Kevarrius Hayes moving from Live Oak to Gainesville
Published: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 10:52 p.m.
The campus tour was nice.
Riding around in a golf cart with his mother and high school basketball coach, Kevarrius Hayes nodded with enthusiasm each time their defacto chauffeur, Florida assistant basketball coach Matt McCall, pointed out something new.
“Those would be your dorms. And right there, those are the buildings where you would study medicine. I know you really want to do that and would love what we can provide you here.”
The workouts helped get a better look inside the program.
Sitting in the Gator fitness room, Hayes watched as Casey Prather, Dillon Graham, DeVon Walker and Dorian Finney-Smith did full-body weight training. Not just beach-friendly bench presses and curls. All over.
Soon after, Hayes saw players go through a variety of basketball drills. They weren't simplistic, and the focus was multilayered. Everything was designed to improve in more than just one area.
You didn't just drive. You drove, spun and shot. You didn't just get to the correct defensive spot in the post. You got there, you kept your position and you guarded your man for the entirety of the possession.
“All they went through in all they did ... I could see what the goals were,” Hayes said. “It was about becoming better and more complete in game situations. It made total sense.”
Then there was the visit to coach Billy Donovan's office.
Well, that was, in Hayes' own five syllables “intimidating.” It's not often an admittedly bashful kid from Live Oak has an attentive audience with a man who has two national championship rings and nearly 500 career victories.
While Hayes has lived a short life that only saw him eligible to get a driver's license on March 5, he's lived in four different places since elementary school. And in the last 19 months, he's really grown up.
Not that he was ever immature. That's hardly the case.
But circumstances helped the teenage boy evolve into a young man capable of thinking out decisions even when every bit of adrenaline and euphoria in his 190-pound body was telling him to spring out of his chair and tell the future hall of fame coach exactly what he wanted to hear.
It was in 2011 when Verrice Hayes was told she and her Army Reserves unit would be deployed to Kuwait soon after the new year.
She wasn't sure how long she'd be gone, and well, the potential danger of a tour never really strays too far from the consciousness of a soldier, despite the Hooah attitude bred into them from the first time they put on a uniform.
No longer with Kevarrius' father, Kevin Jordan, Verrice didn't want to uproot her only child, who had lived in two separate parts of Jacksonville, Bridgeville, Pa. and Live Oak since 2008 and needed stability and continuity while she was gone. After all, while popular enough with his classmates that he would eventually be elected the president of the sophomore class at Suwannee High School, he also acknowledges he didn't play on a basketball team as a seventh-grader because he was too shy to try out in his new town.
So, with the approval of the Florida High School Athletic Association, Kevarrius moved in with the Bulldogs' coach, Jeremy Ulmer, in January of 2012.
There, he had many of the same responsibilities he had at home with his mom, though he jokes “cleaning dishes was easier because (Ulmer) has a dishwasher.”
Kevarrius said there were nights he would lay awake worrying about his mother, and across the world, she missed her son. Her biggest joys came when SHS game tapes would arrive, courtesy of a cousin.
“That helped a little bit,” said Verrice, a 14-year reservist who also spent two years on active duty ending in 2009.
They weren't able to communicate as often as either would have liked, but when they spoke on the telephone, the conversations always were positive. And after about six months, the Internet at her cubicle in the Middle East got up to full speed and they were able to keep in touch almost daily through Facebook.
“It got easier then,” said Kevarrius, whose mother transitioned from being enlisted to an officer four years ago. “I missed her the whole time, but about then is when I began really missing her, so it was great to be able to talk with her more often.”
All the while, Kevarrius was becoming more and more comfortable with a body that sprouted from 6-foot-2 as an eighth-grader (when he threw down his first dunk) to 6-6 as a freshman to 6-8 now.
Blessed with outstanding speed and hands that can cup a basketball as if it were a softball, he continues to be a work-in-progress offensively. But, according to Team Nike Florida assistant coach Ed Hall, that part of Hayes' game will come. What he already has can't necessarily be taught.
“He's one of those kids who is so good he doesn't really even know how good he is,” said Hall, who has coached Hayes for three summers. “He does things every day in practice where we just kind of look at each other and ask ‘did he really just do that?'”
Hall said perhaps the best example came at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in late April in Newport News, Va. There, with Donovan an interested spectator in the stands, Hayes ran down a fast-breaking guard, leaped and grabbed the shot attempt, and in one motion threw an outlet pass to a teammate.
“He did something nobody else there could have and most wouldn't have even thought to try,” Hall said.
Those kind of plays became almost the norm at Suwannee, where Hayes finished his freshman year averaging 5.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks before boosting those numbers to 11.3 ppg, 15 rpg and five bpg as a sophomore.
But he seemed to save his best for mom.
On Jan. 25 of this year, tour completed, Verrice arrived home and made her way to the gym, unbeknownst to anyone.
She arrived five minutes before tipoff to see Ulmer and most of her son's teammates gathered in a huddle on the floor. Having injured her meniscus in Kuwait, Verrice walked with a slight limp and asked where Kevarris was.
A member of the coaching staff pointed to the locker room, where a few seconds later, she opened the door and saw Kevarrius. And then he saw her.
“We hugged each other really hard,” Verrice said. “There were a lot of tears.”
Unfortunately for the opposition, Hamilton County, with tears came motivation in the form of 15 points (on 7-of-8 shooting), 20 rebounds, 10 blocked shots and two steals in a 70-58 win for the Bulldogs.
“I'll never forget that night,” Kevarrius said.
Nor will he forget June 11, when he sat in Donovan's office, half in awe, half intrigued.
“It was so nice, and coach Donovan was so nice, so humble,” Verrice said. “We were there 45 minutes to an hour and (Kevarrius) got to ask a lot of questions. He had a huge smile on his face the whole time.”
Donovan's answers made Hayes pretty certain UF was where he wanted to spend his college years. But, in great part because of a prior conversation he'd had with his mother, Kevarrius held off on committing.
“We had already talked about how people were going to call and I wanted him to make sure he thought everything out before making any decisions,” Verrice said. “It was a big choice.”
During the next week, Kevarrius received texts from coaches at Alabama, Kansas State and Mercer gauging his interest, but in his mind, his future kept coming back to one place.
So, six days later he told his family and then Donovan he was going to be a Gator in the 2015 class.
“It seems perfect for me,” Hayes said. “Just a perfect fit. I'm so happy.”