Adreian Payne's quest for answers

Updated: March 28, 2013, 8:36 PM ET
By Michael Rothstein | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Why?

During Adreian Payne's freshman and sophomore seasons at Michigan State, the one-word question almost became a four-letter word. Payne's queries frustrated his coach, Tom Izzo, each beginning with the same three-letter word.

Why? If Payne was expected to do something -- why? If he came out of the game -- why?

"It was really bad," former Michigan State forward Draymond Green said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it at all. It was awful. At times it was irritating and frustrating."

His frontcourt mate, Derrick Nix, learned to ignore the question. Others considered it a continued misunderstanding of Izzo by Payne and of Payne by Izzo.

[+] EnlargeAdreian Payne
Andrew Shurtleff for ESPN.com Coming out of high school, Adreian Payne was a special but raw talent.

This, though, had always been Payne's approach. His coaches at Jefferson Township Junior/Senior High School in Dayton, Ohio, learned to deal with it, even if Payne would sometimes openly question them in games.

Payne began playing basketball in sixth grade, part of the reason for the questioning. He said this week he didn't know who Duke, his Sweet 16 opponent Friday, was as a kid. Basketball didn't interest him, and he didn't watch it.

"I watched cartoons, didn't watch TV that much," Payne said. "I just played in the backyard with my brothers. We threw beer bottles at each other. We did everything. Stayed in the back, had a big backyard with a creek in it.

"Went through the creek and back neighborhoods, wherever it took us. We liked exploring things, climbing trees, throwing rocks at each other."

Why? Why not?

A math teacher, Richard Gates, asked the same question after walking by Jefferson High's resource room during Payne's freshman year of high school. Payne was there due to an Individualized Education Program determination. And, Gates said, Payne and the other students were watching television instead of learning. Knowing a little bit about basketball, Gates saw the tall freshman sitting there and asked that important question.

Why?

"See this kid playing varsity basketball as a ninth grader," Gates said. "Here's a kid that you expect nothing out of in class and everything on the basketball court."

Gates approached Payne's grandmother, Mary Lewis, and told her she needed to remove her grandson from the program for students with learning difficulties. For Payne's future, they had to take a chance in the present. It was a risk, because at the time Payne struggled reading.

Lewis, who raised Payne after his mother, Gloria Lewis, died when Payne was 13 years old, trusted Gates. They went for it. Payne started regular classes his sophomore year, including both algebra I and geometry. Gates, then promoted to principal, became Payne's math tutor.

He displayed college potential on the court, catching the attention of All-Ohio, a prestigious AAU program. His academics flourished with Gates' help. Gates tutored Payne from 1:30 p.m. to 2:25 p.m. each day for almost three years. The kid who couldn't read started to understand -- and question -- everything. By his senior year, other students were taking notes when he explained precalculus equations.

Colleges recruited him heavily. Michigan State, Kentucky and Arizona, among others, were interested. Payne had two rules: One, he would not go on recruiting visits if they conflicted with school. Two, every coach who came through Jefferson Township had to meet with Gates along with his coaches.

"He made sure every coach saw me," Gates said. "He would not let a coach come in town without them understanding what academic situation he's in now, the situation he had to be transferred to."

Gates stayed out of Payne's college decision, leaving it up to his student and Lewis. But he promised Lewis and college coaches one thing: Payne would be eligible. Payne's senior year at Jefferson Township, he spent his usual time working with Gates and then would come back after school for more ACT tutoring.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesIt took Tom Izzo, a master motivator, time to get through to Payne.

"We all just took a little part in talking to him or spending time with him," said former Jefferson Township assistant basketball coach Mark Parker. "Doing homework with him. Whatever it was he needed at the time. As years passed by, he needed to grow as an individual, so he didn't need your help nearly as much as the beginning because he could still see he could do all this stuff."

He did, though, continue asking the same question: Why?

