Nearly 3 months into his job as the University of Louisville men’s basketball coach, we’ve learned a few things about Kenny Payne. One of them: Ask him a question, and often, he’ll tell you a story.
And that’s a good thing.
From his first day on the job, storytelling has helped Payne engage with a fan base that was aching to engage with its basketball coach. On Monday night in the KFC Yum! Center, Payne’s ability to do that was on full display. From the moment he picked up the microphone next to former Cardinal Luke Hancock, Payne charmed and entertained the crowd of 2,000 or so season-ticket members who had come for a “Meet the Coaches” session.
Usually, facing a group like that, he surveys the crowd to identify some specific friends.
“I should be giving you a standing ovation,” Payne told the crowd as he sat down. “How’s everybody doing? I see some some familiar faces out here. Lonnie where are you? Sister Brenda where are you? Everybody – Lonnie Ali, Brenda (Bender). A lot of people don’t know this about me, but Lonnie’s mother and Muhammad’s mother fed me, I lived with Muhammad’s mother, while I was going to school at Louisville. Between Lonnie’s mother and Mama Bird, Muhammad’s mother, and Brenda, they were fighting over which one was going to feed me. So the love is real.”
About a month ago, when Payne sat down with Rick Bozich, Dalton Godbey and me, one of the questions Dalton posed to him was when did he know he wanted to become a coach? His answer was another story.
“You know, I call these defining moments,” he said. “A defining moment for me was when Nike hired me to do the first Skills Academy. And what that was, was Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Lou Williams, bunch of 18 to 19 high school players, and they were the best of the best. Most of them played in the league. One of them played here, Jerry Smith, from Wisconsin. And listening and talking to those players, I learned a lot about myself. And there was one morning we were having breakfast and I had Kevin Durant sitting to my right and Kevin Love sitting across the table from me. And Kevin Durant said to me, ‘KP I have to make it. My mother gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to take me to go lift weights and train. I got to make it for her.’ At that time. I think he was a junior in high school. To hear him say that with conviction, to hear him say, ‘This is my motivating factor,’ that’s coaching. For him to trust me to say those words. What if I took on that and said I want to help you? That’s what coaching is — not just the game. Helping young people achieve their goals and teaching them, that it is more than just them making it. He said, ‘My mom has sacrificed for me. I’m doing this for her as well.’ So I learned that from him.”
On Monday night, Payne relayed a similar story when asked about how he tailors his message to those kinds of players in the age of NIL. Payne remembered recruiting Anthony Davis to Kentucky. He said the season before the Lakers won the NBA title with Davis and Lebron James, he asked Davis to remember where he came from. He said when he got out of the car to visit Davis’ home on a recruiting visit, he looked down through a hole in the front porch and saw “about 50 stray cats.”
He said Davis came out to greet him, but before they went back into the house, he pulled Davis back and told him, “You will never live like this again. You’re going to make sure that your family is taken care of. God touched you. He did. And that blessing that he bestowed on you is not just for you. It’s for your family. So, my job is the second that you don’t push yourself to greatness, I’m going to be a vicious wolf on your neck. Because I’m not just doing this for you, your mother, your father, your sisters, your grandparents, you got to do that for all of them.”
On Monday night, Payne told Louisville’s most invested fans that he has no goal for number of wins, but that he’s looking to establish a championship culture. He said he isn’t interested in players who come in looking to find out how much Name, Image and Likeness money they can make – though there is NIL money to be had in the program. He said he’s looking for “givers, not takers.”
He said in today’s NIL landscape, he sees players making mistakes, taking official visits far too soon, before they even know who their teammates will be.
Recently, he said he had a player question what his role could be with so many other talented wing players on the court.
“Here, here’s our conversation,” Payne said. “’Coach, when you sign this kid from Tennessee, he’s really good. How in the world do you see us playing together?’ Are you watching NBA games? Do you see two talented forwards on the court together? ‘Yes, sir.’ So why in the world would you ever ask me that question, kid? Why would you ask me that? ‘All right, coach, you’re right.’ Second question: ‘How much money are you going to give me in NIL?’ I’m absolutely not going to tell you one dime that I’m going to give you. You will not come to this school for NIL, I’m not going to do it. And I have NIL money. The very next day, he went to another school.”
