In a lot of ways, 25-year-old Kenny Hayes is no different than the legions of kids across the globe that grab a basketball, go outside while pretending to be their favorite NBA superstar – in his case Michael Jordan – and dream of one day playing in the NBA.
The only difference with Hayes – who still talks of his NBA dreams like a starry-eyed kid – is that unlike the vast majority of those with the same lofty aspirations, he actually has the ability to do so.
And he appears to be knocking on the door.
Hayes, one of the top NBA Prospects floating around the NBA D-League, was named the 2011-12 Most Improved Player after a breakout season with the Maine Red Claws. And, after an impressive showing as a member of the NBA D-League Select Team at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in front of countless NBA GMs and scouts, it looks like he could be as close to his dream as ever before.
I probably would cry just because it would be a cry of excitement, like I can’t believe this is really happening.
- Kenny Hayes
So, what would Hayes do if he actually got the call?
“I probably would cry just because it would be a cry of excitement, like I can’t believe this is really happening,” Hayes said. “I think about it every day though. I dream about it, you daydream about it, you picture yourself in an NBA jersey playing with a team, playing with a superstar next to you, so you never know, man. You just never know.”
It’s refreshing to see a professional player like Hayes with such sincere passion for the NBA, the kind of emotion that any kid who has ever hung a plastic hoop on their bedroom door has experienced. As a toddler growing up in Ohio, Hayes got hooked on the game by watching Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and his envy of the game’s top stars has not dissipated over the years.
“I always think like, what would happen if I played next to Kobe, on the same team with Kobe or Dwight Howard?” Hayes pondered. “It would just be crazy, a dream come true. Even if I’m not on the same team it would be crazy – I would be star struck.”
When you talk to Hayes about his goals it is evident that despite his extraordinary talent and the massive responsibilities – he has a 3-year-old daughter – that he has, that he, when it comes to basketball, is still just a kid a heart. If you need further proof, look no further than his abnormal, yet delicious, pregame ritual.
“I eat Skittles. It would really bother me if I didn’t eat Skittles before a game,” Hayes said with a self-aware laugh. “It’s always been like that since my mom was coaching me back in elementary school. I always had a bag of Skittles with me before the game, or when I was in Maine they’d have a cup under the bench and whenever I came to the bench I’d pick it up and eat a few Skittles and then when I got called up to go back in the game I put it right back under the seat and go right back and play. That’s my energy. That’s like my Gatorade.”
Potential cavities aside, this routine seems to be working. On March 4 this year, Hayes scored 52 points for the Red Claws, one point shy of the NBA D-League record.
“I ate Skittles and Cheez-Its that night,” Hayes remembered. “The next game they had a big box of Cheez-Its and Skittles in my locker. It was crazy.”
While Sheila Johnson, Hayes’ mom and closest confidant, doesn’t agree with this specific health regimen – it’s going to catch up to him one day she says – she still supports her son in everything he does, giving him sound advice and reminding him to pray before each and every one of his games.
Hayes comes from a basketball family and his pursuit of the NBA is really an entire family investment. And with him playing so well as of late and doors seemingly starting to open, Johnson is not immune to envisioning what it would be like if her son got an NBA Call-Up or contract.
“I know my son - he would cry,” Johnson said. “I’m tearing up now just talking to you about this because I just feel like he is so close. He’s just so close to it. He told me the other day, he said, ‘Mom, I just want someone to give me a chance. I just want someone to give me a chance.’ And I’m wiping tears as I’m talking to you. He wants someone to give him a chance. And I said, ‘son, someone’s seen you in Summer League and someone is going to give you a chance.’”
In Las Vegas, the 6-foot-2 guard shined when he was given the opportunity to get quality minutes. In 21 minutes on July 21, he scored 11 points, dished out four assists, pulled down three rebounds and had two steals. In 29 minutes on July 19, he scored 15 points, showing off his range by hitting two of his four attempts from downtown. All in all, Hayes displayed that he can score from the perimeter and also that he has solid grasp on how to run an offense from the point guard position, something that seemingly every guard at Summer League was trying to prove.
This Summer League performance is on the heels of an NBA D-League season where he improved his scoring average by nearly 10 points to 17.1 points per game and dished out 5.2 assists per night (T-8th in the league).
“I think Kenny is just a great example of how the D-League can help a player develop,” NBA D-League Select coach Eric Musselman said. “He’s made such great strides and I think he’s got better in this short time (at Summer League) as well. I think he is going to have a great year wherever he plays. I think his confidence is growing and I think he’ll have a great season.”
Where Hayes will play this year is a decision that is weighing heavily on him. His agent says that he has received interest from some international teams where the money will far surpass what he’ll make in the NBA D-League, but the NBA D-League is also where he has the most direct pipeline to the NBA.
“It’s definitely 50/50 for me because I want to play in the NBA so bad and it’s been a dream of mine since I was little,” said Hayes of the decision he has in front of him. “I mean, you don’t even have to give me league minimum, I just want to be able to say I played in the NBA but it’s tough because a lot of money’s being thrown at you.”
But for Hayes, like presumably any little kid with basketball dreams that doesn’t yet know about signing bonuses and a 401ks, it’s not all about the money. It’s about the dream. And that’s why Hayes has been instructed by those closest to him – his family, his agent, former Maine President and GM Jon Jennings – that sticking around in the NBA D-League for one more season could be his best bet in parlaying the momentum that he’s generated over the last few months into an NBA contract or a Call-Up.
I’ll give the money back just to play. You know, give me 10 days in the NBA without pay.
- Kenny Hayes
It is a conversation that Hayes had with several members of the Select Team in Vegas that are in the same boat as him.
“We talked about it and yeah, it’d be nice to get all that money,” Hayes said. “But in the back of your head, you know, I’ll always have that feeling of, ‘Man, I wanna play in the NBA.’ I’ll do anything to play in the NBA. I’ll give the money back just to play. You know, give me 10 days in the NBA without pay. We talked about that. I know I would do it. Just to have the opportunity to showcase my abilities.”
That’s really all it boils down to now for Hayes – getting a chance. And while the rigors of chasing an NBA dream can be substantial, it’s a safe bet that Hayes will continue to chase it with child-like enthusiasm, in the NBA D-League or abroad.
In a post-lockout world full of sponsors, shoe deals and trade demands, Kenny Hayes is a good reminder of what this game is all about. The dreams of millions of NBA hopefuls, and the small percentage that actually get to achieve them.