There’s nothing small about Nigel Hayes. He’s 6-8, but his hair probably inches him closer to 7 feet. He’s broad-shouldered and full of broad smiles. And he doesn’t flinch from the truth, which probably makes him the most imposing figure of the four remaining teams in the East Regional.
To wit: Shortly after the Wisconsin forward expressed his excitement about playing at Madison Square Garden against Florida tonight, he expressed a slightly more candid point of view in the locker room.
“I don’t really like New York,” he told reporters. “It’s too big, it’s dirty, trash everywhere, too many people. It’s cold right now.”
That last part is objectively true. But though New Yorkers might take exception to the rest of Hayes’ description, it did give an accurate representation of his personality. He’s known for his community service almost as much as his ability to pull down a rebound. The senior’s sense of humor is well represented on social media, as is his desire to connect with the Wisconsin community. He helped raise $10,000 for a Boys & Girls Club shopping spree earlier this season.
He’s just as well-known for his refusal to sit quietly when he perceives injustice. Hayes is the only player in the NCAA Tournament who is taking part in Jenkins vs. NCAA — the antitrust lawsuit challenging the cap on aid money given to college athletes. After all, he’s said previously, college athletes make nothing and the programs they play for make millions of dollars.
Hayes is one of only three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. And now he’s playing in one of the NCAA’s biggest money-makers, The Big Dance.
“Basketball is a small part of our lives and we can use it as a vehicle to go through our life and make it a batter place,” Hayes said of his activism, adding that coach Greg Gard has always supported his athletes’ voice “As far as what made us want to do it, [it’s] just knowing that you have an impact. You have a platform. You have a stage. You have a voice. You have the ability to change a lot of lives or bring change to a lot of situations in life based on your voice, based on the things you say and do.”
That firmness of purpose does extend to basketball, in case you’re wondering. Hayes scored the winning basket, after a slick baseline move, in No. 8 seed Wisconsin’s win over Villanova.
“As far as taking down [No. 1 overall seed] Villanova, they weren’t the national champs because the national champ hasn’t won yet. They won last year. They’re chasing the same thing that we were chasing, so it’s just another win,” he said. “We know that we have another good team to face. There’s nothing but good teams from here on out.”