When it came time for fans to ask the questions of Payne, the stories didn’t stop. One asked, for those fans who weren’t around, what was Louisville basketball really like in the 1980s. Payne shared this.
“When I was in high school, Louisville basketball was on TV every weekend,” Payne answered. “And my choices were Mississippi State, University of Kentucky and Louisville. And I remember being on an unofficial visit at Mississippi State, and I’m in a room with 6 players in their apartment, and Louisville’s playing on TV. And I lit up like a Christmas tree. I saw parts in guys’ hair — parts with Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson, and I said, ‘If I want to be a basketball player, and I’m in this little small town in Mississippi, if I want to be a basketball player I’m going to the Ville.’ And then I get here, and this may sound strange, but the games in summertime in Crawford Gym were so much more intense than the games against opponents. I wanted to kill Rodney McCray, and no matter what I did, he was too good. . . . It was hot and muggy. Guys sweating. And guys like (Darrell) Griffith and Derek (Smith) . . . It was like heaven. Basketball heaven.”
Some questions, Payne always gets. Like this one: What style of play will your team have?
“I want to be a great defensive team,” Payne said. “I want to be long across the board. I want to be able to switch bigs that can guard guards, guards that can guard bigs, and create havoc on the court. And then I want to be able to get out and run in transition and get quick hitters. But in order to do that, to answer your question, I have to be able to teach kids how to play. . . . I’ve got to be able to put them in situations where they can read and react and trust their instincts on the basketball court without being robots. When you’re a robot, the other team knows every play you’re running. The scores are in the 50s and 60s, and they can predict what you’re going to run. With the scouting today, it’s just so hard. But if you can play free flowing, unpredictable basketball, and have some principles to it, you’re going to keep the defense off-balance. That’s how I want to play. I want to be fast. I want to be athletic. I want to play with freedom. I want to shoot the 3 but I don’t want to live by the 3.”
Payne was asked, in the midst of everything the program has been through and is still going through, what his closing argument is for a recruit. And again, he related a story, of a recent recruiting trip. He took the player and his parents to the Ali Center, and they were watching a short film on the life of Ali. It was the first time Payne had been there in a while, and he said he started to get emotional. And he looked over at the player’s parents, and they were the same way. And then he looked at the player, and the player was about to fall asleep.
“You’re not going to waltz through life and be great if you’re not willing to sacrifice all you have.”Kenny Payne
“And I look at it and, I’m like, ‘I really want to hit this kid in the head with a baseball bat,’” Payne joked. “So we leave, and we go to dinner, and I get the family isolated by themselves, and I ask the kid, ‘What is it that you want? Do you want to be great?’ He said, ‘Yes sir, but I really don’t know what greatness is.’ I said, ‘That’s funny. You were in the building of a man who exudes all greatness. And you fell asleep. Greatness is not just in your sport. Greatness is in boxing, he was one. It’s in academics. It’s in people that are running businesses, Steve Jobs, the list goes on and on of people who achieved greatness. You have to steal from them. You can’t fall asleep because it’s not basketball. You have to embrace it, see the gift that God has bestowed on these other people, so that you can identify your gift.’ I want kids that want to be great. I want kids that want to be coached by my staff, because that staff was put together for greatness. I want kids who want to win championships. I want high character kids.
“And I’m nervous about that. Because today’s society is just about ‘give me.’ I want givers. I don’t want takers. . . . I want kids who want to be excellent, who aren’t afraid to say they want to be $100 million players. But then my question becomes, what are you willing to give up? Because you’re going to have to give me a kidney or a lung, a rib or something. Because you’re not going to waltz through life and be a success if you’re not willing to sacrifice all you have to be great. Greatness comes with an obligation and a responsibility to excellence.”
At the end of Payne’s 35 minutes or so, the crowd stood and applauded and Payne walked off the court. I walked over to athletics director Josh Heird, who grinned and said, “It’s like going to church.”
At least, for Louisville fans who have been through a great deal, it offers hope. And the promise of more stories to come.