Kenny Payne leaves Knicks to become Louisville’s first black coach: ‘It was not easy’

New York Knicks, Kenny Payne

Like Mike Woodson, Kenny Payne could not turn his back on his alma mater. And so the New York Knicks lost another top assistant coach for the second straight season.

Payne was formally introduced as the new Louisville men’s basketball head coach Friday in an emotional press conference. He became the first black coach of one of the top college basketball programs, where he won an NCAA title in 1986.

Shortly after Payne’s hiring was officially announced, Knicks president Leon Rose released a statement.

“We are beyond thrilled for Kenny Payne that he will have the opportunity to coach his alma mater, Louisville. We wish him nothing but the best and thank him for his contributions over the past two seasons,” Rose said.

Payne was three of the handpicked coaches of the Knicks executive vice president William Wesley to join Tom Thibodeau’s staff at the beginning of their tenure last season. Only Johnnie Bryant, the former Utah Jazz assistant, remains with the Knicks after Woodson left the team for his alma mater, Indiana University, midway last season.

Before Payne started his press conference, he thanked the Knicks organization, especially James Dolan, the team governor, with whom he had a conversation on the eve of his formal introduction in Louisville.

“That organization has been unbelievable to me and to walk away from it — and for [Dolan] to give me his blessing — it was not easy. More than I could tell you, it was not easy,” Payne said. “To leave my brothers Leon Rose and William Wesley was not easy. For the last few days, Leon, William, and I cried six, seven times a day for me to get out of there and come here. So, this was not an easy deal to just walk in here.”

Payne also thanked the Knicks coaching staff and everyone in the organization and made a special mention of Thibodeau.

“Again, it was an unbelievable experience with them, and I owe them the world,” Payne added.

Payne’s contract with Louisville will take effect Monday and run through 2028 to the tune of $3,350,000 per year, including bonuses. He was one of the top assistant coaches in college basketball with Kentucky and one of the highest-paid assistants in the NBA. He was reportedly making over $1.5 million annually with the Knicks.

His return to Louisville makes Payne the fourth-highest paid head coach in the ACC behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski’s ($7.3 million), Virginia’s Tony Bennett’s ($3.6 million), and Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel ($3.53 million).

Payne will make slightly higher than Woodson ($3.125 million) in Indiana but much lower than his predecessor at Louisville, Chris Mack, who made $4.3 million before his firing. A first-time head coach, Payne will also make much lower than his friend and mentor, Kentucky’s John Calipari ($8.6 million).

It is unclear if the Knicks will hire another assistant coach to replace Payne in Thibodeau’s coaching staff. The team did not make new addition after Woodson left last season.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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