Understanding Nigel Hayes is no simple task. Wisconsin's best player crashes weddings but also practices as hard as anyone Bo Ryan has ever coached.
MADISON, Wis. — The story of Nigel Hayes, Wedding Crasher, began at a Men’s Wearhouse near the Franklin Park Mall in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. There was a summer sale that offered two suits for about the price of one. Hayes did not have a blue suit. Neither did his close friend and former AAU teammate, Zach Garber. So Hayes decided they should go in together on two blue suits. As college basketball players—Garber at Toledo, Hayes at Wisconsin—they did not have a lot of money. After a first visit to the store to select the ensembles, they tried to convince Garber’s parents to chip in for the purchase on a return trip.
Then Hayes had another idea.
Man, he thought, we can crash weddings.
It was, undoubtedly, a great idea. But the easy part was acquiring funding for the suits, which they did. Hayes then had to find out when the weddings were. After he stumbled across a bridal shower and unsuccessfully attempted to find out the wedding date, he took to social media. On June 20, he sent a tweet asking anyone in the Toledo area to alert him to weddings taking place in the following week. After that, he noted, he’d head back to school and move on to Wisconsin weddings. He added a hashtag: #ijustwantcake.
In mid-July, after returning to Madison, Hayes crashed his first wedding. He and teammates Vitto Brown and Riley Dearring were walking home from the Memorial Union Terrace when they struck up a conversation with two women outside a venue hosting a wedding reception. Next thing you know, Hayes says, the Shively party came outside and invited them in. The players joined the festivities and took pictures, and Hayes helped the bride and groom cut a cake with a Harley Davidson logo on it.
Since, the junior forward has crashed about a half-dozen weddings, so to speak; many Wisconsinites, it turns out, welcome the presence of a charismatic character from two Final Four teams. Hayes gave a speech for the Strans, whom he met a day earlier, advising them always to kiss each other goodnight. He danced with the Rices. The Vanderbergs had the best cake he’d ever eaten. He attended two weddings in one day when Garber visited Madison in early October. The receptions were perfectly timed, he says, so he could show up fashionably late to both.
It has been a blast. But, in the end, Hayes actually crashes weddings for two reasons. He only goes for what he calls The Two Cs.
He says he is not sure he can share what The Two Cs are.
Then he does anyway.
“It’s Cake,” Hayes says, “and Cougars.”
This might be another fun winter in Wisconsin.
A video posted by @nigel_hayes on
You may think you know the most fascinating man in college basketball. But understanding Nigel Hayes is a far more complicated undertaking than you imagine. This becomes clear soon after Wisconsin’s best player walks into Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry on a warm October afternoon, with his sweatshirt hood cinched tight around his face.
Hayes lives about 13 steps from one of Madison’s finest purveyors of hamburgers, and he has never been here. He actually doesn’t go out much. And he doesn’t eat red meat, and he doesn’t drink. So it makes some sense that he would bypass the place. The funny part about Hayes is not what he does, like teasing stenographers and crashing weddings and analogizing the expectations for the Badgers to the aerodynamics of a bumblebee. It’s how certain everyone is of who he is, all based on a caricature.
“It’s hilarious,” says Brown, who was Hayes’s freshman year roommate and is now one of his closest friends. “Especially when people come up to you all the time: ‘How crazy is Nigel? Is he always doing this or that?’ We’re like, naw, man, that’s not Nigel. You have no clue. Nigel is at home right now, doing some homework, or in the gym working out.”
That sweatshirt hood is still up well after Hayes slides into a booth and sips his water. As a disguise, it is at best a half-measure. He is 6’8” and 240 pounds, and he is the Badgers’ leading returning scorer at 12.4 points per game. The hood doesn’t cover the most recognizable face remaining from the national runners-up, now that Frank Kaminsky, the colorful player of the year, and Sam Dekker, son of Sheboygan and Dairy State celebrity, are both gone. But Hayes insists on tugging it tight anyway, whether he’s at the mall with Garber or making a 13-step walk from his apartment building to a restaurant. Just in case it inspires a second guess for picture-seekers or gives him an extra moment of peace. Hayes doesn’t want a lot of the attention he can’t help bring upon himself.
He finds awkward situations hysterical, but it gets too awkward around town. Like the time Hayes was in line for a pizza slice next door at Ian’s: A lady walked up and, without a word, handed him her baby. Then she took a picture. Then she said thank you.
“I talk to my Mom about it—people come up, and the things they do are so weird sometimes,” Hayes says. “She’s like, well, it’s probably because you’re so personable and all that, they feel like they know you when they walk up to you. I was like, ‘How do you feel like you know me? When you’ve never met me?’ But they walk up to me in the street and they really act like they know me. I don’t know how that happens.”
