One-Time UK Great Still Behind Bars After Three Decades - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

One-Time UK Great Still Behind Bars After Three Decades

By Connie Leonard

(CENTRAL CITY, Ky.) -- He laid the groundwork for African Americans who wanted to play ball at the UK. In the late 1960s, Tom Payne was the talk of the town, but today his name is seldom heard because of the ugly stigma it carries. WAVE 3 Investigator Connie Leonard recently talked with the former Wildcat about a lifetime of pain and regret.

Tom Payne may not have played basketball for the UK Wildcats for decades, but even now he says he "can't help but connect with Kentucky when I see them guys run out on the floor, and I see Tubby Smith and ... I see how the crowd roots for them, I feel like I'm connected to that in some way."

Payne is the man who paved the way for African Americans at the University of Kentucky but instead of a celebrated career, his is a story of off-the-court turmoil and unfulfilled potential.

Payne was a senior at Louisville's Shawnee High School when Sports Illustrated came calling in 1968. Standing 7'1" and weighing 215 pounds, Payne was a lanky, easy-going kid, who told reporters he loved to block shots.

He also knew he was special, as one of the top five high school players in the nation.

Tom's mother, Elaine, has saved every newspaper clipping, every magazine article, every mention of her eldest son, Tommy. The first of Elaine's nine children, Payne was born breaking records -- he was the longest baby ever born at the local Hospital.

Years later, an accomplishment of much greater proportions was headed his way when the legendary Adolf Rupp and his assistant, Joe B. Hall, started coming around.

Elaine says Rupp "told us, he said your son's got tremendous talent."

It was big news: Tom Payne, UK's first black scholarship player and Adolf Rupp's new pupil.

Hall says the time was right for Payne "It was absolutely time to integrate the program. In fact, it was past time."

"He believed in me because he put me out on the floor," Payne recalls.

Becoming a Wildcat was one of the best moments of Payne's life. "When they say, 'number 54 -- Tom Payne -- and to run out there the first time ever, that was like an overwhelming feeling."

The feeling didn't last.

Payne explains why. "Say 18,000 call one black person a 'nigger'? What kind of effect do you think that has on that black person?"

It was a shocking reality of the times for the entire Payne family, and the memories are still painful for Payne's younger brother, Darrell.

"I can recall going to UK games, me and my father, and you know we would be the only African Americans in the whole stadium," Darrell recalls. "To be sitting down and hearing all these racial epitaphs about my brother, my role model, somebody I looked up to all my life, and my father having to listen to things being said about his son, I think about how hard it was for us. But, more importantly how hard it was for Tommy."

Teammate Jim Andrews remembers what it was like for Payne when the team played in Mississippi and Alabama. "It was very tough. The racial slurs and the other cursing and threats that were made, you couldn't help but hear those things."

Payne's anger grew toward whites. "My goal was back then: "I'm gonna show them."

After one year, Payne wanted out -- and wanted what the NBA's Atlanta Hawks were offering. "Without a moment's thought about that, I was just going to run and take the money."

On the morning Tom Payne was to leave for Atlanta to sign his pro contract, police showed up at his Louisville home.

Former prosecutor Paul Richwalski "a rape victim came forward, and identified him as her assailant."

Richwalski says the female victim recognized Payne in the newspaper but because the police report listed her attacker as 6'3", instead of 7'2", investigators let Payne go to Atlanta. After a season with the Hawks, he was arrested, convicted and incarcerated on separate rape charges in Georgia.

Five years later, Richwalski brought Payne back to Kentucky. He refused a plea.

"I vividly remember him saying, I can't get up there and admit I did this," Richwalski says.

After six years in the state reformatory, Payne was paroled. He began boxing, and moved to California.

Bit parts in movies like "Stingray" came along, but, it was all too fast. "When men walk out of a prison system," Payne says, "they're little more than heathen animals."

"I've seen guys get raped in Georgia, I was in a riot in there. A guy stood up on a roof and shot down at me."

Having never dealt with a deep-rooted problem, Payne was convicted of rape again.

"I have hurt people," Payne admits.

In a California prison, he spent years undergoing therapy. "I've actually met women who were raped and talked to me personally."

After another 14 years of time served, a California judge ruled a sentencing mistake kept Payne in prison six extra years. He was released, but Kentucky was waiting.

With rehabilitation and the warden's recommendation, the parole board could have released him. Instead, he was given 15 more years for violating parole.

Now after three decades behind bars, the Green River Correctional Complex in Central City is now Payne's home. The former Wildcat rarely goes near the prison basketball court.

And in 30 years, he had never heard from anyone at UK. But that changed two months ago.

"You have to be a teammate, and a teammate for life," Andrews says.

So Jim Andrews decided it was time to pay his teammate a visit in prison. "When he first entered the room, I made a point to go to him."

Payne says "that meant more to me than anything. Jim Andrews is a respected Kentucky player. We were able to hug each other like brothers."

"I don't think any life is wasted," Andrews says. "I think God puts us on this earth for a purpose."

Payne has now found his purpose in the system. He hosts an in-house TV show, asking young inmates to question what they've done to society and their families -- questions he asks himself.

"I wouldn't want my mother to be a victim," Payne says. "I wouldn't want my daughter to be a victim. And that's not trite."

Payne hopes the parole board will let him find a purpose outside of prison, too. He wants a relationship with his 12-year-old daughter.

"She said, 'Daddy, I think about you all the time.' And she started crying. My wife comes to the phone and she says, 'what'd you make her cry for?' I said 'I didn't make her cry.'"

Payne also wants to be there for his eight brothers and sisters who never gave up. They are now doctors, nurses, teachers, a police officer and a minister, and all worked to pay his legal bills.

His little brother, Darrell, a Cincinnati attorney, has spent most of his professional life trying to free him. But, most of all, Payne wants to be beside his aging mother, the woman who has held onto every clipping, every letter, every hope.

Because Payne was originally given a life sentence under the state's old guidelines in the 70s, the parole board is holding him to that sentence for violating parole.

He's not eligible to meet with the board for another nine-and-a-half years. Darrell maintains that's unjust.

A Frankfort attorney working to petition the board for another hearing says he's worked on several parole cases and has never seen a situation like this.

Tom Campbell, who was the executive director of the parole board when Payne was brought back to Kentucky five years ago says a 15-year wait for a hearing is a long time, but says when it comes to sex offenders, board members are reluctant to re-release them.

Online Reporter: Connie Leonard

Online Producer: Michael Dever

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