MURRAY — It was an amazing 2020-21 season for Murray State men’s basketball alumni Cameron Payne with the Phoenix Suns.
His biggest season in six as a basketball professional, brought him to the doorstep of becoming just the third MSU Racer to win an NBA championship.
After a hot run through series wins against the LA Lakers, Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers, the Suns won the first two games against the Bucks and then faltered. The Milwaukee Bucks completely erased a 2-0 deficit in the last 10 days and won the best of seven series and the championship 4-2 by a score of 105-98.
After a period of time when he was out of the NBA and playing in China, Payne had a comeback season in which he solidified his position in the league.
In 22 postseason games, Payne made an argument for playing more than his average of 19 minutes per game. He scored 9.3 points, grabbed 2.5 rebounds and dished out 3.2 assists per game. His performance in place of Chris Paul (June 22) was brilliant as he scored a career-high 29 points on 12-of-24 from the field to go with nine assists in a win over the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.
On the season, Payne appeared in 60 games with an average of 18 minutes played her game with a scoring average of 8.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Payne became the third former Racer to play in the NBA Finals and was trying to be the third to win the title.
The first Racer to win an NBA title was Joe Fulks, who played when the league was called the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in the 1940’s. He was on a championship team in 1947 with the Philadelphia Warriors with a 4-1 series win over the Chicago Stags. In 1948, Fulks and Philly made it to the BAA Finals, but lost 4-2 to the Baltimore Bullets. A WWII veteran, Fulks played at Murray State from 1941-42, served in the Marine Corps and then restarted his basketball career in 1946. Fulks played in 489 career games, all with Philadelphia and was named to the NBA’s Silver Anniversary Team in 1971.
Dick Cunningham, who was part of the last Milwaukee Bucks NBA Championship in 1971, was the second Racer to get an NBA Championship ring. He led the nation in rebounding for the Racers with 21.8 per game in 1967. He was drafted by the Suns in the second round (21st overall pick) in 1968, but was traded to the Bucks where he played for three seasons. After one season in Houston, Cunningham played three more seasons in Milwaukee with his last of 358 career games coming in the spring of 1975.
All three of these former Murray State stars are members of the Murray State Hall of Fame. Fulks was in the inaugural class in 1965, while Cunningham was enshrined in 1986 and Payne in 2020.