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Prison Defines Life of Tom Payne, Kentucky's First Black Player

Mar 27, 2010 – 10:00 AM
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David Steele

David Steele %BloggerTitle%

Tom Payne
SANDY HOOK, Ky. -- Tom Payne has had a long time to search for an answer to the question. More than 40 years ago, he became one of the historic figures in the history of college basketball -- of all sports, perhaps -- when he became the first black player at the University of Kentucky. The landmark basketball program not only in the South, but in the nation, recruited to and coached there by none other than Adolph Rupp.

But on this late-winter day -- coincidentally, the first day of the Southeastern Conference tournament, which Kentucky eventually won for the 26th time -- Payne was sitting in the cafeteria of Little Sandy Correctional Complex, some 90 miles east of the school's Lexington campus. Payne, who turns 60 in November, is at the state prison serving a life sentence for a rape conviction. He has four years remaining before he's eligible for parole. He has been imprisoned for all but three years since 1972, in three different states for three different convictions.

A number of people from around the Kentucky program -- of the relative few who have even thought about the topic over the last couple of decades -- cannot reconcile the quiet teenager they knew, the 7-foot-2 athlete on whose shoulders the belated integration of Rupp's team rested, with a man who would be sent away for such heinous crimes, not once, but three times.

In a sense, Payne cannot, either. Or, more accurately, does not. In a conversation of more than three hours -- as he stretches and shifts his still-lean 260-pound frame in the tiny molded plastic chair, the hem of his beige prison-issue pants barely covering his calves -- he does make clear as often as possible that he acknowledges what he did that put him in jail.

Starting in Georgia at the end of his rookie season with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, then in Kentucky after cases were made against him while he was still in Georgia's prisons, then in California in the 1980s after being paroled, then back in Kentucky in 2000 when he was paroled in California, for violating his parole in the previous state, Payne has been in prison for all but three of the last 38 years.

"I'm not making any excuses for what I did,'' he said. What he seeks is an explanation, and he chose this: the person he has become in his most recent stretch in prison has almost no relation to the person who arrived in Lexington, then left for the pros two years later, then even got back into basketball briefly, as well as boxing and acting (and working as a bodyguard for Michael Jackson and his brothers) before being sent away again.

He declines to even refer to as "a man'' that younger version of himself -- the one who, he says, had no idea what he was getting into as the pioneer at Kentucky, was completely unprepared for it and suffered deep psychological damage from it.

"Here's what you've got to realize,'' he said, "and I hope I articulate this correctly -- how a person does something is sometimes a mystery to the person. First of all, when I look back at my life sometimes, I don't even see myself. I'm talking about what you're talking about (the crimes). I don't see myself doing what I did.''

The person he is now wants to get out of prison, understandably. Besides the fact that he's getting older and would like to get out while his 84-year-old mother, Elaine, ill from cancer and diabetes, is still alive, he simply has spent far more time locked up since he left high school than he has out.

For any of the changes he said he has undergone since being jailed again in Kentucky to mean anything -- and, he said, that includes intensive therapy, such as sessions with women who have been rape victims, as well as copious reading of biographies, histories and religious texts of all faiths -- he needs to finally leave the penal system and, he said, directly serve as a cautionary tale.

"My life, whatever I have, I want it to be a benefit to someone,'' he said. "I want to be able to turn some people around so that they will have a conscience.''


In addition, he said, he would like not so much a reconciliation with Kentucky, but a recognition of his role in its program history. That the doors have been wide-open for black players since the mid-1970s (and an African-American head coach, Tubby Smith, who led them to the 1998 national title) is obvious.

But who opened them, is not. Daniel Orton, part of the spectacular freshman class on this year's championship contender, said that he knew a lot about past Kentucky stars and that he was drilled on the school's legacy during his recruitment and enrollment, but when asked last month if he knew who Tom Payne was, he frowned and said, "No, sir, I don't.''

