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Knicks hire Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne for Tom Thibodeau's coaching staff

Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne watches from

Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne watches from the sideline after head coach John Calipari was ejected from a game against Arkansas during the second half on Jan. 18, 2020 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Credit: AP/Michael Woods

The Knicks’ rebuild under new coach Tom Thibodeau began on Tuesday with the addition of prominent University of Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne to his staff. Payne, 53, is a former NBA player who was the lead recruiter at Kentucky under coach John Calipari.

“I’m thrilled that Kenny has joined my staff as an assistant coach,” Thibodeau said in a statement. “He has an outstanding ability to forge relationships with players and improve their skills. He knows what it takes to win and has learned from one of the best coaches there is in John Calipari. Kenny will be a tremendous addition to our organization.”

Payne served as an assistant at Oregon from 2004 to 2009 and then moved to Kentucky in 2010, where he helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four four times in 10 years, including winning the NCAA title in 2012. While Payne was at Kentucky, the Wildcats had six recruiting classes that were rated No. 1 in the country, and they had multiple first-round draft choices during every year of his tenure.

During his playing career, Payne was a member of Louisville’s 1986 national championship team, and he went on to a four-year NBA career.

After thanking Calipari in the statement issued by the Knicks, Payne said, “I now take the next step in my basketball journey and fulfill my dream of coaching in the NBA. I’m beyond grateful and excited to work for such a prestigious organization as the New York Knicks.”

Payne has a longstanding relationship with Knicks president Leon Rose and his executive vice president William Wesley. He was recognized not only for his recruiting prowess but also for his work with Kentucky big men, including Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Knicks forwards Julius Randle and Kevin Knox among many others.

“This is a bittersweet day for us at Kentucky,” Calipari said in a statement. “Kenny has been an extremely important part of our success here. His relationship with our players is second to none. He coaches them and challenges them as hard as anyone, but they respect him, listen to him and they learn from him because they know he cares. As a basketball coach and a teacher, he could run any program in the country. Simply, he’s as good as they get.

"I fully support his decision to join Tom Thibodeau’s staff . . . I have high expectations for him in the NBA. For Julius Randle and Kevin Knox, it will be immediate, but as other players get to know and trust him, they’ll know he’s about one thing — their improvement and success. I have no doubt that Kenny is going to be a great asset to coach Thibodeau’s staff."

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