John Calipari reached out to New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau before the Kenny Payne hire.
Before Kenny Payne was hired as one of the richest assistants in the NBA, Kentucky head coach John Calipari had a conversation with New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.
Calipari, who could have put his own name into the mix as a potential candidate for the Knicks job had he been looking to leave Lexington, wanted to make sure that Payne was leaving the program he helped lead to prominence for the right situation.
Speaking to reporters via conference call on Wednesday, Calipari explained why it was so important for him to understand how his former assistant would be used in New York.
"“He is not just a workout guy,” Calipari said (as transcribed by The Athletic). “That’s not what he is. He’s a basketball coach. He’s not there for any other reason other than to be a basketball coach and help you build that culture. I wanted to make sure you’re not just bringing him here to, you know, to say, ‘Hey, you know we need to get this guy there working better, playing better, and we’re bringing you here.’”"
When news circulated that Payne would be leaving the famed basketball school to join his long-time associate William Wesley in New York, the immediate reaction by some who cover the NBA was that the Garden was looking for someone who could help the team recruit free agents.
Payne has strong relationships with many players who passed through Kentucky on their way to NBA stardom—Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, to name a few.
However, the more Knicks fans learn about the Kentucky assistant, the more it is revealed how important he has been to the program as a basketball coach.
Of course, his ability to recruit in college was extremely important, and why he was paid handsomely under Calipari (reportedly $900,000). But that is only one component of what he offers.
The same can be said now that he is in New York. It doesn’t hurt to be well-liked around the league. Players will always become available in the open market or via trade, and perhaps an old connection helps cement a deal. But the real work for Payne begins with the players already on the New York Knicks roster, including a few former Kentucky players in Kevin Knox and Julius Randle.
For Calipari, he wanted to make sure Payne’s role extended beyond even player development. Many in the college ranks have wondered why the SEC’s top assistant hasn’t found a head coaching gig at another school.
"“I want the Knicks to win and I want the Knicks to compete for a championship and I want the Knicks to win a championship,” Calipari said. “But my overriding concern in this is Kenny Payne. That’s like my brother.”"
Perhaps taking this job in New York will elevate his status as a legitimate head coaching candidate instead of someone who is known for connecting with players, both on and off the court.
Beyond Payne, the Knicks are expected to hire Mike Woodson as a top assistant under Thibodeau. The remainder of his staff is still undecided.