Louisville basketball turns to one of its own in Kenny Payne: ‘He’s what we needed’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The city seemed huge. Overwhelming, Kenny Payne says. He grew up in a not-tiny but not-big town in southeast Mississippi, on five acres of land it took him three days to mow. Now, here he was, a 17-year-old at the University of Louisville and more or less on another planet. He’d come to play college basketball with $300 his parents saved up to get him started. On his first day, Payne left his wallet on the bench at Crawford Gymnasium. He finished his workout and walked back to the sideline to find that the wallet and the money were gone.

How in the world does that happen? he thought. Where am I?

“Someone probably got me,” he says, shaking his head, as if he still can’t believe he was that kid, to this day.

He’s nevertheless smiling in the front row of Louisville’s film room, more than two decades later, fresh off another community appearance on a Thursday night in early October. He didn’t run home after losing the wallet. He endured, for four more years. And now he has these stories to tell, which is kind of why he’s here, preparing for his first season as Louisville’s new men’s basketball coach, walking through the gym doors at 7:31 p.m. with yet another someone wanting more of his time.

Before this, it was a speech downtown for 200 doctors and assorted staffers at U of L Health. He didn’t have any prepared remarks, because Payne, 55, does not prepare remarks. Asked if he had even the vaguest of scripts, Payne points a long index finger to his chest. All off the heart, he says. If he had a script, he’d mess it up.

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