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Davis, California

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Normal guy, abnormal talent

Mark Payne wasn’t at the Pavilion on Feb. 10, 2010 when UC Davis beat Pacific for the first time in 70 years – a win that snapped a 49-game losing streak against the school.

Instead, he was sitting in a hotel room with his mom just blocks from both his home in downtown Davis and Hamilton Court, watching UC Davis’ historic win unfold on television.

“It was tough, just sitting and watching [on TV],” Payne said. “You want to just be around to help the guys out in any way you can, cheer them on. … It was tough not being allowed in the gym.”

Why wasn’t Mark Payne – believed by many talent evaluators to have a career in the NBA awaiting him upon graduation – allowed in the gym that night? What was Mark Payne – a 6-foot-8 freak of an athlete with the wingspan of a small airplane – doing in a hotel room within walking distance of his house?

Mark Payne had been all but quarantined. Hospitalized just hours earlier with an undisclosed illness, Payne remained in that hotel room for the next three days. He didn’t see anyone, still contagious some 48 hours after starting antibiotics. He didn’t get to go home, either, not even to pick up his things.

More importantly, Payne didn’t get to experience one of the greatest wins the UC Davis faithful had ever seen – a win against the school just five minutes from his Stockton home, a win against the team he wanted to beat so badly.

Was Payne disappointed? Absolutely. Was he jealous of what his teammates accomplished without him? Not a chance.

“It was frustrating I couldn’t play,” said Payne, the Big West Conference’s Preseason Player of the Year, “but I’m so happy the guys won. Everybody stepped up. It gave some of our younger guys some great experience.”

That’s not someone trying to say all the right things.

That’s just Mark Payne being Mark Payne.

Payne, a 21-year-old junior, could very well be the most talented basketball player UC Davis has ever had. He doesn’t care if you know it, though. In fact, he might not even know it himself. If he does, he’s doing quite an impressive job of covering it up.

The thing about Payne – the pretty normal college guy, the abnormal basketball talent – is he doesn’t have an ego. None whatsoever. He’s the most unassuming superstar you’ll ever meet and that’s the way he’s always been. His father, who’s been a petroleum engineer at Chevron for 35 years and taken one sick day, made sure of it. His mother, who works in foster care, and two older brothers – James, 26, and Matt, 24 – are the same way.

Mark is a very humble young man from a very humble family. He’s a religious man, too. He has one Bible verse posted on the wall of his room, summing his character up in a single passage.

“It’s Matthew 23:12,” Mark said. “It goes, ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.'”

He pauses, adjusts his legs that are far too long for the chair he’s sitting in on Hamilton Court at the Pavilion after practice, then continues.

“It’s not like a conscious thing. That’s just the way I am.”

‘Some guy at Colorado’

Mark Payne is a family man. His older brothers both graduated from the University of Colorado. Their grandmother was in Colorado, too, and their parents were going to move out there to be closer to her.

So, naturally, after finishing his stay at St. Mary’s High School in 2006, Payne was going to attend the University of Colorado.

Payne hadn’t been recruited to play major college basketball. He wasn’t even the best player on his own high school team at the time – that honor went to Joe Harden, who’s been Payne’s best friend since the fifth grade.

It just made sense, Payne said, to join the rest of his family in Colorado.

“It’s a beautiful school,” Payne said of Colorado. “I applied to Colorado, got in, said ‘Yeah, I’ll take it,’ got my dorm assignment, my roommate and everything. I wore the sweatshirt to school and told everyone I was going there. … I was just going to play my [senior year in high school], have fun, try to win and move on.”

St. Mary’s didn’t stop winning, though. The school won its first Sac-Joaquin Section title since 1989 and advanced to its first-ever CIF state title game.

“It was pretty crazy,” Payne said. “It was a really fun time. …With Joe [Harden] – Joe was the big time recruit – there were a lot of coaches coming to our games. UC Davis had been coming to our games for a couple years to watch Joe.”

By the end of the CIF title game, however, it was clear the UC Davis coaches were watching St. Mary’s for more reasons than just Harden, who went on to accept a scholarship to play at Notre Dame.

UC Davis had started recruiting Payne as well. Around the end of March – late into the standard recruiting process – coach Gary Stewart extended a Division I scholarship offer to Payne.

With that, it was time for Payne to buy a new sweatshirt. His nonexistent stay at the University of Colorado was over before it started.

“What if I had just gone to Colorado and not played basketball?” Payne asked. “I ask myself that all the time. I would have never known what I was capable of. …I owe everything to Coach Stewart. He saw potential in me and gave me this opportunity. Without him, I’d just be some guy at Colorado. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’d just be different.”

Going pro

Nothing out of the ordinary happened when the UC Davis men’s basketball team took the court at home on Jan. 10, 2009.

The Aggies were taking on Long Beach State, one of the best teams in the Big West Conference. Mark Payne was his usual, impressive self, filling up the stat sheet with a team-best 22 points to go along with 10 rebounds and seven assists in a 86-78 loss.

Something unusual happened two days later, though. Very unusual.

Eric Musselman, former head basketball coach of both the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, had served as a television analyst for the Long Beach-UC Davis matchup.

There was something – someone, rather – who caught Musselman’s attention at the game.

“Mark Payne is a solid NBA prospect,” Musselman said on his blog. “He has great size for a point guard and really pushes the ball in transition. A strong athlete, he’s worth keeping an eye on.”