Gates employed the question to teach Payne, using both scrap paper and a whiteboard in a board of education conference room to explain math problems. By Payne's junior year, Gates had become the superintendent of schools for the district.

Payne's questions continued on the court, too, as he continued to learn the game he started playing late. Everything began pulling together for Payne, who graduated from high school a full qualifier for college.

"It's good to get your story out there, because there are other kids just like you, just like me, that could see or read about somebody that has had it just like them," Payne said. "Maybe give them hope they can do something, too. I have heard from people. They say I inspire them."

Payne left Jefferson Township a less frequent questioner. When he enrolled at Michigan State and began playing for Izzo, the questions started all over again. Payne worked with academic counselors and tutors at MSU -- which many college athletes have -- and would eventually earn Michigan State's Scholar-Athlete award.

On the court was different. Why was uttered more frequently. Payne didn't understand he couldn't do things the same way in college as he had in high school. He didn't watch film.

"He's one of those kids that you say there's no such thing as a dumb question," Michigan State assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said. "I think he takes that to the nth degree sometimes. If there's something he wants to know, he's going to ask the question."

This manifested during games and timeouts, especially when his minutes were sparse. Izzo appreciated the interest, but Payne had terrible timing.

Coaches called Lewis and Payne's high school coach, Art Winston, to help. Parker came up for a meeting with Payne and the Michigan State coaches to find a way to get through to him. Izzo, one of the better motivational coaches in the country, couldn't figure out what would work.

"He didn't disrespectfully do it," Izzo said. "He just wasn't great at taking things from anybody."

Eventually, Payne trusted. Izzo, Stephens and Payne's then-roommate, Green, stressed film study. For the first time in his life, he watched basketball for fun and personal enrichment.

He asked why less often as he could break things down on his own, blooming this season. Payne now watches more film than any other Spartan, having studied three hours of Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly by last Monday in anticipation of playing Duke.

His skills have turned him into a prototype power forward for Michigan State, developing a 3-point shot to go with his post-up moves and defense. For two years, teammates heard "Why?" Now, they said "Whoa."

[+] EnlargeAdreian Payne
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesWhen he put it all together at Michigan State, Payne became a beast.

"There was one practice early on this year where everyone's jaws just dropped," MSU guard Russell Byrd said. "He was a pro. You just knew he was a pro. His moves and the velocity that he rebounded the ball with and the way he dunked it. He was doing all that and you add in his jump shot that came through his second half of the season. In practice, we just all looked at it."

For the first time, Payne understood everything academically and athletically. He said he is on pace to graduate next spring and could have done so this year but needed to space out credits.

His academic focus and athletic growth are correlated and a tribute to Lewis, the woman who made the crucial decision to pull him out of the resource room, put him with everyone else and accelerate his once-stunted educational growth.

Lewis died on Aug. 22, 2011. Payne found out about her death while eating pizza between workouts with the coaches from All-Ohio Red, his old AAU team. The entire Michigan State team went to Dayton for the funeral along with his academic advisers.

Payne's coaches and teachers saw much of Payne's personality -- outgoing, straightforward, fiery -- coming from his grandmother. When she died, the communities that helped raise him, both at Jefferson Township and Michigan State, became closer.

Gates was leaving Lewis' funeral on Aug. 30, 2011, when he heard someone yelling "Doc, Doc," at him in the parking lot. He turned and saw Payne sprinting to catch up with him.

"I turn around and say, 'Hey A,'" Gates said. "He didn't want me to leave the church without meeting his academic adviser. It was almost like he wanted me to know they had him in good hands."

It brought Gates back to Payne's senior year at Jefferson Township, when he helped with his college essay. In it, Gates said Payne wrote about graduating college and then helping children in his neighborhood when he was done playing basketball.

"I never thought I would be able to go to college and graduate when I was playing in the creek and throwing beer bottles at my brothers," Payne said. "It was like a blessing from heaven."

Not quite. It came from an ambitious teenager and those around him first asking why and now, with his future clearly in front of him, wondering why not?

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter