point guard Elfrid Payton will have the good fortune of making his NBA debut in his hometown of New Orleans on Tuesday, there was a time when he wasn’t allowed anywhere near his devastated home.

With the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans and his home just across the Mississippi River in Grena, La. in 2005, Payton and his family heeded the mandatory evacuation demands and retreated to stay with relatives in Memphis, Tenn. From there, the Payton family looked on in horror as southern Louisiana was pummeled with a Category 5 storm that proved to be one of the deadliest, costliest and most destructive hurricanes in American history.

For days, Payton and his family couldn’t reach friends and family members that had stubbornly decided to stay behind because of downed power lines and inoperable phone service in the area. For several days and plenty of sleepless nights, the family looked on as horrifying TV images showed people drowning in rising waters, suffering in squalor and in desperate need of food and shelter.

The residents who wisely left New Orleans out of fear of a storm that ultimately killed 1,833 people were not allowed to return to the city because, quite frankly, it was in no shape to have them back. The Paytons eventually moved to housing in Dallas with thousands of other New Orleans refugees, not knowing if or when they would ever be allowed to go back to the Crescent City.

The Payton family’s plight was mild compared to the hellish conditions that those in New Orleans endured. Still, all of the not knowing and having to look on as his home city was being demolished ate at Elfrid Payton’s 11-year-old soul at the time.

``It was so hard to see that happen to my hometown. There was just a lot of worrying that the city might not ever get back up from something so bad like that,’’ Payton remembered thinking nine years ago. ``I had a lot of friends who stayed and I was so worried about them. There was just so much water and so many people struggling and drowning and fighting for their lives. It was hard seeing people struggling in the Superdome, too. I was lucky to not lose anyone, but I know a lot of people who did.

``The city is still not fully, fully back to where it was, but they’ve worked hard to at least get it back up and running.’’

Like New Orleans, Payton knows a thing or two about perseverance and overcoming the odds. He has now made it to basketball’s highest level despite having just two college scholarship offers and being well below the national radar much of his college career at tiny University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

But the fulfillment of a life-long dream will come true on Tuesday night when Payton returns to New Orleans and plays in his first NBA regular-season game. Admittedly, he was a bit floored back in July when he the NBA released the schedule and he saw that his NBA debut would come in New Orleans. It almost didn’t seem real, Payton said recently, but now he would rather be no place in the world than New Orleans – as the large fleur de lis tattoo on his right arm will attest – for this downright surreal moment.

``It just seems kind of poetic. And it tells me that God has a sense of humor I guess,’’ Payton joked while flashing his mega-watt smile.

SWITCHING FROM FOOTBALL TO BASKETBALL

In addition to being the deadliest hurricane to hit American shores in 77 years, Katrina pushed water inland 12 miles, slammed barges, cars and boats into buildings and ultimately was responsible for $108 billion in destruction.

Incredibly, the Paytons’ home suffered only minimal damage and stayed dry inside because of its position in New Orleans’ West Bank area. When the Payton family was finally allowed to return to New Orleans – some six weeks after the hurricane hit Louisiana – they saw a staggered city that clearly will never be the same.

Undoubtedly, Hurricane Katrina had a profound impact on Payton’s life – certainly in building the gritty toughness that he displayed while rising through the basketball ranks and on the court now with the Magic; but also the disruption that Hurricane Katrina caused helped shape the path ahead for him.

The son of Elfrid Payton Sr., a legendary football player at Grambling University and a Canadian Football League Hall of Famer as a pass-rush specialist, the younger Payton split his time between football and basketball as a kid. But after the hurricane, Payton’s middle school saw the student population double because of the large number of refugee kids with no place to attend school. Also, the middle school football team was disbanded, leaving Payton only with basketball as an option moving forward.

``I was a pretty good football player, but after that I decided to just go with basketball,’’ Payton said. ``I’m pretty sure that I would have figured that out eventually any way.’’

Payton went to college at Louisiana-Lafayette for three years, but he is still one of the NBA’s youngest players at 20 years old. Being one of the youngest people in school and on the basketball floor is really nothing new to the precocious point guard.

Because of his smarts, Payton started kindergarten when he was 4 years old, graduated high school at 16 and couldn’t even vote in elections until his sophomore year of college. By age 11 and 12, he was already playing in pick-up basketball games at the park against 18-year-olds who all wanted him on their team because of his advanced passing and ball-handling skills.

In fact, one of the first times that Payton ever squared off against players his own age was in the FIBA Under-19 Championships in Prague – an event that proved to be a seminal moment in his basketball career.

``As a little boy, 11 or 12 years old, he was making passes like he is now,’’ raved his father, Elfrid St. ``Even when he was young, he had an understanding and a feel for the game. He’d be at the park playing with guys much older than him. He was so good that the older guys would pick him to play when he was 12 years old and they were grown men.’’

Elfrid Sr. has already warned his son that plenty of veteran NBA players will try and test him physically and mentally this season because of his age and lack of experience. And Elfrid Sr. got to see it firsthand last week when he was in Orlando and witnessed Houston point guard Patrick Beverley belly up to the Magic rookie and hound him all over the floor.

