When Kenny Payne was being recruited to the University of Louisville by Wade Houston and Denny Crum, it was perhaps the hottest address in college basketball.
It wasn’t the most tradition-rich. It didn’t have the longest history or the bluest blood. But Johnny Dawkins, a Duke player who faced the Cardinals in the 1986 NCAA championship game, said of the program of Darrell Griffith and Milt Wagner, “we thought they were about as cool as you could get.”
The great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote this about Griffith, when he arrived for the 1980 Wooden Award Ceremony: “UCLA players showed up in fascination. They wanted to get a look at Darrell Griffith at ground level. . . . Like the Abominable Snowman and California condor, Griffith is rarely found in low altitudes. . . . He’s not a guard, he’s a satellite.”
That was how even a program like UCLA viewed Louisville. Payne signed with Louisville, choosing the Cardinals over Kentucky and Mississippi State, and said on the day of his announcement, “I think Louisville can win the national championship next season.”
It did. That was then. This is now. In many ways the program has more than it has ever had. Better facilities. Better conference. More bells and more whistles. But its heartbeat is barely perceptible.
The Kenny Payne Show will arrive in Louisville on Friday morning to try to revive it. He will arrive to find a program that just missed a second straight NCAA Tournament, with the college basketball world not even pausing to notice. He arrives to a program still under the shadow of an NCAA hammer.
Perhaps it will take a Doctor of Dunk to heal it.
Listen to the people who know Payne, and their tone when talking about him is almost reverential. Kentucky coach John Calipari called him, “the best of the best.” Griffith says, “Kenny Payne is a great person.” Upon the news of his hiring, none other than Magic Johnson Tweeted his congratulations and commended U of L on the hire.
But while Payne may have Magic in his corner, he doesn’t have it in his pocket. He can’t wave a wand and fix a program that little resembles the one he played for. And, in fact, the job today is far more difficult than it was four years ago, when he felt he was ready for the job but got only a cursory glance from the school, and perhaps even less from its fan base.
There may have been fewer than 5,000 fans in the KFC Yum! Center for the Cardinals’ last home game. The talent level has fallen, and so has the teamwork. The strut of the program that went to 4 Final Fours in 6 years under Denny Crum has never been quite duplicated. Those Cardinals jumped higher, ran faster, pressed harder and shot better than almost anyone else in the college game.
And in doing that they elevated an entire city. They changed its identity. They inspired it to want more and be more and do more. That’s the truth. The growth of this city coincided with the emergence of Crum’s basketball program.
Payne was a part of that. He and young Black players like him built the program. The modern university has been constructed on the foundation of their success and accomplishments. But as the university grew, their place in it seemed to diminish. They saw other universities support former players, advance their careers, offer opportunities, celebrate them. Wherever they turned – on ESPN, on the coaching sidelines, in business, they saw evidence of this. For many years, former Louisville players could walk into the team’s practice facility and see a graphic featuring NBA players who had played for then-coach Rick Pitino, but nothing featuring their accomplishments or professional careers.
They looked at Louisville’s sidelines and saw Walter McCarty or Wayne Turner, and that was great, but they didn’t see a Wiley Brown or Ellis Myles. It didn’t sit well. They’d voice concern and see nothing happen.
They worked, many of them, in this community, as teachers, coaches and elsewhere. But many felt like they’d passed from memory, even at the very university they had helped to build. It’s not a good feeling.
On Friday, that changes, at least a little bit. Kenny Payne, for the second time in his life, will sign with Louisville. He becomes the program’s first Black head coach (on a permanent basis, following Mike Pegues, who held the job on an interim basis), and that, as it would anywhere, brings even more pressure, more responsibility beyond just wins and losses.
Louisville will elect a new mayor this year, and the university will appoint a new president sometime. But this basketball coaching hire takes a back seat to neither of those positions in terms of visibility in the community.
Payne, like anyone, will have to grow into that lofty role. But he understands the role, and that’s the first step. I can’t tell you how many names have bounced back to me as people Payne talked to about this job, people he spoke with before even speaking with athletics director Josh Heird.
Back when Payne signed with Louisville as a player, his high school coach, explaining why he was one of the last blue chip recruits to commit that season, said, “That’s his personality. He always sits back and looks at things objectively.”
That much hasn’t changed.
Payne arrived at U of L before his freshman year in the summer of 1985 and did what everybody did – he started playing in Louisville’s summer league at Atherton. This was no ordinary league. It featured names like Darrell Griffith, Jerry Eaves, Scooter McCray, Rick Wilson, Dirk Minniefield, Milt Wagner, Herb Crook and many others.
In one of Payne’s first games, he dropped 33 points, and got some attention. He and Ellison played on a team that called itself, “Future Stars.”
The desire will be great, I’m sure, to make a big splash from Day 1. And Payne might well manage that. But it isn’t a requirement. His bigger job will be to manage expectations, to manage himself in a town where he has so many friends, all of whom will probably feel like they should get a slice of his time, or more.
He’ll build a staff quickly but thoughtfully. He’ll get players. Hopefully, he’ll embrace the wider university community, in athletics and elsewhere. Nobody is busier than his old boss, Calipari, but there he was, in the stands when Kentucky’s women upset No. 1 South Carolina in Nashville. People remember those things.
“He checks all the boxes, and he gets us back to where we need to be the quickest,” Griffith said recently. “I think that Kenny has more of an opportunity at this university that he will have anywhere else to make an impact. People look at him as a coach — I know he’s going to be a great coach — but the economic impact you’ll have at the university right away. Yeah, won’t be no more 6,000 people at the game. . . . He’s a part of our blood. For the first time, when Kenny becomes the coach, he will be a part of our legacy that we all created here.”
Payne can’t do all things. He can’t be all things to all people. But he can hope to be someone the community can rally around.
Payne didn’t graduate from Louisville right after his playing days. When he decided to go into coaching, he came back to school. He was, besides everything else, a non-traditional student. Unable to get onto the staff at his alma mater, on days when he wasn’t in class, he drove up to Detroit to study what Larry Brown was doing. He got an assistant’s job at Oregon. Then he joined Calipari.
He has worked for what he has gotten, even when doors were closed to him.
Now, a significant door has opened. It will be an emotional day for Payne, for many of his former teammates, and by extension for all of Louisville basketball and this community. But unlike so many days the program has had in recent years, the emotions stirred will be good ones.