Kenny Payne watched the entire press conference from a seat in the balcony overlooking the practice gym, where the five players and Coach Calipari sat in front of a large gathering of media members. Throughout the first few minutes, as the players took their seats behind the microphones and Calipari began to speak, I couldn't help but notice the players continually looking up and smiling at someone. I discovered quickly that the someone was Kenny Payne. A certain bond was evident between players and coach, a sharing of small moments and laughter.
And then the players actually had their turn to speak. At least three of the five players (perhaps more, those are just the ones I clearly remember), referenced Kenny Payne (or KP) in some manor during their speeches. The general vibe from their comments was that Kenny Payne puts in immeasurable time working with these players. I gathered that he is clearly the coach that spends the most time with these players on an individual basis in the gym. John Robic has always been clearly defined as the "x's and o's guy." Orlando Antigua has always been touted as the big-time recruiter. Rod Strickland, who will now be joining SMU's staff, has always been given credit for helping develop the point guards. Kenny Payne seemingly is the "development guy" on the staff. The close bond that the players share with him seems to be the type of bond you form with a coach who pours hours and hours of extra time into you as a player. Payne is obviously that guy for Kentucky.
I remember Payne getting loads of credit for Josh Harrellson's improved play last season. Calipari often mentioned the workout regimen that Kenny Payne put Josh Harrellson through. The players in last night's press conference seemed to echo those sentiments entirely.
When the individual (or "breakout interviews") subsided, the players began to casually mingle with one another. Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague all clung to Kenny Payne. They were joking, laughing, smiling and interacting constantly with Payne. The rapport could not have appeared any stronger between coach and player.
I left the press conference yesterday thinking about Kenny Payne and his role for this Kentucky program with much more attention than I expected. An article was written recently about Payne's preference for flying under the radar on Calipari's staff, showing preference for the behind the scene work. His behind the scene work might deserve more credit than we even know. The camaraderie and gratitude the players all displayed toward Payne was not behind the scenes at all last night. It was on full display.