Published: Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 11:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 11:57 p.m.
The former Spartanburg High School and USC Upstate basketball standout was playing professional basketball in Australia. The blonde bombshell spent some of his off time on the western-shore beaches of a continent that averages 70 degrees year-round. His biggest worry, it seemed, was a kangaroo jumping out in front of his vehicle.
“I couldn’t do that forever,” Payne said.
Sad, but true.
And he was good, too.
Payne, playing for the Lakeside Lightning, led the Western Australia State Basketball League in 2009 with more than 25 points per game and was still one of the best players on one of the best teams when the 2012 season, his fourth, ended just short of a championship.
“I was starting to look at the next step of my life,” Payne said. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live in Australia, even though I loved it.”
So he started to think seriously about getting into coaching, not sometime in the future but right away. He had a strong connection to the business through his father, USC Upstate head coach Eddie Payne.
“I think he was ready,” Eddie said. “He had four good years. He had a good run. He had a real good run. Then in the last two years, they had the best team in the league and he got hurt in the semifinals in a best-of-three series both years. They didn’t win it.
“… When he told me, probably in late June, that he was thinking about getting into coaching, I made some inquiries to Clemson and some other schools about a possible graduate assistant spot. It was just too late.”
Luke had apparently waited too long, at least for this season.
“Toward the end of last season in Australia, I was thinking seriously about going to grad school and being a G.A. somewhere,” Luke said. “But it was kind of late to do that. In the process of trying to get in, it was already August and all those positions had been filled.”
Luke was resigned to the fact that he would pack up his sneakers and head back to Australia. It was a good job on which to fall back and wait.
But then something perfect opened up.
USC Upstate’s fourth-year assistant, Ryan Walker, with a 2-year-old son, wanted to get out of the coaching profession.
“I think he just decided it was not what he wanted to do with the travel and all that,” Eddie said. “He wanted to be home more. That’s what he told me.”
Luckily, the Spartans had a perfect candidate as a replacement. And on the week of the preseason news conference, Luke cleared his final qualifications hurdle to become a full-fledged member of the USC Upstate coaching staff,
It could not have worked out more perfectly for Luke. And, Eddie said, for the Spartans as well.
“Who could have been a better fit?” Eddie said. “Who better knows what we do, how I run things, was a great player here, call sell this program, was a great student here, already knew the players and had relationships with them? It was an easy thing.”
“There’s no other way to describe it but to say it fell together,” Luke said. “It worked out perfectly. It was pretty unique and ironic than it came up like that. I know all the guys from being around them so much. There was a definite level of comfort.”
Luke ranks ninth all-time in program history with 1,381 points scored and fifth in 3-pointers with 333. He helped win the 2005 Peach Belt Conference regular-season championship and the 2006 tournament title before helping USC Upstate transition into the Division I era.
His father has won more than 400 games as a head coach, including five years at Oregon State. This is his 11th season at USC Upstate, which finished second in the 2011-12 regular season of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Spartans’ first year of eligibility after the transition from the Division II level.
“I’ve always thought about coaching as a possibility,” Luke said. “I never knew exactly if I wanted to do it. I was just never sure. But I really enjoy the coaching aspect of the game and all that goes into it. I can see myself doing this for a long time. I’m definitely enjoying it. I think it’s promising, at least in my mind, about what kind of career I can have.”