By LARRY VAUGHT
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 second 7-footer to play at Kentucky (Bill Spivey was the first). 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.”