BLOOMINGTON — Bloomington High School senior basketball all-stater Chris Payton will play in the Missouri Valley Conference after all.
The 6-foot-7 Payton, who originally committed to Illinois State but later reopened his recruitment, announced Wednesday night he will play at Southern Illinois.
Payton went public immediately following the Purple Raiders' season-opening victory over University High in the Intercity Tournament at Shirk Center. He said he signed a national letter of intent with the Salukis earlier Wednesday, the final day of the November signing period.
"They made it about more than basketball," Payton said of Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson and his staff. "They made sure that everything that was going on was good, made sure I was all right.
"They gave me words of advice when I needed it. In the AAU season, I'd be struggling and I'd text them and they would give me an honest answer. It meant a lot with everything that they did."
The 220-pound Payton was a second-team all-state and first-team all-Pantagraph Area pick last year after averaging 20.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. Last week he announced he had narrowed his choices to Illinois, Southern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and Valparaiso.
He made the announcement surrounded by teammates and family shortly after contributing 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to a 67-48 win. He pulled on a Southern Illinois shirt and cap while announcing his choice.
"It feels great to be able to express yourself and just let everybody know what was actually true," Payton said. "It's better to hear it from the horse's mouth than it is from other places."
Payton's signing ends a journey in which he committed to Illinois State in August 2017, but announced in January he was decommitting and reopening his recruitment.
"There were a lot of steps along the way that you kind of had to get through," he said. "There's always that time where you're asking yourself, 'Is it really for me? Am I ready to play at this high of a level?' Eventually, it came natural and I feel like I can dominate anywhere."
Payton was mobbed by his teammates as soon as he made it official.
"They're just excited," he said. "Everybody's known me for 15-plus years. They know that me going to college was not supposed to happen. Basketball made that possible. I wasn't supposed to be in this position. It's a lot of emotion. I just want to thank God for allowing me to do this."
BHS coach Micheal Mosley said Payton made a good choice. There was familiarity at SIU with the presence of assistant coach Anthony Beane, a former assistant at Illinois State.
"I think Chris could be a dominant Valley player," Mosley said. "We've been knowing that for quite a while. He always thought that was the best fit for him. And they did a real good job with their late push toward him.
"We know Coach Beane and we've known Coach Hinson. The ironic thing is his (Payton's) first varsity game we took them down there and he was a freshman and they were recruiting his brother (Charles) hard at the time."
Mosley said Payton was relieved to have signed and added, "Now we can just focus on basketball and getting better as a team."