He's older, certainly wiser, but Richard Payton wouldn't wish his experience on anyone.
The 26-year-old Farmingdale State junior lost his mother early in his collegiate basketball career. The 6-foot point guard took a long timeout, but now he's back on a path that he is certain would make his mom quite proud.
Payton's story starts at Amityville High School, where he had the usual hoop dreams. In his four seasons, the Warriors went 100-8 and won four state public school titles and a pair of Federation crowns. In any game, Payton could approach double figures in points, rebounds and/or assists, and he played tough defense. He and A.J. Price gave Amityville arguably the best backcourt in Suffolk County.
"I saw myself as a D-I player, didn't know where,'' Payton said. "It didn't have to be Villanova or UConn.''
He remembers his mother's reaction when he graduated from high school in 2003. "I was the first in my family to graduate (out of six children),'' he said. "I remember it like it was yesterday. Seeing her have joy tears. As a young man, that made me feel so good.''
Division I didn't call, so Payton went to community college at upstate Genesee. "It was cold,'' he said. And he was homesick. He transferred to Nassau, where he played for two seasons beginning in 2005.
When Payton was 21, his mother, Anna Moore, died at 49 from complications of asthma.
"One day I'm staying with Mom, the next day I don't know where life is going to take me,'' he said. "When you are down and out, it's easy for you to jump into selling drugs, running the streets. I had a reason to be upset and I could have taken that out on other people. I had brothers and sisters I care about. Without their love and support to keep me going, I would not be where I am today.''
The mother-son bond was close. "I have a tattoo portrait of my mother on my arm,'' he said. "She was my mom and dad. I could talk to her about anything. Cry together, laugh together. There were 600 to 700 people at her funeral. She was big in Amityville. She would take people in her home and help them when they had nothing.''
Payton went to work, spending several years at WalMart. But he had a yearning to return to school and play his sport.
"I always had a passion for basketball. I never had a chance to get my degree. But I knew she wanted me to graduate,'' he said of his mother. "That's another reason why I'm back in school. It was very tough (coming back). It's up to you to get what you want done. I wanted to get my degree.''
Farmingdale coach Erik Smiles was familiar with Payton, at least the high school version from several years ago.
"He really didn't know what he was walking into, so I thank him for that,'' Payton said. "It was a process, getting into shape, playing organized ball again.''
Payton is second in assists (2.8) and steals (1.5) for Farmingdale (13-8). He averages 3.5 rebounds and 4.1 points. An even more important statistic: He has a 3.25 grade-point average.
Said Smiles, "When I sat down with Rich, he really sold me on him. The way he spoke, his maturity. The goals that he set for himself. He wanted to get his degree, play basketball, to do right and be able to help his family in the long run. His maturity was really a positive for me. He's got a great sense of what things are about. He's gets the big picture, which a lot of kids don't at a young age in college in terms of getting a degree and making education first. He killed it in the classroom. I thought he'd be a good role model for younger guys to follow.''
Payton has reconnected with his father. "His mom, my grandmother, died a month after losing my mom,'' the guard said. "I felt his pain. I'm getting older. I can't hold grudges because somebody wasn't there.''
Payton has another year at Farmingdale. He wants to get his degree in business and hopes to continue his career overseas, saying, "I want to go as far as basketball will take me.''
Around the campuses
SUNY-Old Westbury swimmer Michael Gavrilchin was named the Skyline Conference rookie of the year after setting and participating in conference records in the championship meet. Gavrilchin won the 100 backstroke (50.58), 100 butterfly (50.12), 400 freestyle medley (3:39.29) and 100 freestyle (47.15). Old Westbury's Sigitas Rudokas was named coach of the year . . . Marquette has announced the hiring of Hofstra associate head lacrosse coach Joe Amplo as the university's first men's lacrosse coach. Amplo will remain with Hofstra until next summer. Marquette will start lacrosse in 2014. Amplo has spent 11 years at Hofstra . . . The Stony Brook men's lacrosse and baseball teams were selected as pre-season favorites to win the America East Conference title.