Some players try to use their influence and impact as athletes to try to make the world a better place, and Nigel Hayes of Zalgiris Kaunas is one of them. When he was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hayes was noted for being an outspoken athlete and a leader on issues such as racial justice, supporting a movement called Black Lives Matters, which campaigns against violence and systemic racism.
Hayes was surrounded by the right people to have this will for helping others out. "I had good teachers in my life, not just regular school teachers but role models: parents, coaches and adults that I have been around. I have always had the idea of getting back and doing service to others and doing better," says Hayes, who just turned 25 and is in his third season as a pro. "I think that upbringing of being surrounded by those people has inspired me."
"Use your voice and bring about whatever possible change that you would like to see."
As a student-athlete, Hayes tried to lead by example as one of his team's leaders in service hours donated to the university's community outreach program. He was also involved mentoring youth and helping with fund-raising for the Dane County Boys & Girls Club, as well as volunteering his time for visits to hospitals and senior centers, basketball camps and classrooms for young people, among other things. Hayes was the university spokesman for the Go Big Read campaign sponsored by the school's libraries. He graduated in May 2017 with a degree in business finance and investment banking.
"He has used his college education for something more than just being a basketball player," his university head coach, Greg Gard, said of Hayes. "When I've spoken with him on all of his view points on Black Lives Matter and the statements he's made, his understanding of the history of issues and his knowledge base is outstanding. He's wise well beyond his age."
Hayes believes that everybody can do something in order to make the world better.
"The fact that I can put a ball in a rim makes my platform bigger than most people and allows my voice to carry further," he said. "That just continues up the ladder to more famous celebrities and athletes, etc. Once you use the ability that you have and if you achieve enough fame, it becomes easier for you and more of a responsibility to use the platform that you have, use your voice and bring about whatever possible change that you would like to see in the world."
Less than three years ago, Hayes orchestrated a fundraising initiative that ultimately raised $10,000 to fund a shopping spree for needy families to buy Christmas presents and everyday necessities. On that trip, Hayes bonded with a family whose father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He subsequently visited the family in the hospital several times and brought teammates along to help bring joy and distraction to an otherwise dire situation.
Among the people who influenced Hayes most was a summer coach who gave him books and articles, sparking his interest in reading and learning. That led him to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, an inspirational text for Hayes.
"Malcolm X is someone who was basically in jail on his way to ruining his life, being behind bars forever, but through the use of books and knowledge and good teachers around him, he was able to turn his life completely around," Hayes recalls.
"It's best to just continue to learn and do deeds, do good things."
Most recently, while playing for Galatasaray Istanbul in the EuroCup last season, Hayes created his own clothing brand, Wise God, which strives to offer "thought-provoking clothing that allows our customers' minds to open to a higher consciousness of the world." The goal, Wise God's website explains, is: "To live our best lives. To achieve all our dreams and goals. To conquer the fears that hold us back. To be the light not only in our own lives, but for others, and the world."
What's next for Hayes in terms of helping others? Learning more and more is his priority.
"As I've gotten older, I've continued to learn and study and try to find ways to use my resources to be able to do things to help situations," he says. "Before, when I was younger... I would feel I had all this knowledge and I had to share it and talk about it. I've gotten older and more mature and I can see that it's best to just continue to learn and do deeds, do good things in silence and try to help."