Some from Payne's playing days have stayed in touch. Claude Vaughan, Rupp's longtime team trainer, has written to him regularly for years, even though he in his now in failing health. Jim Andrews, who joined the team at the same time and replaced Payne at center when he left to go pro, stays in touch and has visited him. So has Scotty Baesler, who coached the AAU team Payne played on when he was ineligible to play for Kentucky as a freshman; Baesler later became mayor of Lexington and a Congressman, and in recent years has helped Payne's brother Darrell, a lawyer in Cincinnati, try to get Tom paroled, arguing that Kentucky should consider the time he served in California.

Also making the trip to Little Sandy has been Cameron Mills, who played for the 1996 and '98 championship teams, began a ministry in Lexington afterward -- and whose father, Terry, played with Payne.

"He was so appreciative and wanted to see us. We talked for a long time,'' said Mills, who came with Andrews to visit. "He was genuinely thankful for us making the trip.''Tom Payne

While Mills does not condone the reason Payne is in prison, he added, "He's working very hard to make himself a better person. He's opening himself up to things that will make him better.''

"I just want to have a positive impact,'' Payne said. "My days with Adolph Rupp, right now I cherish those days. I cherish being a part of that school's history, because it was something that I contributed to, something that was unbeknown to me at the time. I know it was part of something good, and all I want is that people look at it as something good.''

But what Payne is attempting is a delicate operation -- admitting that it wasn't some mistake or misunderstanding that landed him in prison, not wanting to make it sound as if he blamed his criminal acts on what he went through at Kentucky, but wanting to make sure that what he did have to face cannot, and should not, be ignored, forgotten or brushed off.

"I understand what people are saying. I know people are saying, 'Here is this Tom Payne, I knew him when he was over here, and now there's this thing going on with him over there,' and its hard for people to understand,'' Payne said. "But what they don't understand is that they're seeing two different people. You can say you knew me, and I've always known how to be a nice guy to people. I've never been an outright hostile person. Most people who know me say that I'm a nice guy. But you really don't know what's going on with people.''

Throughout, Payne spoke in a quiet, thoughtful voice, trying to explain his journey, from a late-bloomer in high school in Louisville, the eldest of the eight children of a career Army officer and his wife, to the barrier breaker at Kentucky after decades of resistance to the idea, and then subsequent abuse that was worse at home than on the road, to a premature pro and then, for most of the rest of his life, a prisoner.

Payne's best explanation: his somewhat sheltered, insulated life that became one of special favors when he started basketball as a high school sophomore and became a star as a junior, made him likely the worst possible candidate to be the first black player at a school like Kentucky and with a coach like Rupp, whose role in either keeping his team all-white for so many years differs depending on who is describing it.

Payne, however, said that he holds no grudge about Rupp, who died in 1977. In his lone season, Payne became the first black first-team, all-SEC player; the Wildcats won another conference title and finished ranked eighth in the polls.

"Now I understand that it was institutional racism,'' said Payne, who had expressed the same thoughts five years ago for a news special on Rupp produced by a Lexington TV station. "I understand that he put me out there, he believed in me. Even after I left, when he was struggling, he'd say, 'It'd be different if Tom were here.' So I've come to have a kind of love for him as a father figure.''

Two black players actually had preceded Payne into the SEC (as well as six in the Atlantic Coast Conference). Both experienced much of what Payne did at home and on the road. Perry Wallace eventually had his number retired at Vanderbilt and is now a law professor at American University. Henry Harris committed suicide in 1974, two years after finishing at Auburn.
"Now I understand that it was institutional racism. I understand that [Adolph Rupp] put me out there, he believed in me. ... So I've come to have a kind of love for him as a father figure."
- Tom Payne

"I wasn't like Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson was a lieutenant in the Army, he went to UCLA, he had Branch Rickey -- he was prepared,'' Payne said. "I'd read their stories. I wondered how they made it, Jim Brown, people like that. They were more matured. They were more prepared to fight racism. My background didn't prepare me.

"My mother and father (the late Thomas Sr.) were not racists, so racism was not in our household. They were in the Army; I lived on Army bases all my life and they were integrated, so you really didn't go through that. So I wasn't prepared for that, and when it finally hits you, it hits you like a brick wall.''

