Late last month, Kenny Payne raised a few eyebrows with a comment about recruiting — recounting some disparaging words he’d heard about the future of his University of Louisville men’s basketball program — while speaking at a local church.
Payne was an NCAA champion for U of L in 1986, a first-round NBA Draft pick in 1989, a pro player for more than a decade, a high-level college assistant for 15 years — the last 10 of those at Kentucky — and an NBA assistant for two seasons.
So, he’d been around the basketball block and seen and heard pretty much all there was to see and hear before taking the head coaching job at his alma mater earlier this year.
“One of the things that I’ve been surprised about is how many people across the country have interest in us,” Payne said at the St. Stephen Baptist Men’s Ministry Prayer Breakfast in late August. “But with that comes something that I wasn’t prepared for, and that was the hatred. I wasn’t prepared for universities to say, ‘Louisville’s going on probation. Why would you ever go there?’ To determine these kids from listening. And especially from people that I’ve helped in the past. And it’s a lesson for me.
“And as I’ve taken this job, and I hate to say this — my relationships with certain people that have been in my life for 30-40 years has changed. And that hurts me. It hurts me. But, as I say, me sitting here, is, ‘God, I haven’t dwelled in it, but it’s something that I have to deal with daily.’”
For anyone who has been paying attention, it wouldn’t take a terribly long leap to the conclusion that Payne was talking about Kentucky there. There was plenty of speculation to that end a few weeks ago, following those comments from the new Louisville coach, though Payne had said earlier this year that nothing would come between his relationship with UK Coach John Calipari.
The two longtime friends and former colleagues found themselves right in the throats of the recruiting wars from the day Payne landed the U of L job.
Since taking over the Cardinals’ program, the two recruits at the top of Louisville’s wish list have been New Jersey stars DJ Wagner and Aaron Bradshaw.
Wagner — the son of former Calipari star Dajuan Wagner, grandson of U of L great and longtime Payne friend Milt Wagner — has been a major Kentucky target practically since middle school. Bradshaw emerged earlier this year as one of the top names on UK’s list, too. Both are ranked in the top five of the 2023 class, according to 247Sports.
And both recruitments have been seen in recent months as largely Kentucky vs. Louisville battles.
High-level recruiting has a way of fracturing well-established relationships, and Calipari has had his share of spats with fellow coaches in the past, something Payne saw up close for a decade.
On Wednesday night, Calipari and Payne shared a stage—and engaged in a moderated conversation—at the Kentucky Chamber’s Annual Meeting in Louisville for more than an hour. A few minutes before that, Payne spoke to a handful of reporters, and he was met with a question about whether or not those comments from late August had anything to do with Kentucky.
“Was not intended for Cal,” Payne said. “Not at all.”
It was a straightforward response, and the two head coaches were downright chummy on the stage later that night, but it’s a relationship that bears watching moving forward, especially as the recruitments of Wagner, whose granddad was hired by Payne in May, and Bradshaw play out over the next few months.
Payne has some talented players on his 2022-23 roster, but there are plenty of questions about the Cards’ immediate prospects of winning — they’re not projected as a 2023 NCAA Tournament team — and U of L has not yet been recruiting at the level of Payne’s reputation.
As it stands, Kentucky looks like the favorite to land Wagner, the ultimate destination of Bradshaw is uncertain, and the Cards’ only commitment for 2023 so far is Kaleb Glenn, a highly touted player but one who grew up in Louisville as the son of a former U of L athlete and was already pledged to the program before Payne’s arrival.
The Cards are expected to land a commitment from Top 100 recruit Curtis Williams Jr. on Monday, but they’ll certainly need more to compete at a high level.
Payne, regarded as one of the top recruiters in all of college basketball by the time he left Kentucky for the New York Knicks in 2020, knows this better than anyone.
He’s also made it clear that he’s not going to rush through Louisville’s rebuilding job by bringing in bad fits for his vision of the future of the program. He hit on that point several times during the coaches’ public discussion Wednesday night, speaking about the culture of winning — “sustained winning,” he said — and togetherness he sees for the Cardinals.
