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