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A newcomer to the UK basketball program but a veteran observer of the Wildcats’ practices, Zan Payne has seen a lot over the last several years.
Payne, the son of UK assistant coach Kenny Payne, has watched from the sidelines of the Joe Craft Center as the greatest teams of the John Calipari era have come together on the court.
This season, Payne is actually on the team, but he’s sitting out as he rehabs from a torn ACL. That means more watching. And, oh, the things he’s seen.
One of Payne’s biggest takeaways through the first few practices of the summer and early fall: these Cats like to talk. A lot.
Calipari has even had to stop practice at times, yelling at his players because they were exchanging so much trash talk.
“I ain’t never seen that before,” Payne said with a big laugh.
Other Cats confirmed the competitive nature of these early practices.
Ashton Hagans, one of the team’s hot-shot freshmen, recalled a particular day when he and Keldon Johnson, another one of the team’s hot-shot freshmen, got going a little hotter than their coach thought was appropriate.
“He has got on me a couple times when I haven’t turned it off,” Hagans said. “Like, one practice, we was going at it. We was talking a lot of trash. I think I got carried away a little bit. Me and Keldon, we just kept talking. I didn’t turn it off. He just chewed me out.”
In fact, Hagans said, Calipari threatened to kick them out of practice if they didn’t knock it off.
“I was like,’ all right. My bad, Coach. Let me calm down. We just got a little too excited.’ He was trying to taunt me and I was still going. That’s all it was,” Hagans said.
Just how much trash are these guys talking?
“A lot. A lot. It’s fun, though,” Johnson said. “I think we definitely — we be going at each other, talking a lot of trash. And, of course, Coach Cal, he stopped it. But we know, at the end of the day, we’re teammates. We’re doing it just to get the best out of each other and push each other to that next level. We’re talking trash, and it ain’t nothing too personal. But we’re definitely getting after each other.”
Johnson is the top offender.
“It gets crazy sometimes,” said fellow freshman Immanuel Quickley. “Keldon’s definitely the biggest one. It don’t even gotta be basketball. It could be getting the last bottle of water, and he’s going to trash talk if he gets it.”
Quickley, yet another five-star newcomer in UK’s backcourt, tends to look the other way.
Two summers ago, he was a 16-year-old point guard trying out for a USA Basketball junior team in Colorado Springs, Colo. Other guards at that camp included Collin Sexton — now a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers — and Javonte Smart, a top-50 recruit who will be a freshman at Louisiana State this season.
Sexton, well known for his trash-talking abilities, did plenty of jawing that week. The super-competitive point guard was constantly in the face of Quickley and Smart, to varying results.
Smart snapped back at one point, setting off a testy moment that coaches quelled before it escalated. Quickley’s facial expression never changed as the taunts came his way. Two years later, he still remembers those events. “And if I’m not mistaken, I think our team won, too,” Quickley said, offering up a little after-the-fact trash talk.
He’s still not one to start such conversations on the court.
“I’m the the type of person that if you trash talk me, I’m gonna trash talk back … sometimes,” he said. “I might just kill you and might not say nothing. I’m really not the guy to start nothing, but I’ll finish it if I got to.
“It just takes being locked in to what’s going on. I think that’s what trash talk tries to do. It’s a mind game. So if you don’t get into the mind game and you just focus on the game and the task at hand, you know you’re locked in and focused.”
Whether or not Calipari likes the talk, he has to be pleased with the results.
UK’s young players recalled the most tense moments on the practice court so far not with disdain or hard feelings, but with utter glee. There were smiles, laughs, even giggles at the thought of some of the trash talk that’s been exchanged in the early stages of this preseason.
It’s bringing these young Cats closer together.
“Me and Keldon, in the summer, we were going at it every day, getting ready for the Bahamas,” said freshman Tyler Herro. “Coach Cal told us, ‘John Wall and Eric Bledsoe used to do the same thing. And once they stepped in the locker room, they knew that was all just being competitive. They were back to being brothers off the court.’ And that’s what me and Keldon do real well.”
That’s what they all do, according to every player asked about the verbal jousting.
They knew it was going to be competitive. They knew they’d have to fight for playing time. And they now know — no matter what is said between those lines in practice — they’re in it together.
“That’s what we came here for,” Quickley said. “We all understand what’s going on. Trying to kill each other on the court and we’re being brothers off the court. I feel like if we were being fake on the court, then we would be fake off the court. But we keep it real with each other.
“We’re trying to go at it and kill each other, so that’s why we’re good friends off the court.”
About this series
This story is part of a series looking at the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team as the Cats prepare to open the 2018-19 season. Watch for more on UK in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 12: Big Blue Madness
Oct. 21: Blue-White Game
Oct. 26: Exhibition vs. Transylvania
Nov. 2: Exhibition vs. Indiana-Pennsylvania
Nov. 6: Season opener vs. Duke at Champions Classic in Indianapolis