Friday, March 24

BOZICH | Kenny Payne’s long basketball journey brings him home to Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Kenny Payne didn’t have a degree, he didn’t have a job and he didn’t have all the right people in his corner. In fact, there were days when his corner was mostly empty.

It was 2001, not long after Payne’s professional basketball career ended at a forgettable gymnasium somewhere in Asia. When he finished playing for the University of Louisville in 1989, Payne was three semesters short of a degree.

He needed that precious piece of paper. Being a first-round NBA Draft pick no longer opened every door.

Payne wanted to coach. When Payne returned to campus to finish his classwork, he asked Rick Pitino if he could volunteer with the U of L program. Sorry. Pitino did not have an opening.

Larry Brown was coaching the Detroit Pistons. Their paths had crossed in the NBA. Brown also didn’t have an opening.

But Brown created one — if Payne wanted to work for it.

Brown told Payne if he was willing to drive the 360 or so miles (one way) to Detroit on the weekends the Pistons were in town, he’d welcome him at practice. Teach him more about the game. Then Payne could determine if the coaching world was for him.

They were long, dark and often wintry drives. When Payne told friends in Louisville what he was doing, a few shook their heads in amazement.

“He asked me to ride with him a few times and I never did go,” said Wiley Brown, a former U of L player who is the head coach at Indiana University Southeast.

“I thought he was crazy, putting all those miles on his car, making those drives in the snow in the middle of the winter.”

Sunshine illuminates Kenny Payne’s coaching career today. Those long solo drives from Louisville to Detroit were the opening miles on a journey that finished with a 1- hour, 40-minute flight aboard private jet from Westchester County, New York to Bowman Field in Louisville Thursday around 5:10 p.m.

Payne stepped out of the plane and into the embrace of Denny Crum and Wade Houston, the two primary men who coached and molded him at U of L from 1985-through-1989.

“Never in a million years,” Payne answered when asked if he envisioned himself the U of L head basketball coach. “It’s a dream … it’s a dream … it’s where I started. It’s where my life began as a young kid coming out of Mississippi.

“Being here. Trusting this university. Trusting those two people, Denny Crum and Wade Houston, bringing me here and helping me become a man. Now I get to do that for other kids.”

Payne has his degree, he has all the right people in his corner and he has the job that he earned as the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Louisville.

The official introduction, followed by a luncheon and a reception, will come Friday. Mark down March 18, 2022 as Kenny Payne Day.

From driving to Detroit to starting his career at the University of Oregon to 10 years at the side of John Calipari at Kentucky to the last two seasons as the top assistant with the New York Knicks to the job of making the Cardinal basketball a national force again. Payne waited for his chance and kept grinding for his opportunity. There were other jobs and other roads but Louisville is the one that always tugged at him.

“Kenny Payne didn’t skip any steps,” said Milt Wagner, another one of Payne’s former Cardinal teammates. “He earned this job. Kenny put in a lot of hard work when nobody was watching.”

Now the basketball world will be watching and celebrating.

Celebrating that at 55, Payne will finally be given his first chance as a head coach. Celebrating that the program is trusting the responsibility to one of its own former players, just as Michigan, Indiana, Georgetown, Duke, North Carolina and others have done.

And celebrating that a program that was near the forefront of integration nearly 60 years ago has finally entrusted the head coaching position to a Black man. Payne’s hiring stirs powerful emotions from many former Cardinals. And it should.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I would ever see a Black president,” said Robbie Valentine, Payne’s teammate on the Cards’ 1986 NCAA title team. “Then Barack Obama got elected. Twice.”

Valentine shook his head, as if he still did not believe the news.

“Then, I didn’t think I would see a Black head basketball coach at my alma mater,” he said. “Now that day has come, too. It’s just a great, great moment. You’ve got (NBA Hall of Famer) Magic Johnson celebrating it on social media.”

Yes, you do. Thursday afternoon at a restaurant a block from the KFC Yum! Center, Valentine, Wagner, Brown and Chris West, another former Cardinal, celebrated the news with pizza and refreshments while watching NCAA Tournament games.

They weren’t really following the games or their brackets. They were calling other former teammates, like Billy Thompson and Pervis Ellison, encouraging them to come to town to attend Payne official introduction at 10 a.m. Friday at the KFC Yum! Center.

Louisville is not part of the tournament this year. It will be Payne’s task to fix that. But that is a concern for another day.

“When a person gets to the top through his hard work when he’s chasing a dream, that’s something for everybody to celebrate,” West said. “It’s a great day for U of L, the city of Louisville and everybody in the area.”

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