LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- He was the first African-American player in Kentucky Wildcat basketball history, but as Black History Month winds down there aren't a whole lot of people celebrating Thomas Payne's accomplishments.
The Shawnee High graduate has spent most of his adult life in prison convicted of raping multiple women. But now, he says he's a reformed man, and there are a whole lot of folks trying to help him earn his release from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange.
Thomas Payne was supposed to be the next Kareem Abdul Jabar. A 7'2" physical specimen, handpicked from a well-educated family of 11 with now 14 college degrees between them. In 1969 he was thought to be the perfect choice to finally break Kentucky basketball's color barrier.
But this is no Jackie Robinson story.
The former basketball player and boxer, who is still in great physical condition, told WHAS11's Andy Treinen he will not defend his past.
"Well first of all I never try to defend the indefensible," Payne said. "When you do something that devalues another human being, and you do something that's invasive to another human being and you do something that causes consequences to another human being. That's terrible!"
Now 64-years-old Tom Payne doesn't want his story to end behind these prison walls.
"When I die I don't want this part of my life to be the only thing that's on my tombstone," Payne said.
His plan for life after prison involves a woman. Janet Howard is his fiancé. The two first met 40 years ago when Payne played for the Atlanta Hawks.
She assumed he was probably married and living the good life.
"I did not even know his story until four years ago, explained Howard, from her Lansing, Mich. home.
A woman of great faith Howard believes it was God who brought Payne back into her life--and she's not afraid.
"Yes, he's been convicted of all that," Howard said.
Payne explains how the two fell in love.
"She just wanted someone to take care of her heart. Well, I feel the same," he said.
As Deputy Director of the Michigan workforce Howard is highly successful.
But there is an entire network waiting for Payne post prison time. Former Detroit Mayor and NBA Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing has offered Payne a job mentoring youth. He just believes in giving people second chances. And he believes I have some value left in me as a human being," Payne said.
But there is still the issue of getting out. The parole board denied his attorney's November appeal.
"We're not here trying to defend his actions, we're not trying to say he had an unfair trial. We're saying the sentence is unjust and unconstitutional," Attorney Derwin Webb said.
Payne's sentencing and parole violation came at a time when an inmate could earn life in prison for a rape conviction. Those sentencing guidelines no longer exist in the state of Kentucky.
"I think we can all agree a person should not serve a life sentence for an offense that only carries 20 years in today's society," Krisna Tibbs, from Tibbs Law Office, said.
Payne says he'll let his attorneys fight that battle while he mentors willing young men in prison. Payne says there are people changing their lives on the inside.
"Regret, sorrow, remorse, all them come into play," Payne said.
We asked Payne how people can be sure that he's a reformed man and he's not going to repeat his faults.
"I didn't have the moral or mental faculties to deal with what I was given, and I think that hurts a lot," Payne said, of his angry youth. "'I'm a changed person, and I'm no harm to anybody."
He is the son of a military man and has completed an 18-month sex offender treatment program that put him face-to-face with a rape victim. He has an empathy that didn't exist when he was young.
Payne has two brothers; one of which is a lawyer in Cincinnati and another is a police officer in Indianapolis. Five of his six sisters are Graduates of UofL.
"So they have to live with their brother being convicted of rape," Payne said.
The hurt his crimes caused his victims, the African-American community and his family all weigh heavily on his mind.
Payne says before his last conversation with his ailing mother in 2012, she told his siblings her first born was now a good man
"So I got off the telephone and went upstairs and got on my knees and prayed and I asked God not to let my mother suffer, and the next day they called me to the captain's office and my mother was gone," Payne said.
The now jailhouse mentor believes both of his parents went to their graves knowing he was a reformed man. Now he wants to prove it to everyone else