Welcome to being famous, he’s told. He shrugs.
“Well,” Hayes says, “I’m only what they make me.”
This is somewhat disingenuous, because Hayes obsesses over what he can make himself into. During his freshman year, Brown would snooze until the time for early morning lifts approached. When he lifted an eyelid to locate his roommate, he realized he was sleeping alone: Oh, Nigel is already gone. When the Badgers arrived for 7 a.m. workouts last summer, they were greeted regularly by Hayes, already drenched in sweat after an hour-long session of shooting or ball-handling.
Security footage of Hayes entering the Kohl Center and toiling under dim house lighting—it’s not exactly the sort of viral clip Hayes is known for. “He has worked extremely hard when no one is looking,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan says. “The people in arena control—they know that Nigel has been in the gym, more than most. It’s no accident he has put himself in the position he has.”
Those close to him diagnose the root cause of the mania. “If he has a weakness, then he just works at it—a lot,” junior guard Bronson Koenig says. After his freshman year, many wondered about his proficiency from three-point range, given the zero long-distance shots he attempted. In reality, the Badgers had ample threats from long range that year—including Ben Brust, the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers—and Hayes simply didn’t need to hoist bombs.
But along with his 58.5% free throw shooting as a freshman, it was a perceived flaw. So he addressed both issues. At one point during that summer of 2014, Garber advised his friend to take a day off from basketball. Hayes was incredulous, but it was a reasonable suggestion: Hayes’s right forearm was swollen from shooting so much.
His arm wasn’t the only thing puffed up from the work: Hayes shot 74.4% from the line and hit 40 three-pointers at 39.6% clip as a sophomore in 2014-15. This year, he’ll be entrusted to handle the ball and create off screens more than he has in the past for the Badgers; it may be no coincidence, then, that Hayes purchased eyewear that prevents him from looking down at the ball when he dribbles, the better to hone his handle. “I think he’s got a lot of me in him—I never wanted to be yelled at by my coach, so I always tried to do everything right,” Ryan says. “Nigel takes pride in his work. He wants to be doing everything correctly.”
Specifically, he wants to be doing everything productively. Other than the occasional wedding interlude, he has little time or patience for the trappings of college life.
When Garber visited Madison, he dragged his friend out with the other Badgers. During the night, Hayes never left the safe haven of a de facto team huddle. “He despises it,” Garber says. “Every five minutes: ‘You ready to leave yet?’”
“I stay in, I clean my apartment, I get ahead on homework, I read, and I’m very content with that,” Hayes says. “There are other things to do. More productive things, too, than standing around a bar or a party where everyone’s drunk and it’s hot and people are touching you.”
He permits himself some mind-numbing indulgences; Brown and Dearring got him into Naruto, a Japanese anime series about a boy growing up to be a master ninja. But the flat-screen television in Hayes’s apartment isn’t plugged in and it still has plastic wrapping on it. His curiosity extends beyond standard programming.
Most notably, he is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by attorney Jeffrey Kessler against the NCAA, a suit that seeks a free market for athletes. He also took Italian at Wisconsin and occasionally sends text messages in that language. He goes off the syllabus for reading material, recently digesting a biography of Malcom X, a collection of Marcus Garvey speeches and a book called Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, by retired advertising executive Tom Burrell. In it, Hayes says, Burrell details why black America is in the condition it’s in and what it can do to improve its current state. It has prompted Hayes to rethink his own behaviors. Specifically, Brainwashed’s exploration of the origins of the N-word inspired Hayes to wipe it from his vocabulary.
“Why would you call another person, especially a family member or friend, something derogatory like that?” Hayes says. “A Jewish person doesn’t call another person a derogatory Jewish word. You don’t see a white person call (a white person) a derogatory word. But black people do that. So I try my best not to do that ... Literally, they say it just means ‘friend,’ ‘homie,’ but it really doesn’t mean that. No matter how much you want it to mean that, it doesn’t mean that.”
He could, he says, put down the book and “go out and smoke weed or go party or go chase women or go get in trouble.” Instead, Hayes makes time for what he wants to do, and he can’t waste any of the minutes he has. He uses walks to class to call his two sisters and ask how their days are going. He even leaves the intrasquad Super Smash Bros. battles in the locker room these days. He knows playing video games is harmless. But he also knows working on a GameCube is not working in any meaningful way.
“You could be getting better,” Hayes says, “but you’re not.”
Of course, the Nigel Hayes you think you know does exist. He is probably, in fact, more idiosyncratic than you’ve imagined. But before we get to that, Hayes would like to clarify the stenographer deal, and why he is not that funny.
