Nick Payne farewells the Bandits, basketball and life on the Border

LIFE comes at you fast.

In the blink of an eye it seems, you go from fresh-faced rookie to respected elder, the days, weeks, months and yes, even the years spin by with no regard for regrets.

Luckily for Nick Payne, he doesn’t seem to have many.

The decorated veteran of the Albury-Wodonga Bandits will play his 400th SEABL game tonight at the Lauren Jackson Sports Centre, the final home match of a stellar career.

Payne, his wife Emily and daughter Imogen are headed to Brussels, Belgium in the next few weeks, Emily taking up a career opportunity that, Payne says, “was simply too good to pass up”.

So what more fitting way could there be for one of Albury-Wodonga’s favourite players to bow out on his home court and at the same time become just the fourth player to rack up 400 league games?

Payne will join Eric Hayes (486 games with Ballarat), Grant Dennis (425, Frankston) and DJ Taylor (418, Kilsyth) as members of a very exclusive club, the seven-time skipper of the Bandits becoming the first player to reach the milestone with games for more than one team, having played 57 games for the Knox Raiders over the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

With a few visa issues still to be sorted for the move overseas, Payne will hit the road next week for the season finale against the Brisbane Spartans and bring a unique chapter of the Bandits’ history to a close.

The 186-centimetre guard will finish his Bandits career in the all-time top-10 of almost every major statistical category, leading the club in games played with 344.

He will also hold a special place of his own as the only player to have played in both the 2001 and 2012 championship-winning teams, winning the Hugh McMenamin medal as best on court in the latter game.

“It’s all a bit surreal,” Payne says.

“And it’s gone so quickly, 400 games, it wasn’t until last week that someone told me that was a lot of games and I had a chance to think about it.

“It’s unexpected to finish like this, I didn’t plan it this way, but it’s a really nice way to finish up.”

Asked to recall his favourite memory from a 16-year career, Payne doesn’t even hesitate, nominating the four titles he collected with Albury-Wodonga and Knox but singling out the fairytale 2001 title as his most cherished moment.

As for the best players he’s seen, it won’t surprise anyone his close friend and team-mate, the late Allen McCowan is at the top of his list.

But Payne also singled out scoring machine Shawn Redhage, who terrorised SEABL defences in the mid-2000s for North West Tasmania and Bendigo as an all-time great.

“I think the 2001 title was pretty special, to break a 25-year drought like that,” Payne says.

“But to do it again in 2012 was fantastic and to be lucky enough to play for a couple of very good Knox teams was great too.

“I’ve played with and against so many fantastic players, Al (McCowan) always comes to mind, simply because we played together so long.

“But guys like Shawn Redhage, who could just light it up and score at will.

“And then (Geelong high-flyer) Ismail Muhammad and even going back to my early years, Eric Hayes, you could just go on and on.”

If there is a regret — and Payne says he isn’t losing any sleep over it — it’s that he never received an extended chance at making the NBL.

One-off tryouts with now-defunct franchises West Sydney Razorbacks and Hunter Pirates and an invitation to scrimmage with the now-also-extinct South Dragons was as close as Payne got, something that ever-so-mildly irritates him, like an itch that he never could quite scratch.

“I look back at that but I’m not hugely regretful because I knew I got the absolute most out of my ability,” Payne says.

“But yeah, absolutely, I think I could’ve played a certain role (in the NBL), for sure.

“You watch over the years the guys that get opportunities and I certainly don’t believe they’ve been any better than what I was.

“But that’s just the way it is.”

Never lacking in confidence, Payne freely admits the mental contest is one that is as important to him as the physical one, noting he’s seen more talented players lose their way because they lacked the intestinal fortitude to knuckle down when the going gets tough.

It is a lesson hard learned from the start of his career when experienced team-mates such as now-coach Brad Chalmers, Damien Robertson and Graham Richardson ensured Payne had a clear understanding of what it took to play and compete at this level.

“You’ve got to have a certain amount of confidence when you come up against some of the players in this league,” Payne says.

“It’s a mental battle more than it is a physical battle.

“Even now I still have a belief I can hold my own and be extremely competitive.

“There’s a lot of skilled players but I believe a little mental toughness goes a long way.”

That legendary work ethic has seen Payne enjoy his best shooting season in more than a decade, upping his numbers across the board.

The 2006 All-SEABL team nominee admits it’s satisfying knowing he’s walking away still able to be a key contributor when expectations were this year would be one where his output would start to slip.

But at the end of the day, how would he like his coaches, team-mates and fans to remember him?

“Just as a player who showed up, played hard and was ultra-competitive,” Payne says.

“Someone who wasn’t the most talented player but worked hard for everything.

“You see guys who have all the talent in the world and they’re just wasting it and I’m glad I’m not one of them.

“It’s frustrating, they’re going to look back and regret what they didn’t do with all that talent.

“But yeah, I’m really going to miss it.

“Even just the little things, like training sessions, hanging out with the guys and competing on the weekends.

“Sometimes the training can drag out and be tough but I still love lacing up my shoes and competing.

“I’ve just enjoyed every minute of this.”

And what of an eventual return to the Border? Could Bandits fans one day see Payne strolling the sidelines, berating referees and imploring a new generation of players to work and work and work some more?

Payne certainly doesn’t rule it out but for now, he’s content to hang up his shoes, knowing he gave everything he had and reaped the rewards accordingly.

“I don’t know when we’ll be back,” Payne says.

“Maybe one day; I’d love to say I’ll come back and be a coach of this club but right now that’s a long time away.

“It’s more an abstract thought, something I would love to happen and you never know.

“I’d never say that it won’t happen but right now, we’re looking forward to the next chapter and the next adventure in our life.”