Where are They Now?- Johnny Payton

Johnny Payton has seen a lot of great basketball over the years, and even played some himself during his days at New Albany.
As a member of the 1985 undefeated state champion Bulldog squad, Payton knows what it takes to be successful in the game and now spends time encouraging some of the best up and coming athletes in the county.
“It’s great to see the athletes that have come through here over time. I’ve always said that a lot of great athletes go unnoticed in this area,” he said.
“You have to catch that break to make it to the next level. I’ve seen great players from Ingomar and so many other places that just don’t get the recognition that you see in the big cities. The play is just so much better, it’s competitive, and it amazes me that I see some of these guys in the NBA and know that we have players just as good right here.”
Payton was one of those highly-talented players in the 80’s, working under Harvey Childers both at New Albany and later at Northeast, where he helped lead the Tigers to the Junior College National Championship as a freshman in 1986. Payton played on the biggest stage in Mississippi three times while in high school, and remembers the days when there was never an empty gym for a game.
“We could play on a Tuesday night, and you couldn’t get in the gym,” he said. “Think about that. New Albany has a nice gym, a big gym, and it was standing room only for any game. We used to host the New Albany Invitational, and that had 52 teams my senior year when we won it. It was always a big deal, that tournament, as were all the games during that time.”
After achieving success at Northeast, Payton transferred to Ole Miss, where he roomed with former Rebels’ coach Rod Barnes and was set to play Division I ball. His stay on campus was brief, and after returning to New Albany, he began working with the town’s Street Commission, where he works to this day. While his full time job is time-consuming, Payton still stays connected with the game, talking with current Bulldogs’ coach Brad Gray whenever he can.
“My job keeps me very busy, there’s always something to do, but I still take time and talk to Coach Gray whenever I have a chance. There’s also that time with my grandkids that I value and look forward to. I have a busy, but enjoyable life,” he said.
To this day, one of his favorite hobbies is keeping up with New Albany and Union County basketball, and having experienced the difficulty of achieving an undefeated season, he said he knew he would watch a state champion this past season in the Lady Bulldogs.
“Once in a blue moon will you see a team go undefeated. A lot of things go into it, and there’s a lot of chemistry with your teammates that needs to be there,” he said. “I loved watching the Lady Bulldogs over the last few years just because they had everything. Those girls played together for years and everything was in place for them to be successful.”
“When they lost the championship to Raymond, I told everyone, they will get it next year, because they had that taste of what it’s like to be there and they have what it takes to win it all. Both the boys and girls have brought back a lot of pride to New Albany, and it’s been fun to watch them.”
And Payton had simple advice to the young athletes of the county, many of which he feels has the potential to play beyond high school.
“Stay in school, listen to your coach, respect your elders, those are the things you need to focus on,” he said. “Stay on the right track and work hard and you just might be able to get that chance, that big break that you’ve worked so hard for.”
While he remains one of the greatest athletes to play in the county, Payton is quick to note it’s all about teamwork and he also talked about his continuing love for the game.
“I enjoyed playing ball so much, and if you work hard, you will be successful. You also have to understand that it’s not an individual sport. People will say ‘Oh you should have seen Johnny play’ and ‘Johnny led New Albany,’ but we had four more guys out there who worked just as hard.”
“It was a beautiful thing. You can’t go back, but it’s fun to remember those days.”