By LARRY VAUGHT
Tom Payne played for Louisville Shawnee High School and became the first African-American basketball player at Kentucky when he signed to play for coach Adolph Rupp in 1969. Former LSU coach Dale Brown to to know Payne because another Louisville high school standout, Rudy Macklin, came to LSU to play.
Signing Payne was a big deal not only because of the racial implications for Kentucky basketball just three years after the historic loss to Texas Western in the 1966 national championship game. He also was one of the nation’s top recruits in 1969 and was the tallest player ever to sign with UK at 7-1.
Academics kept him from being allowed to play on the UK freshman team — freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity then — but he was eligible his sophomore year and averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. He earned all-SEC honors but got ejected from three games and often was subjected to racial slurs in road games.
He left UK after his sophomore season due to academic and off-court issues and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1971. However, his real problems started in 1972 when he was arrested for rape in Georgia and was also indicted on the same charge for another rape in Lexington. He was convicted and finally got paroled in 1983. Three years later he was charged with rape again in California and stayed in prison until 2018 when he was paroled again.
After Brown retired, he accompanied LSU on a road trip to Kentucky a few years ago. He got in touch with Macklin and suggested they visit Payne in prison.
“I had never met him. As the warden was walking us to his room, he said, ‘If you have any connections, get him out of prison. This guy has been here forever. He has paid for his crime over and over,’” Brown said. “When we saw him, Rudy and Tom embraced.
“He was very articulate, very spiritual. I can pick a phony out but he was a really nice guy.”
Brown was asked to call Payne’s mother. He did and the coach said she was heartbroken and told him, “If there is any way to get my baby out before I die I would be so happy.”
Brown was glad Payne eventually got released and he now lives in East Lansing, Mich.
The real purpose of this history lesson about a former UK player for younger fans was what Brown shared that Payne told him about Rupp, a coach many claimed was racist and took great delight in when the all African-American Texas Western beat UK in the 1966 NCAA title game.
“Tom told me one time that everybody brought up about Adolph Rupp being a racist,” Brown recalled. “Tom said, ‘He was not. He was the only person who communicated with me and my mother when I was in trouble. Adolph Rupp was the only one. You don’t forget that.’”
Unfortunately, most of Rupp’s critics will never believe he was not a racist based on how quick the subject surfaced again last season after a UK fan used a racial slur against a Tennessee fan in Rupp Arena — over 35 years after Rupp had retired.