That starts, as he knows well from his time at Kentucky, with not just the players but their families, bringing in people who are bought-in to a shared vision and common goal for the future.
“I’m trying to get kids to come be a part of something that I’m building,” Payne said. “I tell them it’s going to be special. I believe it’s special. I tell them that, ‘I need you to be a dream-chaser. I need you to understand that I’m going to love you, but I’m going to be hard on you. Because if I’m not hard on you, life will beat you up.’
“I’m hoping that the best recruiters — and I got this from him (pointing to Calipari) — isn’t me. They’re the kids. The kids that came through the program, that had success and said, ‘I love that dude. I had a great experience.’”
X-Men at Kentucky
A portion of Wednesday’s discussion was dedicated to Calipari and Payne talking about their respective teams for the upcoming season, as well as the coaches being asked to comment on what they feared most about their rival’s squad ahead of a Dec. 31 game in Rupp Arena.
Payne, who inherited a team that went 13-19 last season and has some major question marks, particularly in the backcourt, walked the fine line of tempering expectations while also building up his players. “Only to compete,” he said of his outlook for this season. “We’ll see where we are.”
Calipari returns key players from a 26-8 squad, brings in additional five-star talent, and has a team projected in the preseason as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. He also downplayed expectations to a degree, but it has been easy to see this offseason that Calipari is excited about this bunch, led by reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe.
“It starts with Oscar,” Payne acknowledged of his new rival. “Spirited kid. God-fearing kid. A warrior. Single-handedly will put a team on his back. The little things, the intangibles, the fight, the rebounding.”
But it’s not just Tshiebwe, according to Payne, who implied that Calipari has put together a roster reminiscent of his early years at Kentucky, when the Cats went to four Final Fours over the head coach’s first six seasons.
“What most people don’t realize is that Cal just assembled another group of X-Men,” Payne said, referencing the collective of superheroes with complementary superpowers. “A whole bunch of people are going to be nervous.”
Calipari started rattling off the list of UK notables, beginning with the returnees.
Tshiebwe, he said, was the fourth-leading scorer during the Cats’ trip to the Bahamas last month, yet he was his teammates’ biggest cheerleader during those games. Calipari described Jacob Toppin as “so much better” than he was a season ago. He said point guard Sahvir Wheeler was “way better than he was” last season, telling the crowd to expect an improvement in three-point shooting and again comparing Wheeler’s ability to be a “coach on the floor” to that of Tyler Ulis, who excelled as a team leader during his time at UK.
Calipari started to talk about the uber-athleticism of returning McDonald’s All-American power forward Daimion Collins, calling him a “difference-maker” on this season’s team that can do things on the court that other players simply cannot.
Payne interrupted his former boss. “X-Man,” he said of Collins, nodding at Calipari.
The Kentucky coach returned the compliments, but they were reserved mainly for Louisville’s new coach, not his players. Not just yet, at least.
“We don’t know who we’re afraid of yet, because he hasn’t started coaching them yet,” Calipari said. “And so I’m telling you, there will be players that you will be like, ‘Wow!’ Some of them that came back, and you’ll say, ‘He was never like that.’”
Whatever has and will happen behind the scenes on the recruiting trail didn’t spill over into this conversation, with Payne repeatedly crediting Calipari with helping him reach this point in his career, Calipari repeatedly talking up his former assistant as a man who will rebuild the Cardinals’ program to past greatness.
“It was unbelievable the way he received me,” Payne said. “When you go through this as a coach, and you’re young, you have to have mentors. You have to have people who care about you first — where it’s not just a job. And every single day that I was with Cal, for 10 years—unbelievable experience. I love him.”
Their relationship has been getting a test over the past few months, and things won’t be any easier from here, with heated rivalry games to be played and more high-profile recruiting battles to be fought.
The spark is back in Kentucky vs. Louisville, even if it’s all smiles for now.
“It’s good for our state,” Calipari said of his protege’s new position. “It’s good for this city. It’s good for the university. … It’s exciting for me to watch.”