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54 Tom Payne

Tom Payne
Tom Payne
Hometown (Last School)
Louisville, KY (Shawnee)
November 19, 1950

Tom Payne was born Thomas Robert Payne on November 19, 1950, in Louisville, Kentucky to Thomas Robert Payne, Sr. and Elaine Johnson.  He was the first African American ever to play basketball for the University of Kentucky.

The eldest of nine children, Payne broke one record in birth; he was the longest baby ever born at the local hospital.  He grew up in a home where academics were stressed; his father had attained the rank of master sergeant in the United States Army before retiring, and his mother had a bachelor’s degree in biology. His eight siblings were also well-educated, with a total of fourteen college degrees.

Despite his height and incredible physical skills, Payne was basically a newcomer to basketball. He didn’t play organized basketball until his sophomore season at Shawnee High School in Louisville, Kentucky. By his senior season, he was one of the most coveted players in the nation, with Kentucky and UCLA recruiting him.  His senior year, the 215-pounder averaged 25.8 points and 29 rebounds while shooting a blistering 61 percent from the field.  His single-game high was 40. 

On June 9, 1969, the high-school All-American signed with Kentucky; he was not only the tallest player ever to play at the school at that time, he was also legendary coach Adolph Rupp’s first-ever African-American player.  Payne had been actively recruited by assistant coach Hall for some time.  “I picked Kentucky because of its educational program,”  Payne said. “I think it was my best bet. I will be going to a big school but I can get individual attention. I won’t be just a number.  And I felt coach Rupp could develop my potential better than any other coach.”  Admitting be was skeptical at first about attending Kentucky because of the racial discussion, he said he had no reservations about becoming the first African-American basketball player at the school after visiting the campus.  “I visited UK three times and I found out that some of the stuff I had heard wasn’t true.  I liked what I saw,” he said.

NCAA rules specify that a youngster must score 19 points on his entrance test to be eligible for college athletics. Payne was two points short.  This prevented him from playing on the Kentucky freshman team. (Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity basketball at the time).  So, by NCAA rule, Payne was ineligible for a scholarship. He could not practice with UK. He could not use tutors made available to other athletes. He could do nothing, in fact, that is in any way connected with UK basketball. He was on his own. Payne found out only two days before registration for the first quarter at UK that he would not be eligible for basketball. Several other schools—schools at which he would be eligible immediately because of their lower standards—contacted him.  He instead played for a Lexington AAU team (sponsored by Jerry’s Restaurant) that included on its roster several former UK players, notably John Adams, Phil Argento, Steve Clevenger, Pat Doyle and Scotty Baesler.  He averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds per game for the AAU team and was chosen as the league’s MVP.  On December 27, 1969, Payne had 29 points and 19 rebounds in a match against the Kentucky freshman squad.  He scored 42 points to go with 17 rebounds on January 4, 1970 against North Marshall (KY).

Payne boosted his grades and gained eligibility to play during his sophomore season, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game, earning All-Southeastern Conference honors along the way. In his third varsity game on December 7, 1970, Payne scored 19 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in a win over West Virginia.  On February 6, 1971, Payne led the Wildcats in scoring for the first time as he gathered 24 points while hitting eight of 13 shots. He also led the team in rebounds with 12 and blocked three shots.  Payne, held without a field goal in the first eight minutes, got hot and scored 11 of Kentucky’s next 15 points.  This sparked the Cats into a lead they never relinquished as they beat Ole Miss 121-86.  Against Georgia on February 15, 1971, he scored 34 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.  He followed that up five days later with a career-high 39 points and 15 rebounds against LSU.  Payne devastated LSU from close and medium range. He caged 17 of 22 shots with an assortment of jumpers, layups and tips. Impressive as these numbers were, signs of trouble developed during the season. In a road game against the Tennessee Volunteers, Payne flipped Jim Woodall head over heels battling for a rebound. The referees whistled Payne for a flagrant foul and ejected him. In the rematch against Tennessee at Kentucky, Payne again flagrantly fouled Woodall, and was ejected from this game also. Payne was also ejected from a home game against Alabama for objecting to a referee’s call. Payne’s temper was exacerbated by racial slurs that he heard when playing in opposing venues.

For all his temper, Payne continued to improve during the season and dominated opponents. The future looked bright for Payne after he scored 30 points against Auburn, in a game that clinched the 26th Southeastern Conference regular season title for Kentucky.

During the summer, however, Payne experienced a variety of troubles. In August, a police officer cited him for speeding in his new Cadillac. The car was registered to a Pennsylvania auto dealer; it was rumored that teams from the NBA and American Basketball Association were coveting Payne and that the car was a gift from the Pittsburgh Condors of the latter league to apply for the ABA draft. Payne also had nine hours of incomplete grades that needed to be made up before he could return to Kentucky. With the slim likelihood of being eligible to play the following season, Payne left Kentucky and joined thirteen other underclassmen in the NBA’s first-ever supplemental draft.  On September 1, 1971, the NBA released a list of six players declaring them eligible for the league’s hardship supplementary draft.  Payne was one of those players.

Payne was selected No. 2 overall in the NBA’s Supplemental Hardship Draft by the Atlanta Hawks in 1971.  Payne played one season with the Hawks in which he averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in limited playing time. 

College Statistics:

Per Game

1970-71 28   29.1 7.0 13.4 .523 2.9 4.4 .659 10.1         3.1 16.9
Career 28   29.1 7.0 13.4 .523 2.9 4.4 .659 10.1         3.1 16.9


1970-71 28   816 196 375 .523 81 123 .659 283         87 473
Career 28   816 196 375 .523 81 123 .659 283         87 473

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