Cully Payne: Blue Demon in the Making

At 15 years of age, Cully Payne no longer has to worry about the college recruiting process. Letters, phone calls, impressing college coaches, these are all things he diverted when he committed to play at DePaul in 2009.

In exchange, a figurative bull's-eye was drawn on his back. Before he stepped foot into Burlington Central High School as a freshman or played in a varsity basketball game, Payne became the target of his opposition. From taunting fans to opposing guards wanting to prove themselves or disprove Payne, the Blue Demons' recruit now must deal with it all for four years before stepping foot on the Lincoln Park campus.

As he was prepared to decide his future so far in advance, Payne is ready to handle all that follows.

"I personally like it," Payne said. "The more pressure I have the better, the harder I play."

A month ago, though, college wasn't anywhere on Payne's mind. He had just graduated from Thompson Middle School.

Shortly after returning from Reebok's Camp Next in late June, Payne, his father Kent, mother Sherry, and cousin Chris, Burlington Central's coach, visited DePaul's campus and met with Blue Demons coach Jerry Wainwright. Sherry was familiar with the campus. She had played on DePaul's women's basketball team for three years.

Wainwright already knew the family. He had worked with Kent's father Jim at East Leyden High School in the late 1970s. Wainwright was then an assistant basketball coach under Norm Goodman. Wainwright had kept in touch with the Paynes and had seen Cully play on television in the Real Deal Classic in May.

Wainwright's meeting with the family lasted three hours during which he offered a scholarship. Payne and his family were impressed by Wainwright's vision for the program and how he stressed the importance of family.

On the car ride home to Elgin, each family member offered their opinion.

Kent, who is also the men's basketball coach and athletic director at Elgin Community College, liked a number of things he heard from Wainwright.

"His vision," Kent said. "His background is what it is. He treats it like a family deal. He's got a condo right down the street from the college. He wants to be close to college, close to his players. He feels they can compete year in and year out in the Big East. He wants to compete for a national championship."

The family returned home around 10 p.m. A half hour later, Payne called Wainwright and told him, "It'd be an honor to play for you and DePaul University in four years."

The media attention soon followed. Everyone wanted to find out as much as they could about the unknown recruit.

They wondered, "Was this 5-foot-11, 154-pound guard who had just graduated middle school good enough to be offered a scholarship to play in the Big East?"

Payne and those around him believe so.

"I absolutely believe God-willing that he's healthy he'll be able to play on the national scene," Kent said.

Payne said, "From what I've heard from my coach and my dad, if I keep working the way I do, I'll be able to compete in the Big East."

Payne grew up around basketball. At the age of two, he would accompany his father to practices and games when Kent coached Elgin St. Edwards to the state tournament. His father taught him the fundamentals and his knowledge for the game.

Kent later created the Illinois Spartans, an AAU team, to coach his son. Kent's objective when forming the Spartans wasn't to build a championship squad. Rather he wanted to put a team together that forced his son to do multiple things on the floor and become an all-around player.

"I wanted him to do everything, have to penetrate and kick, have to defend, have to shoot off the dribble," Kent said. "I built it where Cully had to help his team win by doing a tremendous amount of things. When we went to Camp Next, we saw a lot of guys who were one dimensional. We saw guys who wanted to score and guys who wanted to pass."

Payne's ability to handle, pass and shoot a basketball were good enough to persuade Chris Payne to make the lefty the team's starting point guard.

So far, Chris hasn't been disappointed. In summer games against the likes of Gurnee Warren, Rockford Boylan and Bolingbrook, Payne held his own against intense pressure.

"What stands out the most is what he can do with the ball in his hands," said Chris, who coached Mt. Carroll to the Class A state championship three years ago. "You don't see a lot of kids his age break someone off the dribble and create his own shot. He can shoot the ball. His ballhandling is really good."

"There's no question he's ready to play the 1 for us. In our system the 1 has a lot of responsibility. Most of what we do the ball goes through him. The great thing about him is he's so unselfish."

Playing with and against older players won't be anything new to Payne. Since Kent took over the Elgin program six years ago, Payne has worked out and scrimmaged against his dad's players. As he's gotten older, Payne's been able to hold his own more often.

His workouts at Elgin Community College are something he takes seriously. He'll shoot 400 jumpers, perform speed and agility drills, spend time developing an inside, mid-range and outside game and work on improving his defensive and passing games.

Basketball is his life.

"When I have not been able to play, I get grumpy and just not happy," Payne said. "I need my basketball. I'm not a big party guy. I don't go to parties. I just go home and play basketball. I'm just working out every single day. I'm totally motivated to do it."

No matter how good Payne becomes, he and his family have promised not to break their commitment to DePaul no matter what school comes knocking.

"For us to pull back on that would be sinful," Kent said. "It wouldn't be something that we would even consider. In Cully's mind, there's no difference between DePaul, Duke and North Carolina. DePaul will be Duke and North Carolina when Wainwright gets it going in the next few years."

Blue Demon fans will be keeping a close eye on that as well as Cully.

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