The University of Kentucky arranged a meeting last summer for new assistant coach Kenny Payne and reporters to get acquainted. Inevitably, and immediately, the conversation fast-forwarded to the game this Friday. Many basketball conversations around here touch on UK-U of L, but that's especially so when one of the participants played for the University of Louisville and now coaches for the University of Kentucky.
"I'm a Wildcat," Payne said before repeating himself. "I'm a Wildcat."
When a reporter asked him if he ever thought he'd utter those words, Payne smiled and said, "Never. Not in a million years."
Payne, a freshman contributor on U of L's 1985-86 national championship team and a 1,000-point scorer for the Cardinals, acknowledged some uneasiness about being in the KFC Yum Center on Friday as a member of UK's coaching staff.
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"I'm a little nervous about it," he said before adding, "You know, I love Louisville. It's mine. It's my alma mater. The experience I had at that institution was unbelievable. An NCAA Tournament championship at the University of Louisville, people still talk about that."
Yet, Payne knew there was the possibility of an unfriendly response to his presence.
"Am I nervous they're going to boo me?" he said. It was a rhetorical question.
"But I hope they'll embrace me the way my teammates have embraced me."
Pervis Ellison, the Most Outstanding Player in the 1986 Final Four, sent him Kentucky athletic wear, Payne said. Such U of L luminaries as Denny Crum, Wade Houston and Junior Bridgeman gave their blessing. "That's important to me," Payne said.
Everick Sullivan, a freshman at U of L when Payne was a senior, noted how coaches look at rivalries differently than fans. Coaches invest much less passion in crossing athletic boundaries. For coaches, there is competitive heat. But it is a profession with little emotion involved in sorting out potential opportunities. Even rivals like UK and U of L are subject to the same objective calculation, a reality that eluded Kentucky fans when Rick Pitino became Louisville coach in 2001.
"If you are on the outside just looking in and not in this coaching circle or coaching fraternity, you don't really understand," said Sullivan, an assistant at Eastern Kentucky University. "It's not that big a deal for us because you're looking for the best opportunity for your family and your career."
Of course, former UK player Steve Massiello works on Pitino's U of L staff. So did Walter McCarty.
Now Payne works on John Calipari's UK staff.
"I don't look at it as a major deal," Sullivan said. "It is a little strange because it's maybe the first time Kentucky's done it. But not (strange) in the big picture."
When he worked as an assistant for Oregon, Payne spoke to Pitino about joining the U of L staff, Payne said.
"I always told everybody, if I ever left Oregon, I would come to one person, and that's John Calipari."
The Philadelphia 76ers can be found on the résumés of Payne and Calipari. Payne played four seasons for the Sixers before being waived in 1993. Calipari joined Larry Brown's Sixers' staff after being fired by the New Jersey Nets in 1999.
As Payne's professional career wound down with nomadic stops overseas, he met with Brown and Calipari to talk about his future. Calipari, who had just taken the head coaching job at Memphis, and Brown urged Payne to return to school and get his college degree.
"That was the best advice I ever had," Payne said.
Payne returned to U of L, where he received a bachelor's of science degree in sports administration in 2003.
"I'd never passed a math class till I was 35 years old, so it was different," Payne said of being a middle-aged man in a college classroom. "I thought of it as this is my last opportunity to do something positive. I cannot mess this up."
Kentucky and Louisville have been a part of Payne's life since he was a Parade All-American high school player from Laurel, Miss. The final schools on his list of college choices were UK and U of L.
Houston, an assistant for Crum at U of L, made the critical difference.
"I really liked the Kentucky program," he said. "I was really close to signing. But in the end, my parents felt Wade would be more of a father figure to me."
Payne was also put off by UK being in a coaching transition from Joe B. Hall to Eddie Sutton.
A few years later, Payne served as host on Rex Chapman's recruiting visit to U of L. Payne said he encouraged Chapman to sign with Kentucky because UK's roster held much more promise for playing time and a starring role.
Thinking ahead to Friday's UK-U of L game, Payne reflected on how he will be working to beat his alma mater.
"You don't see Duke guys on the (North) Carolina bench," he said. "You don't see Carolina guys on the Duke bench. It's a unique situation. ...
"But in the end, I think (U of L) people will still embrace their own."