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Ulice Payne outgrew his athletic career

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Former Ringgold High and Marquette star basketball player Ulice Payne, center, was inducted into the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Hall of Fame during cereminies at the Double Tree Hotel in Moon Township Saturday. Payne, a Donora native who also is a member of the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame, was inducted as a legend for his outstanding basketball career. He is shown with Jerry Conboy (Point Park University), left, and Hank Kuzma (Midland High), two former coaches who were also inducted into the Pittsburgh hall.

With all the fanfare of the Final Four, it seems like the most logical subject for the day is Ulice Payne. The former Ringgold standout not only went on to play college basketball, he did so for a team that won the NCAA championship — the Marquette squad, then nicknamed the Warriors, of legendary coach Al McGuire.

Being raised in the Valley sticks with a man even if he is now far removed from those days. Speaking recently with Payne confirms that premise. He recalled the days he and other boys played on a large lot that adjoined the Donora Lumber Company, an area they informally called “Down Back,” named by kids long ago for its location behind a row of apartments and garages that stretched along Meldon Avenue from Second to First Street.

The area was both long enough and wide enough to house baseball contests (played with a rubber ball) and football games. This field, like the one in the Richard Pryor movie, “Brewster's Millions,” had a railroad track running through the playing area. Down Back also featured a basketball backboard and hoop where Payne's earliest games were played, not on a fancy hardwood court, but on dirt and pesky, ever-present stones. An unwary dribbler could find himself losing control of the basketball, not unlike a visitor to the old Boston Garden who didn't know the location of dead spots on the Celtics' famed parquet floor.

The biggest drawing card one particular summer, related Payne, was not an intensely fought baseball game, but the occasion on which the kids were riveted, “watching the smoke stacks blow up.” For the youngsters it was a spectacular sight, watching with mouths agape as mighty stacks tilted then tumbled, belching out clouds of dust. For many adults, the demolition was a symbol of an end of an era and an omen of tough times to come.

Payne managed to move on to greater days, beginning with his years on the court for the Ringgold Rams. He carved his name into the record books on his way to becoming a two-time all-star hoopster. As a junior he had already helped guide the Rams to three straight conference titles and a third-place finish in the state tournament. He was selected to be captain of the Pennsylvania All-Star squad for the 1973 Pittsburgh Roundball Classic, which yearly featured elite high school players from around the nation.

At Marquette, he contributed 6.8 points per game as a senior, with his personal high of 19 points coming in a 97-81 victory over UNLV. That game was aired over NBC and he was named the player of the game.

Still, it was the previous season which has to stand out foremost for Payne. How many young men get the chance to play on the best college basketball team in the land? The 1976-77 Marquette roster was packed with talent surrounding the 6-6 Payne. Deft guard Butch Lee was not only named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, he also copped the Naismith College Player of the Year award. Along with Jerome Whitehead and Bo Ellis, Lee went on to play in the NBA.

Payne, who played in 21 of the Warriors' 32 games (the team posted a 25-7 record for the season), connected on almost half of his shots from the field (going 40-for-82). He also was nearly perfect from the line, sinking 14 of 15 free throws. He averaged just over one assist per game, not bad for a forward coming off the bench, and added 2.6 rebounds, playing a valuable role for a stellar team that knocked off a great Dean Smith North Carolina team, one that featured future NBA star Walter Davis, to win it all.

Pro scouts liked what they saw in Payne, and the Detroit Pistons drafted him in 1978 in the ninth round, but Payne didn't last long enough to lace up his sneakers in an official NBA game.

He later told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “It was the first time in my life that I didn't make the cut and that was very traumatic for me.”

Undaunted, the next year he became a graduate assistant coach at Marquette while he attended its law school.

Payne now lives with his wife, Carmella, their daughter Amber, and son Ulice III in Wisconsin. He attended the Masters of Law program at the University of London, England. He served as President and CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers, and was named 14th of 101 “Most Influential Minorities in Sports” by Sports Illustrated.

He now is the managing member of Addison-Clifton, LLC, which deals with global trade. As an international attorney, he has traveled to 27 countries. He is a director of numerous companies as well as the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

Over the years Payne has given the Valley a cornucopia of great sports memories, and he certainly gave relatives such as his parents, Ulice Sr. and Mary, and his brother Bernie, another fine athlete, a whole lot to be proud of.

Wayne Stewart is a freelance write and author.

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