By LARRY VAUGHT
Tom Payne was the first African-American player to play at Kentucky but admits he didn’t have a “close relationship” with coach Adolph Rupp during the 1970-71 season.
“I was his player,” said Payne. “The thing I remember the most, though, is that he stood up for me. And (UK assistant coach) Joe Hall did, too. They stood up for me to start my only season at Kentucky.
“That was some serious times back then. A lot of people did not want it (him starting) to happen. They didn’t want me to start or even be on the court as I remember it.
“Coach started me. I had a very successful sophomore campaign (freshmen could not play then) and averaged 16.9 points and 10 rebounds a game. I proved an African-American could play at Kentucky in that type of elite program. It was a great program then and still is. We’ve all seen all the great players after me through the years.”
I reached out to Payne last week after a panel of African-American professors at Kentucky requested that the name of Rupp Arena be changed because of the perception that Rupp was a racist. Payne played one year in the NBA before being charged with rape and he eventually spent 40 years in jail before being paroled in 2018.
He now lives in Lansing, Mich., and works to help young men deal with racial injustice and racial conciliation. (Go to http://www.transformationalvictories.org/ for more on his work.)
“I am trying to deal with larger issues. I am trying to help people, especially young men understand race and racism,” Payne said.
He would like to share his story with more, including the University of Kentucky basketball team.
“I hope to come back to Lexington and speak at the university,” he said. “I am writing (UK basketball coach John) Calipari a letter offering to come and talk to his guys about social responsibility and privilege and the platform they have as well as how to carry themselves in society. I hope he will get back with me.”
So do I. Seems it would be great to have him also speak to coach Mark Stoops’ football team. Or every UK student-athlete.
Payne has remained friends with former UK teammate Jim Andrews. Former Cincinnati Reds infielder Doug Flynn is another friend.
“We want to do a seminar for at-risk young men with Jim and Doug,” Payne said.
The trio could combine for a strong, strong message that I have to think maybe Aaron Hogue, multi-area director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes, would welcome too.
“I know how young people think and how militant they can get about things they stand up for,” Payne said. “I don’t want to be considered an Uncle Tom because I feel the pain of my people and what they have been through. I have lived it myself.
“It’s just my nature to deal with lot of things that go back in the past. If that is the case, people can always look at my past. I am fighting for redemption and building a program trying to help my people, especially at-risk young men.
“I would love to come back to Kentucky and talk about where are we going now, where do we go from here. I can talk about what racism does to the human soul spiritually and morally.
“But whether Rupp’s name should be removed, I don’t get into that because of something he supposedly did 70 years ago. I want to help heal and move forward, not look back.”