There are many differences when Kenny Hayes plays basketball overseas – where in less than a month he’ll begin his ninth season in a career that’s taken him to Venezuela, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan. Spain, Turkey and France – and what he’s done this week as he’s prepared to join some 16 other Dayton area hoop standouts to play in the first annual Kenny Hayes charity basketball game at Northmont High School on Saturday night.
This past season, playing for the French powerhouse CSP Limoges, Hayes sometimes sought to go unnoticed off the court.
“Our arena looked like the Boston Celtics’ arena and it would get crazy loud in there,” he said. “The people love basketball, so you can’t go anywhere in town without being noticed.
“It’s like a celebrity walking the streets back here. If you go to the mall, you get stopped every two minutes so sometimes I’d just wear a hoodie or a hat and some glasses. You just change up your look so they might not know who you are.”
But leading up to Saturday’s 6 p.m. game, Hayes hoped he and the other guys scheduled to play – a group that includes Norris Cole, Daequan Cook, Chris Wright, Juwan Staten and Geron Johnson – attract all the attention they can.
He wants a big crowd not only so he can raise money for kids-in-need charities here, but also because he wants young people here to see how guys once just like them found success when they applied themselves to something they love.
“I just want to give young kids a vision, an inspiration,” he said. “I want them to see guys from Dayton who were successful dribbling a basketball. Basketball can take you a long way if you work hard and everything falls in place. And it doesn’t have to be the NBA. I’ve made a career in Europe and I’m able to support my family (he has a 9-year-old daughter Kennedy and as two-month-old daughter Carter) because of it.
“It’s the same with a lot of guys playing Saturday night. I want kids to look and say, ‘Hey, I want to be like Juwan! I want to be like Daequan. I want to be like Kenny.’”
But to mimic Hayes you would have to defy the most improbable of odds.
As an eighth grader, he was cut from his middle school team in Trotwood and then cut from the Dayton Metro AAU team, as well.
“I remember him calling me up and he’s cryin’ and carryin’ on about being cut,” Kenny Hayes Sr. said. a couple mornings ago.
“And I remember telling him, ‘Look, make sure you’re at the gym every day and I’ll work with you. You don’t have to play on a team to get better. Individual workouts will do it, too.’”
Hayes said he also became the manager of the team that cut him:
“I got to practice with them, too. I wanted to do whatever I could to stay around basketball.”
The next year Hayes’ mom, Sheila, and his stepdad, the late Hank Johnson, moved to Clayton and Kenny – at just 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds – became the smallest guy to make Northmont’s freshman team.
Soon he was embraced by varsity coach Jim Brown and was brought up to his team. By the time he was a senior, he was the Greater Western Ohio Conference Player of the Year.
Then another snafu – his academic standing with the NCAA — kept him from going to Wright State and forced him to spend a season at St. Catherine College, a small NAIA school in Kentucky, where he said head coach Wade O’Connor pushed him to shed his congenial nature and have “a killer instinct” on the court.
After that came a year of junior college basketball at Cincinnati State, where he won All-America honors.
That finally got him to Miami University where as a 6-foot-2 star guard, he became a sidekick of Coach Charlie Coles.
“Guys on the team used to give me crap, and call me the ‘coach’s son,’ but it was never like that. He’d get on me in practice, but then we’d go in his office and could talk for hours about life.”
Coles — who once who told me Hayes was one of his favorite players ever — died in 2013 and his wife asked Kenny to be a pallbearer.
“To this day I miss him,” Hayes said. “I pray every night and he’s always in my prayers. I know he and my stepdad are watching over me.
“And one day soon I’m going to get a portrait of them tattooed on my back.
“To me they’re heroes without capes.”
More than just the NBA
Hayes admits it took a while for him to adjust from focusing solely on the NBA.
It had been his dream since he was a kid and after Miami, he had had an invitation to the Cleveland Cavaliers camp and made it to the final preseason cut.
“My No. 1 goal was the play in the NBA,” he said. “That’s why, when I started out in the (NBA’s) D-League (he played two seasons for the Maine Red Claws where he was voted the league’s Most Improved Player in the 2011-12 season ), I turned down deals in Europe. I was like, ‘No, no, no, it’s got to be the NBA!’
“Finally I realized I have to do something to support my family. I got a nice offer my first year in Europe and ever since then it’s been hard to turn down the money. When you start to reach $250,000 and $350,000 tax free, it’s hard to leave.”
Actually, though, his big break did come in the D-League. In a March game in 2012, he scored 52 points against the Springfield Armor.
“It was a crazy, especially considering my pregame meal was Cheez-Its and Skittles,” he laughed. “Two of us did community service for the team and didn’t get back until late. That’s all I had time to eat.”
After his record-setting performance he said his agent got offers from several European teams. His first two years he played in Israel for Hapoel Gilboa Galil and then Maccabi Ashdod.
In 2014 he joined team in Cremona, Italy — those fans still stay in contact with him via social media — and then he played in Kazakhstan, Malaga, Spain and Buckyukcekmece, Turkey, which he leaves for again August 22.
“Saturday night, the guy who is going to be our DJ was on that eight grade team I got cut from,” said the 31-year-old Hayes, who now lives in Chicago. “We were laughing about it. He said, ‘Of all the people from back then, you’re the one – the manager – who has made a pro career! That’s unbelievable.’”
Growing up here, Hayes said he used to attend the Mark Baker basketball camp for kids each summer.
“I always wanted to be one of those guys who one day showed out for his community, too,” he said.
This past year he got the idea of putting on a charity game in Dayton and contacted as many other guys from the area who are playing pro or are about to to see if they would take part.
Along with the game, there will be a book bag give-away for kids about to start school.
While all the guys were eager to support their hometown, he said, it’s hard to argue that anyone embraces the place more than Hayes.
He doesn’t just wear Dayton on his sleeve, he wears it on his left shoulder blade.
Before he joined Staten in a morning workout on the downtown Dayton YMCA court the other day, he pulled up his shirt to reveal a large tattoo on his back.
It was a picture of a young boy, a basketball under his arm, looking at the world. Next to him are the words “Dream, Believe, Dare, Do.” Beneath him is a colorful Interstate 75 sign and the words “Dayton Kid.”
“That’s a little boy dreaming hoop dreams,” he said. “It’s my favorite.”
It could be him.