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Knicks Assistant Kenny Payne Leading Candidate for Louisville Coaching Post

Louisville has narrowed its search for a new men’s basketball coach with New York Knicks assistant Kenny Payne the primary target, sources told Sports Illustrated.

There is nothing definite yet, with discussions ongoing and no job offered or accepted, sources said. But if talks proceed well over the next 24 hours, Payne could be introduced as the new coach of the Cardinals as soon as Thursday.

Payne, a former Louisville player who was a key cog on the 1986 national championship team, worked as an assistant to John Calipari at Kentucky from 2014 to ’20 before joining the Knicks. He was credited with helping Kentucky’s juggernaut recruiting, in addition to developing its big men.

Interim athletic director Josh Heird has vetted other candidates but the 55-year-old Payne was a strong candidate from the start. Payne had local backing for the job in 2018, when Chris Mack was hired from Xavier, and the groundswell of support increased after Mack and Louisville parted ways in January.

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Louisville’s Black community in particular has championed Payne. The school was near the forefront among Southern schools when it came to integrating its basketball program in the 1960s, and it has a large Black fan base within the city. Louisville has not had a Black basketball coach in its history.

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If Louisville and Payne do not come to an agreement, he could be on the radar for other college jobs, most notably at Nike-funded schools in the Southeastern Conference. Payne has a decades-old relationship with William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley, currently a Knicks executive and formerly someone who had close ties to Nike flagship programs Kentucky and Oregon—both places where Payne worked.

The Louisville job is a prestigious one, but it comes with a longstanding NCAA infractions cloud hanging over it. The Cardinals have been embroiled in successive scandals, being hit with major sanctions for employing escorts and strippers to entertain players and recruits and then being part of the 2017 Southern District of New York investigation of corruption in college basketball. The latter case is still working its way through the investigative process, with a hearing and resolution expected later in ’22.

From Laurel, Miss., Payne was a freshman reserve when the Cardinals won their second national title by beating Duke in 1986. He became a double-digit scorer as a junior and senior, and was a first-round NBA draft pick in ’89 by Philadelphia.

Payne was a role player for the 76ers for four seasons. He played several years overseas before returning to the United States and getting into college coaching at Oregon under Ernie Kent in 2004.

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