As anyone who tracked the NCAA tournament this spring knows, Hayes became a star of sorts for intentionally reciting long words to challenge the stenographer transcribing Wisconsin’s news conferences. Hayes would like to remind everyone that this was not his idea. An NCAA official thought it would be humorous if either Kaminsky, Dekker or he dropped some multisyllabic words as a joke. Hayes happened to volunteer to read the three provided to him.
And then it became what it became, with people walking up to him on the street and asking for a word. How contradistinctive is that reality? “I don’t even use big words when I speak, honestly,” Hayes says. “I don’t walk around saying long, unnecessarily challenging words.”
He does, however, walk around doing and saying unnecessarily strange things, even outside of times he turns media sessions into performance art. “He knows what he’s doing,” Brown says. “I’m not going to call (the attention) unfair, because he obviously has set himself up, put himself in that light to where that’s how people will perceive him.” So when people assume they know Hayes because of how they interpret him through a camera lens, their assumption is not too far off.
For example: Hayes eats a tremendous amount of breakfast food, and not always for breakfast. “It’ll be like 9 o’clock at night, and he’ll Snapchat me with a stack of 12 pancakes and eggs,” Garber says.
There was also the dinner on Wisconsin freshman Andy Van Vliet’s recruiting trip. A native of Antwerp, Belgium, Van Vliet speaks four languages. Hayes was one of his hosts on the visit. And during a dinner that included Van Vliet’s parents—his mother is French, his father German—Hayes said a phrase in German as the group was at the meal.
“Of course, the Dad, he answered in German, and Nigel did not have anything after that,” Ryan says. “A little later on, (Hayes) says something in French. The Mom responds back. And Nigel has no response for that. What happened was, he was caught. He had his cell phone down below the table, and to be endearing to the family, he wanted to say something in the languages they knew. But that’s Nigel.”
There are also the motivational practices of Hayes and redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who regularly discuss before practices which one will be the wolf, and which one will be the sheep. Of course, the original quote is usually regarded as “Lions don’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” Happ pointed this out.
“Nigel says a lion is in the circus and trained,” Happ says. “Whereas the wolf is by himself.”
And then there is the fact that Nigel Hayes crashes weddings. Including one for the sister of the woman who works where he pays his electric bill. Hayes and Garber went to that event. They walked up the stairs and heard music playing and thought, great, everyone is on the dance floor already and no one will pay attention.
“Nope,” Garber says. “They were announcing the wedding party. The bride and groom are about to be announced. They see us and they’re like, ‘We didn’t think you guys would actually come! You want to walk out with us?’ They kind of pulled us out there and the DJ announces, yeah, we had the bride and groom here ... and it looks like a couple wedding crashers. They walked to their table. We had no idea what to do. We’re standing in the middle and everyone is taking pictures.”
Hayes is terrifically, strangely and inexhaustibly entertaining. The only nuance is that he generally intends to entertain himself, not the public. He has a habit of finding the fun where he can, whether it is at a wedding or on an NCAA tournament interview dais or on the practice floor, where he addresses the 67-year-old Ryan as “Pops.”
How such a free spirit can take on a very consequential leadership mantle this year is no concern for Ryan and the Badgers, who have a young roster in need of an anchor. Hayes is silly when silliness is required, and impassioned when it’s not. Even last season, when Wisconsin raced to a lead, it heard a singular voice in the huddle: Good to great.
It was Hayes’s pet phrase, intended to inspire his teammates to build on something instead of settling. It was a reminder that they were either getting better, or they weren’t.
“If I can’t be me, because I’m caught up in trying to do something else, in essence I’m not me,” Hayes says. “It won’t have the same type of effect. Now that I will be in this role, the more I can stay Nigel, the better we’ll be. Faking it doesn’t work. People catch on.”
On the short walk from the restaurant to the Kohl Center for weightlifting and practice, Nigel Hayes keeps the sweatshirt hood down. It may be because he has company, which should discourage any potential unwanted approaches. But for all his protests about the decorum of strangers, Hayes wants to be remembered at Wisconsin. He wants everyone to think, When Nigel was here, it was a great time.
This winter, more than ever, that much is up to him.
And Hayes has come to understand that some ridiculousness is an unavoidable byproduct of his mission, and maybe some of it isn’t so ridiculous after all. He is easily the most requested Badger for community outreach. The reactions he gets during these appearances—yes, they are another part of being famous that confounds him. But those appearances him to give people something they won’t forget. Somehow, Nigel Hayes can show up for 10 or 15 minutes and make someone’s day.
He recalls one meaningful visit to the children’s hospital. There, a little girl waited for members of her favorite team to arrive, including the biggest character of them all.
“Later we found out she was so excited that she peed herself,” Hayes says. “I always tell myself, do I mean that much to people? That me walking in somewhere will make you so excited or happy that you pee on yourself?
“That’s when I go, well, I guess I do have a pretty good life.”