What a Difference a Year Makes
Their respective teams — Pitt (Payton) and Ball State (Thomas) — had each been knocked out of the first round of their conference tournaments and their seasons ended.
Separately, both men opted to transfer — moves that meant more wins and a March Madness appearance for their new team but also a chance to jump-start their lives. Their transfers were announced one day apart last April.
“We were both aware that we needed to adjust to the team here, to the culture and everything,” Payton said. “I think we did a great job of it. Of what coach expects out of us. What the guys expect out of us as teammates.”
“Immediately (felt welcomed),” Payton said. “I felt like it was a good fit. First day I was on campus, it felt like I was at home. Guys accepted me for who I was and really embraced me.”
Payton attended Bloomington High School in Bloomington, Illinois, where he earned second-team, all-state honors in his junior year.
Payton’s path to Kent State also saw meaningful time on the court at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, before a short stint at Pitt on his way to becoming a Golden Flash. Payton says each step on this journey has been meaningful.
Watch Kent State Today's interview with Chris Payton.
As one of five children with three brothers and a sister, the soft-spoken forward knows the value of family, specifically the new brothers he has gained on the team. That includes Thomas, himself one of four siblings.
“Every day it’s jokes, laughs and playfighting,” Thomas said. “And when it’s time to get to business, we flip the switch. It’s amazing playing with these guys.”
For Thomas, the chance to play at Kent State was very much an opportunity to be closer to home.
A four-year letter winner at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, Thomas was Division II all-state, second-team selection as a senior and the North Coast League Player of the Year.
“Kent recruited me a couple of times throughout my college experience, so to be able to play for Kent is like playing for home,” Thomas said.
Thomas believes that connecting with Payton paid dividends.
“We didn’t know each other, but when we first got here and we met each other, we were like, hey, we’re both transfers and we both had to work hard to meet the standard the Golden Flashes had already established,” Thomas said.
Thomas spoke with Kent State Today about his decision to transfer:
Five other Golden Flashes, including star Sincere Carry (Duquesne), are also transfer students who have helped create a strong bond in a group that includes many new faces.
Head coach Rob Senderoff praised Thomas and Payton for buying into the Kent State system and the rest of the team for helping new players to adjust quickly.
“When we brought them here, we had graduated a number of really impactful players from our roster,” Senderoff said. “So we knew we needed some front-court guys who could help us. They (Thomas and Payton) were who we targeted. Both of them. They were our top choice, and fortunately for us they chose to come to Kent and then have blossomed.”
That success, Senderoff says, also speaks to the rest of the roster and how they have made sacrifices for the whole team.
“You have a culture and identity of your program and what you want your program to be about, and those new guys have to get on board with that but do it in their own way as far as who they are to be the best version that they can be of themselves,” Senderoff said.
Payton and Thomas say the ability to lean on one another helped each make a smoother transition, and that they shared a special moment about their similar journeys during a recent win.
“At the end of the Akron game, we had a conversation ... and I said, ‘I told you so’ and ‘look where we’re at,” Payton said.
Interested in transferring to Kent State? Learn more about transfer student requirements.