Tim Sullivan: Flashy Freshman Puts Louisville Coach Kenny Payne In A 'Tights' Spot

Ty-Laur Johnson brings the ball up the court during the game against Bellarmine at the KFC Yum! Center on November 29, 2023.
Photo by Adam Creech, Louisville Athletics.
Ty-Laur Johnson brings the ball up the court during the game against Bellarmine at the KFC Yum! Center on November 29, 2023.

In an act that fell somewhere on the self-importance spectrum between inconceivable and intolerable, at least at surface level, Louisville freshman Ty-Laur Johnson hesitated to play Wednesday night because he didn’t have the right tights.

The right stuff Johnson has in abundance. He steps on the basketball floor and immediately quickens the pace of play. He beats opponents off the dribble as if they were mired in quicksand, completes passes few other players would attempt, and leads UofL in assists as a non-starter.

Yet for the bulk of the first half of the Cardinals’ 73-68 victory over Bellarmine, Johnson was a higher gear stripped of its utility, reluctant to participate in a close game his coach could ill-afford to lose. When asked to account for Johnson making only a cameo appearance in the first half, Kenny Payne explained that the player had all but refused to go on over a wardrobe issue.

“Are you ready for this?” Payne said. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this: We didn’t have the tights that he wanted, so he didn’t know if he wanted to play.”

Say what?

“You heard it,” Payne continued. “We didn’t have the tights that he wanted, that we’ve never had for him, and he decided, ‘I don’t feel like I can go.’ That’s what young people do.”

To imagine Rick Pitino’s reaction to such a scenario is to conjure Vesuvius erupting on Pompeii. To imagine Bobby Knight’s response to so baffling a fashion statement is to envision the departed coach rising from the dead with a vampire’s thirst for blood.

“I coach my guys,” Bellarmine’s Scotty Davenport said, heeding the coaching credo to avoid criticizing another’s players. “[But] I’ve coached a long time. That’s a first.”

Perhaps not since Van Halen’s contractual requirement that all brown M&Ms be removed from their dressing room had a performer insisted on such a curious condition. On the surface, at least, it made no sense.

That Payne was able to prevail upon Johnson to suck it up at halftime was likely the difference in the game. Johnson scored all eight of his points and was credited with five assists after coming off the bench with 15:45 to play and Louisville trailing by four points. Upon checking in, he promptly grabbed a defensive rebound and fed Skyy Clark for a three-point shot that sliced Bellarmine’s lead to a point. His second assist would put the Cardinals ahead to stay.

“We had to tell him that he's a really big piece on this team and we need him," said Clark, recounting efforts to cajole Johnson into participating. "It showed in the second half."

To learn Johnson’s rationale will have to wait, for the freshman was not made available to reporters during post-game interrogations Wednesday night. Former UofL star Peyton Siva took to social media to speculate Johnson may have wanted a pair of compression shorts to address a recent groin injury. If that was the case, that’s not an unreasonable request.

If that was indeed the case, Payne sharing the story without any mitigating context is a problem. It has already caused UofL fans to bemoan Johnson’s alleged entitlement and will doubtless inspire creative heckling when the team goes on the road. If Johnson believes he’s been thrown under the bus, he has the tire tracks to prove it.

“Listen, at the end of the day, here’s the deal: This is a new day and age, a new generation of young people,” Payne said. “They’re learning what it means to be part of a team. They’re learning what it means to be kids of character. They’re learning. They’re learning. All of them are learning. . .

“In your minds, you’re looking like, ‘I can’t believe he just said that.’ [But] that’s what it is coaching young people. That’s what it is. There’s a generation where these young kids think, ‘I don’t feel good now, I can just shut it down.’ Well, that affects a whole lot of lives.”

With Payne’s job security sure to be a constant thread throughout the season, persuading players of a higher purpose than themselves would seem a high priority. That it could come to that could be seen as an indictment of Payne’s leadership or Johnson’s immaturity, maybe both.

“Ty-Laur Johnson is a great kid,” Payne said. “He’s learning for the first time in his life what it is to be accountable, to be on time, to be part of a team, and his responsibility to the team. I’m proud of him for fighting through, but I know I cannot ever take my foot off his neck.”

Here’s hoping Payne lifts his foot long enough for Johnson to explain himself.