Except for the eyes, time has been good to Tom Payne. The sloping shoulders, the massive arms, the flat, broad chest - all there, and he's still 7-foot-2, 235 pounds. No fat.Five years in prison cells and Tom Payne look the same. Expect for the eyes.
When the professional basketball leagues were at war, Tom Payne was one of the first players to quit college for the big money. In 1971 the Altanta Hawks gave him a contract worth $750,000. Payne was 20 years old, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky where the old coach, Adolph Rupp, said the could be one of the great ones.
That's what Payne wanted. Someone to like him. The son of a career Army man. Payne moved so often as a child he never felt enough a part of any school to play basketball. At 11, he was 6-4 and everybody made fun of him, he said. So he became a loner, and played basketball only when he became 7 feet tall.
A coach at Louisville's Shawnee High School saw Payne in the hallway and talked him into trying the game. Within two seasons, Payne was all-state player in one of America's best basketball states. Two years after that, the Hawks gave him a piece of paper worth *750,000.
It happened so fast. He had been nothing. They had made fun of him. By December of his senior year in high school, payne was a celebrity. He'd been hurt so many times and no one cared, and now everyone paid attention. He made sure of it. He demanded it.He was 7-2 and all-state and colleges wanted him. He knew then what he wanted out of life. "I want to be the best," he said. He said it angrily, as if he would show them, he would get even for being hurt.
Something went wrong quickly.The first black ever to play for Rupp, Payne was abused on the road in the South. At Knoxville, Tenn., someone scrawled on the Kentucky black-board, "Payne - just a nigger!" Letters with Kentucky postmarks said the same thing. Hurt and confused, Payne withdrew. He once rode home on a plane with his head under a towel.
They didn't miss him much at Kentucky. They were glad he was gone, Payne was drinking, a coach said. Womanizing. Upset with his pregnant, 16-year-old wife, Payne (the coach said) busted up his furniture. Something went wrong, and whatever it was Payne took it with him to the pros, to a world of big money and big cars and women, to a world where grown men sometimes act like children and children, even 7-2 children, are lost.
In May if 1972, after [WORD ILLEGIBLE ] with the Hawks in which he played very little. Payne was arrested and charged with two rapes. The circumstances of his convictions are unusualt in one case, the victim identified her assistant as 6-foot-2: in the other, the victim picked Payne out of a lineup assume of twomen who might have assulted her.
Payne today maintains he is innocent, and his mother, Elaine Payne, who insists her son was framed in a conspiracy by white people upset with a black youngster's success, has started the Tom Payne Defense Fund.In another unusual twist - his lawyer calls it very strange, indeed - Payne goes on trial here Sept. 7 on charges never filed until after he was arrested in Altanta, although the crimes allegedly were committed nine months earlier. There are four counts, one of them rape.
It has been five years since Payne talked to a newspaperson, eight years since he said. I want to be the best. Now, in the Jefferson County Jail, facing the possibility the September trial may keep him there a long long time the young man once bellingrently cocky says softly. "I'd rather not have people remember me as a basketball player? And he looked at his victor for a moment. Those eyes, Unblinking.
I want people to see me as a human being nto a basketball player." Payne spoke into a telephone on his side of glass partition in a tiny cubbyhole used for visits. "A lot of this getting persecuted has to do with me being a basketball player once. The publicity, the money. That's not me. That's past. I'm strictly trying to go forward now with my life."
Basketball, he said, is a fleeting thing. Whatever I did, those are meageraccomplishments.That stuff is not important. Nov. If I can win my freedom from incarceration, I have to go out and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] as a legistimate person and not let everybody blow me up into emotional brainstorm.
By reading philosophy politics, religion and "anything that can help me survive when I get out." Payne feels he has made himself into something more than a tall child able to throw a ball in a hole.
"It's not serving any several function, any civic function human function or rehabilitative function for me to be in jail." he said. "I am not a rapist. I am not a dangerous convict. I don't have that mentally."
Of the $750,000 contract, Payne received only$50,000, his mother said - and $35,000 went for legal fees in Atlanta. Payne is broke with a wife and child living in Louisville. Once he wanted to be the best, and now he only wants out to jail. If accquitted in September, he would be free next summer.
"My ideals and goals are that I want to be out there with my wife and child," he said. "I want to be a good father and husband to the two people who mean the most to me in the world. I am not bitter. The vindictiveness has gone from me Bitterness and hate tear a person coun. Vindictiveness is self-destroying.
The eyes, Eight years ago, when he demanded notice, when he wanted to be the best, the eyes were hard and narrowed, the eyes of anger and today, when someone asked what Payne would like people to know about him like people to know about him he didn't [WORD ILLEGIBLE ] and he didn't cry.
Tell the people, he said, "that Tom Payne is a vey sensitive human beign who cares about his wife, family and child . . . I'm a person who has genuinely transformed himself to be somebody who can make a contribution to society - on a small level, not a grandlose level."
When he leaves prison, Payne said, he'd like to work in community relations, talking to juvenile delinquents perhaps. "Five years age," said. "I wouldn't have thought of that."