Coincidentally, that was the same game where Rockets star guard James Harden came over to Elfrid Sr. and told him he was very impressed with his son’s toughness and passing abilities.

``That was real nice of (Harden) to do that because he didn’t have to. But Elfrid’s not overwhelmed by this. We all know that this stage isn’t too big for him,’’ Elfrid Sr. said. ``He will respect all of his opponents, but fear none of them. Early on, one thing that will hurt Elfrid is his (lack of) strength. But once he gets as big and strong as them, they will be done.’’

FOOTBALL TOUGH

Payton’s belief in himself and toughness comes natural as his father, Elfrid Sr., is one of the best players to ever appear in the Canadian Football League.

Payton Sr., now 46 years old, walked on at Grambling University as a 174-pound nose guard, but ultimately became the Tigers’ team MVP in the 1988 and ’89 seasons because of his abilities to rush the quarterback. He was so highly thought of by Grambling’s Eddie Robinson that when the iconic coach died in 2007 in Ruston, La., Payton Sr. was asked to be one of the pallbearers.

Payton Sr. played in 189 games for seven teams in the CFL from 1991-2004. In 1995, just a year after Elfrid Jr.’s birth, Payton Sr. led the Baltimore CFLers to the Grey Cup title while registering 18 sacks. That squad is still the only American-based team to ever win a Grey Cup and the only one to win at least 18 games in a season.

Payton Sr., finished his career with 154 sacks, the second most in league history. He was inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame in 2010 for overcoming his lack of size – he was just 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds – while playing with speed and a particular ferocity. Legend even has it that once after getting kicked out of a game for fighting he ran to the other locker room, tore down the door and continued to brawl.

Payton Jr. used to watch tapes of his father chasing down speedy CFL quarterbacks such as Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia. And he’s gotten plenty of talks about the need to be tough – both mentally and physically – when it comes to playing sports. Both now think that has something to do with the way that the younger Payton attacks the basket fearlessly.

``You can knock him down and he’ll come right back at you. Him just being around me and seeing me play, we always talked about needing to be tough, getting up when you are knocked down and being down but not out,’’ Elfrid Sr. said. ``I’ve talked to him about not taking it when he gets scored on. When somebody beat me, I was mad. If you don’t get mad when you get beaten, something is wrong with you. Guys are always going to score buckets on you, but just don’t let it keep happening.’’

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Magic loved Payton’s entire package of skill, smarts, toughness and heart so much so that they made a bold move to trade for him on draft night last June. At the aforementioned FIBA Under-19 Championships, Payton was a late addition to the USA Basketball roster by head coach Billy Donovan (of the University of Florida) almost as a favor to Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin.

The 6-foot-3 Payton didn’t just make Team USA’s roster; he ended up being the only player on the team to start every game in the gold medal-winning effort. And it was there that Magic Assistant GM Matt Lloyd first got a look at just how much disruption that the long-armed and cat-quick point guard could cause.

Payton was mostly an unknown in high school and during his early years in college, but his international success set him on his way as a junior at ULL. He averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals a game while winning the Left Drisell Defensive Player of the Year award.

And once NBA types had him in to work out in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft, Payton’s stock shot up into the first round. He’s certainly lived up to the Magic trading for him on draft night by being a standout in the Summer League and holding his own this preseason with his new Orlando teammates.

Tobias Harris, Orlando’s fastest player and best hustler on the fastbreak, has already marveled at how players sprint up and down the floor because they know that the pass-first Payton will get them the ball. Center Nikola Vucevic was stunned a couple of weeks ago when Payton came to him, asked where he liked the ball on pick-and-roll plays and then proceeded to put it right there time and time again. And Ben Gordon, a NBA veteran of 11 seasons, is amazed at just how unflappable the rookie seems by the whole NBA craziness.

``He has poise, he’s gritty and he’s not going to get shaken,’’ Gordon gushed. ``I think he’s one of those guys who just sort of loses himself in the game. He’s a really tough competitor.’’

Added Harris: ``He’s a guy who, throughout our practices, he has proven himself to be the real deal. Elfrid comes in every day and works hard and he has a great pace to his game. He plays with a good IQ and he’s fearless.’’

Tuesday night’s first NBA game in New Orleans might feel like the culmination of an unlikely journey for Payton, but it’s actually just the start of what he hopes will be a long professional career. When he returns to New Orleans, he’ll think of the good times, the city’s major struggles following Hurricane Katrina and the years spent wondering if anyone would ever recognize his talents as a under-the-radar point guard.

Elfrid Payton is going back home, and clearly, there’s no place like home to him.

``Sometimes I think about how far I’ve come, but I don’t want to get too wrapped up into it because everybody has a story. I’m just trying to focus on my game and keep getting better,’’ he said. ``But when I do look back it helps me know that I can get through anything if I put my mind to it and work hard.

``At first, when I saw that our first game was going to be in New Orleans, I was surprised and to tell the truth not really happy about it,’’ he admitted. ``But the more that I thought about it, I realized how cool it is to be able to go back home for my first game. I’m excited to start off back where it all began.’’