Men’s basketball: The French connection

The pickup basketball game is a staple of the summers of American childhood. Call up a bunch of neighborhood friends, head down to the blacktop, and play until it gets dark. For today’s young people, the matchups are where friendships are formed, skills are honed and rivalries are hewed.

But rarely do such games have quite the impact that it had for a pair of former College players.

Adam Payton ’07 grew up in Burlington, N.J. Zeb Cope ’04 spent summers visiting his grandmother and honing his skills on the same Burlington court frequented by Payton. One summer day in 2004, Payton, who had just finished his sophomore basketball campaign at Vanderbilt, challenged Cope, a recent William and Mary graduate, to a game. Cope won, but the two started talking and a friendship that has lasted across six years and six time zones was formed.

The pair was pitted against each other again last Tuesday night, but this time, the surrounding scenery couldn’t have been more different. The Eiffel Tower and the picturesque streets of Paris served as the backdrop, a further evolution in a basketball journey that has taken the two friends from New Jersey to Williamsburg to the raucous arenas of Europe.

In the red and white of Lille Métropole, Payton stands as an elusive and poised 6’3” point guard. He has the size warranted to be a superior player at the position, while nightly showcasing the athletic ability to split defenders and drop in a silky jumper on French courts. It was moves similar to those—coupled with that dead-on jump shot—that established him as the subject of deep interest from major conference schools as a senior at New Jersey’s Lawrenceville High School, leading to a scholarship at SEC-program Vanderbilt.

But Payton endured a rocky two seasons for the Commodores, averaging 1.8 points in only 8 minutes per game. By the time he ran into Cope in Burlington, a transfer out of Vanderbilt was looming in the back of his mind. His newfound friend encouraged him to take a visit to Williamsburg, and after sitting down with Head Coach Tony Shaver, Payton packed his bags and transferred to the College.

Cope was an unlikely recruiter for the Tribe program, and a summer earlier he probably would not have had much impact on Payton. Entering his senior season, he had been misused by former Head Coach Rick Boyages, relegated to the post where he struggled to find steady minutes and was discouraged from shooting. But, the summer before Cope met Payton, Shaver arrived in the picture, and Cope found his niche with him.

“We had a rebuilding team, a young team,” Cope said, “Before Coach Shaver, I had taken two or three threes my entire collegiate career. Then Coach Shaver came and was like, ‘Shoot the ball!’”

Moved to small forward, the 6’8”, 240-pound Cope thrived. After his breakout senior season, he signed with the former agent of Tribe Assistant Coach Ted Jeffries and was picked up by a Spanish team in Calpe.

Payton, meanwhile, had professional aspirations of his own. Coming to Williamsburg, he found instant success on the court in Kaplan Arena, averaging 10.4 points and 1.8 assists over his junior and senior seasons. He was named Third Team All-CAA as a senior, and set his mind on the NBA after graduation.

But the pinnacle of the basketball world was not interested, and Payton found himself in Europe as well. After selecting Cope’s agent, Jim Clibanoff, Payton signed with a Swiss squad and played well enough in his first year to earn a transfer up to Lille. A year and a half later, he’s still there.

“For me, as long as I had a basketball and a court, I was OK,” Payton said. “Any frustration I had I could release on the basketball court.”

Cope dons the green and white of JSF Nanterre with yellow Nikes for added emphasis. He dazzles the foreign audience with a game complete both in the paint and out. On this night, he notches a game-high 18 points, nine from beyond-the-arc.

Cope’s path to France was not quite as smooth as his former teammate’s. He left his initial Spanish team due to a lack of playing time just two months into the season, only to be let go after a six-week tryout with a Swiss squad.

“My first year I was basically cut twice,” he said.

He rebounded from the early adversity to sign with a program in Switzerland’s top league, where he won back-to-back championships and received consecutive MVP awards. Suddenly finding himself in demand, he competed in the French Pro A league for three seasons before moving to the French Pro B league, where Payton had found a steady home, this past fall. It might be the second-best league in France, but the league is still viewed as one of the top 10 in Europe, and is littered with past and future NBA prospects. Payton hopes to be in the latter category.

“If I can reach my potential, I will be good enough to play in the NBA,” Payton said. “Whether I get a look or not, that is another story. There are a lot of guys over here who are good enough … and there are a lot of guys over here that have played in the NBA.”

For Cope, the NBA was once a consideration that has since ceased to be his sole aspiration.

“Anybody that does anything wants to do it at the highest level they can do it,” Cope said. “The NBA is, of course, regarded as the highest level of professional basketball. I understand having the goal, but at the same time, appreciate where you are. I get paid well; I am here in Paris … If it is going to happen, it is going to happen.”

And there are benefits to playing outside of the intense media glare in the United States. Cope and Payton especially value the camaraderie of teammates from all over the globe and the experience of playing European professional basketball.

The future, much like the past, looks to hold similar paths for the duo. Cope, wrapping up his sixth season in Europe, is in his final year before returning to the United States to pursue a medical or post baccalaureate degree. He wants to be an orthopedic surgeon.

“When I was five years old, I wanted to be a doctor, way before I ever decided I wanted to play pro basketball,” Cope said. “Basketball has provided me with amazing experiences … but I have been working towards returning to school as well … I am going to miss this, but I am ready as anybody can be to make the change.”

Payton aims to obtain a doctorate in child psychology after his playing days. How long those playing days will last remains uncertain.

“As long as I can play, I will,” Payton said. “If I find a good position and it’s a good environment for my wife and son, I’m going to keep playing.”

But for a night in the Parisian suburb, it was not about the future – it was about the present.

With five minutes remaining, Cope set a stiff pick on Payton, who emerged from the block with a grin only a true friend could pull off.

“I remember when I was at William and Mary, they told me a story that Zeb knocked some guy out,” Payton said. “So when I turned my head, I saw Zeb right there and that memory flashed into my head. I had to stop real quick because I didn’t want to be laid out on the court, unconscious.”

Six years after their matchup on that Burlington court, the same result held. Cope’s Nanterre squad handily trounced Payton’s Lille squad after Cope ripped off 12 straight points during the third quarter to build a decisive lead.

Cope and Payton will not meet again during the regular season this year, with the playoffs being the last chance for a final showdown. With Cope aiming to return to school next fall, it is conceivable the two took the court opposite each other for the last time Tuesday night. But, if history is any indication, they will meet again.


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