In the NBA, as in the world of sport and more broadly everywhere in the world, some exceptional talents have been wasted by bad decisions, criminality and lack of discernment. But among the countless examples, rare are those as striking as that of the “future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar”, whose descent into hell was dizzying…
In the early 1970s, as the era of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain drew to a close, fans and observers had eyes only for Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But while the young man is doing miracles, on the way to his hallucinating career, his successor already seems to have found everything: Tom Payne. Born in 1950, the 2m18 pivot discovers basketball late, but he excels at it.
Quickly, the big man is coveted by very large universities, and he finally signs in Kentucky, of which he becomes the first African-American player. With a volatile temperament, exacerbated by the many racist insults he received, Payne lost his mind several times on the floor despite having real talent. In 1971, after two years with the Wildcats, he chose to make the jump to the NBA and was drafted. His career there will only last… one year.
The descent into hell of Tom Payne, today free
During the 1971-1972 campaign, his first and his last, the Hawks player made a discreet entry into the league, not helped by Atlanta fans who booed him because of his skin color… even when he scored. Above all, he accuses the blow following the death of his mother, very important to him. The beginning of the end, at 22, already. In 1972, Payne was indeed sent to prison 5 years after being convicted of rape. In the process, for similar facts, he is serving a second sentence, 6 years this time.
Released on parole in 1983 after 11 years in the shade, the former pivot was then only 33 years old and his life was ahead of him. He tried a career as a boxer in 1984 and 1985 (2 wins, 2 losses), then… was again charged with rape in 1986. With a few rare exceptions, he spent the next three decades in prison, for a total of around 40 years. .
After having his parole request denied in 2016, Payne was finally released in 2019. He said he was filled with regret, totally reformed, and ready to be a model citizen. During an interview from prison in the 2000s, and then upon his release, he said:
If I had taken advantage of the opportunities that came my way in Kentucky, if I had known how to properly use the opportunity that God gave me, I could have been a senator or a mayor. I am sure of it. (…) I spoke to many prisoners about my crimes, and the need to respect women. Although I can’t right the wrong I’ve caused my victims, I want to help young people not make that mistake.
At almost 73 years old, Tom Payne has paid his debt to society and is now a free man. Nothing will ever make us forget his unacceptable acts, nor the horror suffered by his victims. Nothing, either, will make him forget what he could have become, and the very different life he could have led…