Hard work to bring 1st Pinoy to NBA

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MANILA, Philippines – Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton said the other day he wouldn’t be surprised if a Filipino breaks into the NBA soon, adding that the key is hard work which was his own ticket to make it. Although Fil-Ams Raymond Townsend and Jordan Clarkson saw action in the NBA, no home-grown, Filipino-born player has ever crossed the bridge to the major league.

Payton, 23, was a skinny, undersized guard in high school and didn’t go over six feet until his senior season. But he persevered through three years of college, gaining a solid reputation as a ball-hawking defender who never backed down from anyone. As a freshman with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Payton didn’t hit a single triple and shot a poor 56.4 percent from the line. Then, with new contact lenses on, he raised his scoring clip to 15.9 as a sophomore and 19.2 as a junior, in the process claiming the Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year award.

Payton renounced his fourth year of varsity eligibility to turn pro and is now on his third season with the Magic. His scoring norm has improved year after year from 8.9 to 10.7 to 12.8 points. As Orlando’s starting point guard, the 6-4 Payton had only three triple doubles in his first two years but last season, registered five.

“We see so many players from overseas in the NBA now and maybe, a Filipino could be the next one,” said Payton who’s in town to promote the Jr. NBA program. “My advice to Filipino ballers is to continue growing, continue to work.”

Payton flew in last Thursday with his parents Elfrid, Sr. and Danielle. His father was a football star at Grambling University and is a Canadian league Hall of Famer as a defensive lineman.

“When I was young, I played all sports, everything from baseball, soccer, track and football,” said Payton. “My dad never forced me to play sports or go to one direction. When I was small, I loved football, that was my first love. Then, when I was about 12, basketball was what I wanted to do. It didn’t disappoint my dad because he never forced me to do any sport. If he wanted me to play football, he would’ve been disappointed but he didn’t. My dad taught me just about being tough, about loose ball things. If you get your hands on the ball, that’s always been his biggest thing, catching the ball, rebounding, grabbing the loose ball.” Payton said it was tough and cool being the only boy of six children. “You just got to get to the bathroom first,” he chuckled.

Payton’s parents have been married 24 years. Two of their daughters are also into sports, track and softball. Payton’s father said while his son has blossomed into an NBA star, education remains a priority. “He’s got 30 more hours to go before earning his degree,” said Payton’s father.

Payton was surprised that two former Louisiana at Lafayette players, Elijah Millsap and Larry Fogle, were former PBA imports. “That’s amazing,” he said. “I know basketball’s been growing in the Philippines. My (Orlando) teammate Evan Fournier was in the Philippines last summer. He told me how much the game’s been growing and he actually went out to the beaches (in Palawan) and played with some guys.”

Payton, whose boyhood hero was Allen Iverson, said it’s frustrating that in three NBA seasons, he hasn’t gone to the playoffs. “It’s tough because I want to win badly, being so competitive, but it looks like we’ve got a breakthrough coming soon,” he said. “I’ve played for four different coaches at Orlando (Jacque Vaughn, James Borrego, Scott Skiles, Frank Vogel). All had different styles but one constant is they always tell you to play hard, give it your all – that’s the one thing they had in common.”

Payton said Vogel gave him a free rein after the All-Star break this season. “Things started picking up a little bit,” said Payton whose NBA single-game highs include 28 points, 14 rebounds and 15 assists. “As far as triple doubles go, I try to impact the game in different ways, not just by scoring but also by rebounding, getting my teammates involved, playing defense. It’s not a conscious effort to get a triple double. I just try to do my best and what the coach wants me to do out on the floor.”

As for his “hanging” hair style which looks like a ledge jutting out of a cliff, Payton said he started to grow it in high school. “My teammates and I weren’t going to cut our hair, like a team bonding, to win the championship but we wound up losing in the semifinals,” he said. “Everybody cut their hair after we lost but I liked the way my hair went so I continued to let it grow.” Payton’s father said it used to be an Afro. “He goes to the barber once a week to line his hair,” said his mother.