John Calipari explains the ways Knicks assistant Kenny Payne will be an asset to Tom Thibodeau

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NEW YORK — Until they finally step on the court and establish a real basketball identity, the new-look Knicks are tied to a sports agency and the University of Kentucky. They’re the CAA Knicks or the Lexington Knicks.

Their biggest hires thus far — Leon Rose, William Wesley, Tom Thibodeau, Kenny Payne — are connected to one or both of those entities. John Calipari, the king of Kentucky basketball and CAA client, is now an acknowledged Knicks fan, but his strongest allegiance is to Payne and he made that clear in an interview Wednesday.

“Obviously you all know my relationship with Leon, you know my relationship with Wes. I want the Knicks to win, and I want the Knicks to compete for a championship, and I want the Knicks to win a championship,” Calipari said. “But my overriding concern in this is Kenny Payne.”

Calipari, ever the expressive personality, did what he does best for his people: He sold Payne. He pumped him up. He made sure the audience, in this case the media, understood that his Kentucky assistant of 10 years was an asset to the Knicks and not just an expensive addition with the right friends. Calipari even crowned Payne, who was officially hired Tuesday as Thibodeau’s first assistant, as his successor if he ever left Kentucky.

The problem, according to Calipari, is that he’s staying in Lexington for the foreseeable future, and he relayed that to Payne before suggesting his colleague join the Knicks.

“I’m upset that he was never given an opportunity to be a head coach in college basketball. Ridiculous, ridiculous. I mean, I have no idea why. Part of the reason for (him going to the Knicks) — when I talked to him, I said, ‘Look, I want you to have my job when I leave,” Calipari said. “The only problem is I don’t know when I’m going to leave. If I get hit by a bus, you’d be the guy. I don’t know, but I don’t know when I’m going to do this.’ Right now, I’m 61 years old. I still have some time left in the tank …So, I’m just saying to him, ‘I wish I knew I was leaving in two years because I would tell you to stay. I can’t tell you that.’ ”

Payne, 53, has a longstanding connection with Wesley, aka World Wide Wes, the behind-the-scenes power broker who helped Calipari secure top recruits at Kentucky. The conspiracy theorists suggest Wesley culled a favor to get Payne a job at Kentucky, and then got Payne into the NBA even if he wasn’t Thibodeau’s choice.

Calipari countered those concerns when asked if Payne would be in the NBA if Wesley and Rose didn’t just become Knicks executives.

“You got to understand, he’s been invited to four different NBA teams where they had their summer camp and did stuff and won there,” Calipari said. “And why do you think they’re bringing him there? Trying to feel him out. They want to see him teach, they want to see him interact. And those were some of the top franchises out there. I knew why they were doing it. And because we were paying him so much, none of them thought he would leave (Kentucky) to go to the Knicks. Now they’re pissed that they didn’t bring him in. …There were other franchises that would’ve (hired him).”

Calipari also said that Thibodeau called him to inquire about Payne, leaving the impression that he desired him on his staff.

“I think Thibs did his homework,” Calipari said. “I don’t think, whether it’s Leon or Wes or anybody else, would go to Thibs and say, ‘You need to hire (Payne).’ Never in a million years would that happen. This was Thibs saying, ‘This is how I need to build my staff.”

Payne is certainly popular with former Kentucky players, including current Knicks Kevin Knox and Julius Randle, both of whom applauded the hire on social media. Calipari said Anthony Davis, perhaps the greatest of all the Wildcats players, called him Wednesday to express dismay that Payne was leaving.

Calipari said Payne was skilled at relating to the players and pushing the right messages. It’s an asset Thibodeau can certainly use after his rocky relationships with young players in Minnesota.

“As you use a lot of that time (to prepare for games and teach schemes), it’s hard for a head coach to just say, ‘I’m going to spend two hours of my day sitting down and talking with so-and-so player.’ It’s just hard to do as a head coach,” Calipari said. “So, Kenny, what he’s done for me and what he’ll do for Thibs, he explains who we are. He knows us. ‘Here’s who he is. Here’s what he’s trying to get done. Here’s how he’s trying to do it.’ And again, I say with my guys, if I have a guy on my staff that I don’t think has a good enough relationship with my players, I’m not happy. I want them to be involved that way.”


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