With those three sentences, Mark Payne’s star rose from regional lure to national importance. With those three sentences, the name “Mark Payne” was one worth knowing. With those three sentences, Mark Payne had officially become a legitimate NBA prospect.

“I got a lot of attention from that,” Payne said of Musselman’s comments. “It’s amazing how many people heard about it. I mean, people know him, he talks to other people – that’s when it really started to hit home that I could make a career out of basketball.”

People had said Payne could play in the NBA all along. They weren’t the right people, though.

“That’s what your friends and family are supposed to say,” he joked. “Really, that was the first time somebody with those kinds of credentials said something like that. It’s really snowballed from there.”

Payne does his best to stay away from those snowballs, though.

If anyone ever contacts Payne about the NBA – whether its scouts on cell phones or agents on Facebook – his answer is always the same:

“My head coach is Gary Stewart,” Payne said. “This is his phone number.”

That’s it?

“That’s it,” Payne said. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s something to do with the NBA. I just have everything go through [Stewart]. He’ll tell me every once in a while that like the Oklahoma City Thunder or some other team called him, but he doesn’t tell me when scouts come or anything. I try not to worry about it. I’ve still got a long time here.”

That’s because Payne has other things to worry about while he’s here – namely, leading a normal college student’s life.

Payne lives downtown with Harden, who transferred from Notre Dame to team with Payne at UC Davis. They’ve got a pretty big dog, quite possibly the biggest Irish wolfhound you’ve ever laid eyes on. Payne has a girlfriend. Her name is Melanie. When he’s not with her, he’s at the library, studying tirelessly for his economics classes. Or maybe he’s studying tirelessly at the library with her. Maybe Joe’s with them. After all, normal people study together at the library all the time. Why wouldn’t Payne do the same?

That’s where things stop being normal, though. The people around him aren’t even normal. Harden’s an All-Big West performer himself, which isn’t exactly normal. Neither is his girlfriend – Melanie Adams is a 5-foot-11 opposite hitter for the UC Davis women’s volleyball team.

Like Mark, Melanie wears number 11. Like Mark, she’s also left-handed.

“Yeah, that’s all I needed to see,” Mark said, a wide smile across his face. “She’s got hops like me and she’s tall like me. That’s all it took.”

For now, Payne’s priorities are Melanie, studying and making sure the giant dog gets walked by its giant owners – and playing college basketball, of course.

“Beats worrying about the NBA,” Payne said.

Three days in Anaheim

Dominic Calegari thought it must have been a joke.

Calegari, a 6-foot-10 center and the lone senior on the UC Davis men’s basketball team, usually gets picked up by Joe Harden before home games at the Pavilion. Mark Payne is usually in the passenger’s seat. It’s not really a pregame ritual – it’s just a matter of convenience.

When Harden stopped by Calegari’s place on Feb. 10, 2010, however, something looked different. That’s because Payne wasn’t in the car. Calegari didn’t think much of it. He assumed Payne had class or something and decided to drive himself.

Calegari wanted to know for sure, though, so he simply asked where Payne was.

“Dom, Mark was in the hospital last night,” Harden said.

Calegari knew Harden was the kind of guy who liked to joke around. He just didn’t expect a joke about something as serious as Payne being hospitalized.

“Geez, that’s not a real funny joke,” Calegari replied.

Harden repeated himself. He said it over and over again.

Calegari started to believe him. When he got to Hamilton Court, coach Gary Stewart confirmed exactly what Calegari didn’t want to hear: Mark was actually in the hospital last night. He wouldn’t be available against Pacific.

For 70 years, nothing had gone right for UC Davis against the Pacific Tigers. Forty-nine losses in a row is 49 losses in a row, no matter how hard you try to spin it.

There was a different vibe at practice the day before, though – a legitimate belief that with the trio of Payne, Harden and Calegari leading the way, this could finally be the time the Aggies broke through against the first-place Tigers.

Then Pacific’s Law rang true once again: Anything that can go wrong for UC Davis against the Tigers, will go wrong against the Tigers. The crowd of 2,800-plus was quickly deflated upon hearing Payne wouldn’t be able to play.

The fans felt fine once the final buzzer sounded, though. Final score: UC Davis 62, Pacific 59. History – finally – had been made.

And no one was happier than the contagious superstar on house arrest.

“It was a great, great win,” Payne said. “It gave us a lot of momentum moving forward.”

Payne’s focus is on moving forward – not too far forward, though, because the NBA can wait. His past – the humble upbringing that molded his egoless personality, the fact he’s not at the University of Colorado – is a reality as well, but it’s not the focus, either.

Right now, the focus is moving forward with the season.

Payne and his teammates begin Big West Tournament play at the Anaheim Convention Center tonight against Cal State Fullerton at approximately 8:30 p.m. The Aggies went 2-0 against the Titans during the regular season.

The game can be heard locally on KFSG 1690-AM.

If UC Davis wins three games in three days, it takes not only the conference title, but also an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Tournament – both would be firsts for the Aggies.

Mark Payne is patient. Healthy once again, he can wait on everything else. As long as the UC Davis men’s basketball team keeps winning games, Payne really couldn’t be any happier.

“My goals are here with this team first,” Payne said. “I don’t think about this as work. It’s basketball. Playing this game is the hardest thing I do all day, just messing around with my 12 best friends and going over some plays. I think about it like that and I’m thankful this is what I do. You have to keep it in perspective.”



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