After facing repugnant behavior nonstop for that lone season -- on the road, where he was spat upon and shouted slurs, but at school and in Lexington, where he was booed, sent death threats and hung in effigy on campus -- the exact same issues of immaturity and unpreparedness were carried into the NBA, except it was now fused with the scars from his time at Kentucky.

"When I was young, I had no clue. I had no clue that I was Tom Payne, the first African American to play at the University of Kentucky,'' he said. "I knew that's what I was, but I had no clue about what that would mean to people in this state, to the African-Americans in this state, so I had no clue as to how I was supposed to carry myself.''

Payne had not turned 21, and had a wife and young daughter, when he signed an $800,000 contract with the Hawks and joined a team full of veterans far older and more experienced than him in essentially every area of life ("Things were going on that I'd never seen,'' he said). It was soon after the end of his rookie season that he was arrested in Atlanta on two counts of rape.

While in prison following that conviction, Kentucky officials began investigating open cases there, and when Payne was paroled in Georgia in 1977, he was extradited and given a five-year sentence. He was still years away from coming to terms with anything that had happened.

"Really, I didn't ever think about why I was in prison. What I thought about was, I combated prison. I fought prison,'' he said. "[I thought,] 'I'm gonna show them that they can't break me.' That was my mentality. So there was no real true soul work.''

Once he was paroled in Kentucky in 1983 -- still physically buff from working out hard in prison -- he played for the CBA's team in Louisville for a year, then moved to Los Angeles and tried boxing, working under legendary light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. One day, Joe Jackson -- Michael's father -- spotted him on the street, called him over and told him he would get him into movies, and Payne ended up getting parts in movies, TV shows and videos, as well as touring with the Jacksons.

All this did was keep him in the same life that he was incapable of handling before -- and, he said, the same kind of life athletes tend to fall into to this day. "A lot of people think that because [an athlete has] been given all these rewards,'' he said, "all these financial resources for playing his sport, that he somehow has manhood, understands manhood, understands conduct. In actuality, a lot of these guys don't.''

Payne knows that too well, he said, because while he says that his mind is free, his imprisonment has deprived him of the most basic fundamentals. "I don't even have a close male friend,'' he said, adding, "You can't be a man in prison. I still don't consider myself a man yet, because I haven't been able to do the things men do.''

The freedom that he did have in and around the film scene in Los Angeles ended in 1986, on another arrest on rape charges. It was in prison in northern California that he said he finally started figuring out, with the help of counseling, why he continued to go so horrifically wrong. It helped earn him parole there after 14 years, but not a break in Kentucky. Payne no longer expects one. He has had no problems there, but he harbors no illusions about parole in 2014.

What he does hope for is understanding -- about the entirety of his life, and about the notion that he cannot take back or justify what he did. Still, knowing that easy explanations for his actions are unacceptable, he still would like the harsh reality of his desegregation experience to be known. Even, he said, by those who see the success of Vanderbilt's Wallace -- who broke the barrier for the entire SEC -- and compare it to Payne's failures.

"If you make a short phone call to Perry Wallace, you'd find that his soul was impacted,'' Payne said. "His behavior and actions were different than mine, but you really don't know what impacted him deeply ... I can guarantee you Perry Wallace, in the closet of his home, he thought some thoughts and felt some pain that he's never expressed.''
"To me, racism is rape. It's the rape of a person's soul; it's rape of a person's identity. Whenever you make someone less of a person than they are, that's rape."
- Tom Payne

Including the kind of pain that, Payne believes, helped lead him to understand not only what happened to him, but what his victims later would undergo.

"To me, racism is rape. It's the rape of a person's soul; it's rape of a person's identity,'' he said. "Whenever you make someone less of a person than they are, that's rape. And maybe that's the reason I went in the direction I did. I can't call it. I try to call it, and I know that ...'' He paused, then, thinking of the other life he had led, he continued, "You'd have to talk to that other person about that. I can't tell you about that.

"I'm almost 60 years old, and I've been in prison [for the last] 24 years. But I'm all right with it. I believe I will be in position ... to be able to talk to people and bring something of myself to people, maybe some young person, so they won't make the tragic mistakes I made.''
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