Kentucky linchpin Hayes a model brother, player and student

AUSTIN, Texas

Win or lose, Final Four-bound or sadly bound for home, Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes knows exactly where he will be not long after his seventh-ranked Wildcats meet No. 15 Michigan State today in the NCAA Tournament's Austin Regional.

On the bed, maybe the floor, of his parents' hotel room -- all 6 feet 6 inches and 245 pounds of muscle and might -- playfully wrestling with his 8-year-old brother, Thaddeus.

They will tussle over the TV remote -- with Thaddeus winning, of course -- as the two re-create movie scenes. Slasher films, thrill-kill flicks, the type of cinema that mindlessly entertains millions but, in this case, captivates the complex, convoluted mind of one autistic boy.

"I'll grab him. He'll try to choke me and we'll, like, replay movie scenes," Hayes explains. "... Sort of like he'll grab the remote control and act like he's about to hit me, and I'll grab him and we'll be fighting with the remote control (like a weapon)."

Not once will Thaddeus, the youngest of the four Hayes family children, ask his big brother how he played against the Spartans, or even if the Wildcats won and earned this regional's berth into the Final Four next week in St. Louis. He won't talk to his older sibling about tying Alex Groza's 56-year-old Kentucky record for consecutive career starts at 110 games, or about handling the swarming defensive man-to-man pressure Michigan State brings to the court.

In fact, Thaddeus won't talk much at all. And that's OK with Chuck Hayes, who lovingly calls his younger brother "my heart."

"Thaddeus, he's a character. He's so funny. You never know what to expect," Hayes says, adding that Thaddeus also has a speech disorder that keeps him from forming full sentences. "I don't know, he's a wild bunch. He's always energized. He's always running around.

"I have so many great moments with him."

It didn't matter to Hayes that his kid brother, who watches intently on TV when the Wildcats are playing, pointing at Chuck so his mother can see which player he is, fell asleep in the second half of Friday's 62-52 regional semifinal victory over 18th-ranked Utah.

"I guess the band and the whole crowd just kind of caused him to fall asleep," Hayes says, smiling as he props his chin up with clasped hands. "I don't know, that's my little brother. He's something special."

The same of which could be said of Hayes, a natural small forward who has been forced to play his senior season at power forward. And of his Kentucky teammates, who have won 28 of 33 games this season, despite starting two freshmen. And of his coach, Tubby Smith, in search of his second NCAA championship in seven seasons.

This is a special cast of characters. Not a star in the bunch, really, but a galaxy of talent, tenacity and total commitment to the time-honored tradition that is Kentucky basketball.

Not surprisingly, as one of only two seniors, Hayes has taken on the role of "big brother" to his younger teammates. He responds to the assignment the same way he did in helping raise Thaddeus and his two other siblings, as both Hayes parents held down low-paying jobs in Modesto, Calif.

By example.

While he doesn't have to cook the meals, clean the kitchen or the mow the lawn for his Wildcats teammates, he is unequivocally the hardest worker on the Kentucky squad -- and his efforts in the classroom are exemplary, with a four-year degree in broadcast journalism this May as close as his next offensive tip-in.

"He's our leader by experience," freshman center Randolph Morris says of Hayes. "Whenever we need a lift, we look to him. He picks us up whenever we need it."

Says freshman point guard Rajon Rondo: "Chuck carries us. He shows us what needs to be done, on and off the court, and then we go do it. We don't ask questions, we just do it."

Hayes, who averages 10.8 points and 7.8 rebounds in 29 minutes and was voted the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, has been a model of consistency over his four seasons at Kentucky. His 905 career rebounds rank ninth in the 102-year history of Wildcats basketball, while his 289 assists rank 16th.

But it's his personality, his perspective, that has many calling him one of the greatest young men ever to don the sacred "Big Blue."

"He's the nicest young man who ever came through this program," Bill Keightley, Kentucky's equipment manager for the past four decades, said before the NCAA Tournament began. "Chuck was made out of the stuff that lets people grow.

"No one who steps on the floor this year in the tournament will have a heart bigger than Chuck Hayes. You give me five Chuck Hayes, and I'll beat any five people you pick in America. He'll never be forgotten around this place."

Nor will Chuck Hayes ever forget what's important in life.

After all, win or lose today, there's one young autistic fan who's waiting for his soft-hearted big brother to play a little "Freddy Krueger" with him.

Joe Hawk's column is published Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 387-2912 or jhawk@reviewjournal.com.