Tom Payne now lives in Lansing, Mich., and says he gets little news about Kentucky basketball, so he quickly admitted when I called him that he didn’t know a lot about the “particular agenda” to have former Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp’s name removed from Rupp Arena.
Payne was the first African-American basketball player at Kentucky during the 1970-71 season. He was also the first 7-footer to play at Kentucky. He averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game and earned all-Southeastern Conference honors.
The University of Kentucky ‘s African American and Africana Studies program said Rupp’s name stood for “racism and exclusion” in its request to UK officials to have the name removed. The group added that Rupp’s name “alienates” black students and fans.
“I wouldn’t want to say anything because the way I feel about life I don’t really rehash negativity about what was and wasn’t true,” Payne said. “I have made enough mistakes, so I don’t condemn people for making mistakes if they did make one.”
Payne left UK after playing one season for Rupp and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks. However, his career ended in May, 1972, when he was arrested for rape and eventually spent 40 years in jail before being paroled late 2018.
“Coach Rupp lived in a certain time frame when there were a whole lot of racists. He is not the only person who was supposed to be a racist then according to some. But look at the good things he did,” Payne said.
Payne realizes now how much “courage” it took for Rupp to start him the year after Dan Issel, UK’s all-time leading scorer, graduated. Payne had to earn the spot over Jim Andrews and Mark Soderberg.
“Dan was one of the greatest payers ever and it was a big controversy over who would start after he graduated,” Payne said. “Right now me and Jim have a relationship like spiritual brothers but we really had some wars back then. I used to think he was my enemy. Now we talk at least once a month and he has helped me a lot.
“I think me starting ended up being a good for Kentucky. After me came players like Jack Givens and Kentucky won a national championship. then you had Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Dirk Minniefield and just a legacy of good and great African-American players.”
Despite his troubles after leaving UK and the current movement to remove Rupp’s name from the arena where Kentucky plays basketball, Payne said he’s proud he went to UK.
“I don’t have a lot of bad things to say. Did I go through a lot? Yeah I did but life is about overcoming,” Payne said. “I can’t make excuses about who I am as a person and not be accountable for what I have done and then not be forgiving. For me it is hard to get involved in something just because everybody else is saying. I am not just going to jump on the bandwagon for anything.
“If you remove a name from a university what is that really going to do? It is going to hurt a lot of people. It is there, entrenched there. Coach Rupp is still in the history of this country. Whether you like or don’t like him, he is a mythical figure. Just look at that before you begin to act. Look at his humanity, his family. When you tear down somebody, look at the legacy he left and the people behind him
“I am one of the few left who played for the man. Those professors did not ask me about my experiences with him. I am in support of any organization like that because when I was at Kentucky there were not many African-American professors. There was one I was close to that meant a lot to me. But are there other agendas to use to heal wounds?”
Since Payne did sign with Kentucky, I assumed that meant he did not think Rupp was a racist. What I didn’t realize is that Payne had only been playing basketball for three years then and he also admits he had been “shielded” from racism his whole life.
“I just didn’t really know him. When I signed was not thinking this guy was racist or not racist. Never entered my mind,” Payne said. “I was so shielded from so much being an Army brat and the school at Shawnee was integrated and there were no problems with students.
“I never had to deal with race until I started traveling in the SEC. That’s why maybe the impact on me was so different than that of the average African-American that was used to racism. I had never been exposed. Maybe that’s why it caused some issues for me that it did.”
Payne is now working to help with racial injustice and racial conciliation.
“I am trying to deal with larger issues. I am trying to help people, especially young men understand race and racism,” Payne said. “There are a lot of people talking now — and I am not talking about any specific person or group — that have not really had to face racism the way some people of my generation have. I lived through it and some issues of life caused me to go off kilter due to some experiences of racism.
“Fortunately my life did a 360-degree turn and I have grown in a lot of ways. I work with men in this area to teach young men the principles about life. Why not seek that out and help them help society move forward? Let’s work together. Let’s go forward, get some passionate solutions that we can all embrace.”
To see more of Payne’s story and work he’s involved in now, go to http://www.transformationalvictories.org/.