The best seat in the house: Leonard Hayes earns his spot in Stony Brook’s starting five the hard way

by February 17, 2011

Leonard Hayes had the best seat in the house. He was courtside, on the sideline – so close to the action, he could hear every word from the coaches, feel the sweat off the player’s backs, see every huddle from the inside. He sat so close that he could taste the action, almost as if he was on the court.

Almost.

For the better part of his first two seasons at Stony Brook, the Stony Brook wing occupied the same seat, down at the end of the bench next to student managers and red-shirts. On most game nights, the closest Hayes – a “garbage time” player – got to the action was in huddles during timeouts, the splatter of sweat from the action on the court and the occasional loose ball kicked out-of-bounds and into his lap. In his first 50 games in a Seawolves uniform, Hayes only set foot on the floor in half; a few charity minutes at the end of blowouts were the only playing time he registered.

A high school star at Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey, Hayes became the first athlete in 26 years to earn 12 varsity letters, starring for four years in Basketball, Track and Soccer. A 1,000 point scorer in high school, Hayes was also twice a state champion in the 400 meters, winning the title as a junior in 2008 and senior in 2009. He also won the state title in the 200 meters in 2008.

But Hayes’ arrival last year came with relatively little hype. The 6’4” wing found himself buried on the bench behind eventual 2010 America East Player of the Year Muhammad El-Amin and guards Bryan Dougher, Chris Martin and Marcus Rouse. Even after El-Amin’s graduation, Hayes found himself leapfrogged this season by freshmen Dave Coley and Anthony Jackson.

Many former high school stars in Hayes’ shoes – blocked by upperclassmen, then recruited over by players behind them – sulk, become a cancer in the locker room, or transfer to another school. Hayes just worked harder.

“Lenny really lived in the film room, worked tremendously hard in practice and just kept plugging away every day,” says Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell.

“[Sitting on the bench] was just motivation – to keep working hard to show the coaching staff that I can help this team,” says Hayes. “The only thing you can control in life is how hard you work: If I work as hard as I possibly can, then I can go to bed knowing it’s out of my hands – that I’ve done everything I can possibly do.”

He also drew some solace in the story of El-Amin.

“When Mo [El-Amin] first came here, he didn’t really leave the bench for his first eight games. There was a kid starting in front of him named Jonathan Moore, and he decided to come back from Christmas break two days later than everyone else and Muhammad jumped on that opportunity and didn’t look back. Mo took advantage of that opportunity and Lenny and I talked a lot about that story and about being ready for when the opportunity came,” says Pikiell.

“I heard about [El-Amin’s] story, and I just wanted one chance,” says Hayes. “I just kept waiting for my chance to get called on and knew that I had to be ready when the opportunity came.”

That chance finally came on January 22 at Maine, and Hayes was ready. With the Seawolves trailing the Black Bears 25-6 to open the game and the offense struggling worse than ever before, Pikiell sent Hayes in. Then something amazing happened: he couldn’t miss.

Hayes hit his first shot of the game, a long three, with 6:21 left in the first half. A little over a minute later, he cut to the hoop and finished off a back door play with an acrobatic lay-up in traffic. Another minute later he soared above the fray to grab an offensive rebound and lay it back in. Seconds later he grabbed a defensive rebound, hustled down the floor and finished the play off with another long bomb. And with just under two minutes left in the first half, Hayes grabbed another defensive board, pushed the ball up the floor and nailed another three in heavy traffic. Suddenly it was a seven-point game.

Prior to January 22, Hayes had scored a total of 19 points in his career. When the final buzzer sounded in Orono, he had poured in 22 points on a combination of triples, mid-range jumpers, and drives to the bucket. He also added seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and an incalculable amount of energy. The Seawolves would fall 70-59 to the Black Bears, but Hayes was brilliant.

“He made the most of the opportunity and it’s such a great example to everyone else in the locker room: How Lenny just kept plugging away sets an example here about just what you can do with hard work and perseverance.”

Hayes has also been crucial to salvaging what appeared to be a lost season for a Seawolves squad that lost El-Amin to graduation and do-everything forward Tommy Brenton to a season-ending knee injury. Since his offensive explosion, Hayes has started every game, and after never scoring in double figures in the first 25 games of his career, he has hit double-digits in six of his last eight. Over that span he has been far and away the Seawolves’ most efficient scorer, averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting .479 from the floor and .441 from behind the arc. And after a 2-5 start to the conference slate, Stony Brook has gone 4-3 over the seven games that Hayes has started.

Hayes will never be El-Amin, an unbelievable playmaker who created shots at will off the dribble and attacked the hoop with abandon, but he has stepped up as the only Seawolf who has replaced even a tiny bit of El-Amin’s overall offensive package. Hayes has shown the ability to create and knock down his own shot, both behind the arc and at the rim, giving the Seawolves a dimension they have not seen since El-Amin’s departure.

“The biggest difference between the first and second times we played them was Hayes,” says New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion. “He’s long, he can create, and he gave them a dimension on offense that we hadn’t seen from them all year.”

Off the court, the soft-spoken Hayes is extremely popular with his teammates and is regarded as a great kid and diligent student.

“He’s a terrific kid from a great family, I can’t say enough about Lenny as a person,” says Pikiell.

“He’s the smartest kid on the team,” says Brenton.

Hayes is the eldest of three sons born to former St. Peter’s basketball players Leonard Jr. and Latifah Hayes. He has an incredibly close relationship with his family. A Business major, Hayes has aspirations to straddle the business and basketball worlds.

“I think I might want to do something in business working with the NBA or maybe the Players Association,” says Hayes.

On the court, the future is far from certain for Hayes. Coley and Jackson both arrived on campus as highly touted recruits, and while their production has not matched the hype, the underlying talent is still there. Next season, Brenton’s return and another incoming class of recruits will create even more competition for playing time. But Hayes will be ready for whatever comes his way.

“I could very well be back in the same situation again, and if that happens, I’m going to keep working as hard as I can so that when another opportunity presents itself, I’m ready for it.”

For right now, Hayes is simply living in the moment and enjoying every minute of it. And he’ll have the rest of the season to live in the moment.

“He’s earned his name being called in the starting lineup, and he’ll be starting for the rest of the season,” says Pikiell.