BASKETBALL: Big heart, little body

Jay Lively

The little man with a big heart.

Time and time again that’s how people describe Western point guard Antonio Haynes.

Whether it’s pumping up the crowd, throwing down a dunk or encouraging his teammates, the wiry undersized point guard seems to have an endless fountain of youth and energy.

He keeps going and going and …

“He’s our energizer bunny,” senior center Nigel Dixon said. “He’s so competitive. Every game he goes out and plays hard.”

But for coaches and teammates, Haynes’ accolades extend beyond the basketball court – they follow him everywhere he goes.

“He’s a real good person,” Dixon continued. “His heart is so big.”

While Haynes calls Western his second home, it took him a little while to find it.

A native of Camilla, Ga., Haynes led Mitchell Baker High School to three state championships while receiving most valuable player honors his senior year.

He then played his freshman season at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, helping his team reach the regional tournament.

But after a head coaching change and a bit of nostalgia for home, Haynes transferred to Georgia Perimeter College in his hometown of Camilla.

There he excelled, leading college players at all levels with an astonishing 14.6 assists a game, that’s assists – not points – and leading the junior college ranks with 7.1 steals a game.

“I think going back home was a good move for me because I ended up an honorable mention all-American,” he said. “I got a lot of (Division I) looks, but coming out of junior college I still needed 14 more hours because all my credits didn’t transfer. So I stayed another semester and got my (associate’s) degree.”

Following graduation he received more than a diploma and Hallmark cards as gifts – he was the proud father of a new baby boy.

“That’s been the toughest part of being up here, because I want to see him everyday,” he said. “Unfortunately I can’t, but my girlfriend does a good job and brings him twice a month or whenever she gets a break.”

Antonio Jr., who is 1-year-old, will be in attendance for Saturday’s game against North Texas as a belated birthday present for Dad, who turned 22 last Saturday.

During his year off, Haynes continued to work toward his dream of playing Division I basketball, but without playing organized ball, there were few recruiters knocking down his door.

Then Dennis Felton left.

Then Patrick Sparks.

And in came coach Darrin Horn and with him assistant William Small.

When Horn said he needed a second point guard to compliment Danny Rumph, Small immediately remembered Haynes from his all-American year at Georgia Perimeter.

“I recruited his teammate a year earlier so I got to see him play,” said Small, who was an assistant at Southeastern Louisiana before Horn hired him. “One night I saw him get 20 points and 20 assists.”

Small kept Haynes in the back of his mind during the year off.

“He dominated the game at the point guard position, which is hard to do,” he said. “The point position is the most important position on the court and when you get a kid that can play the position like he did you never forget him.”

But as impressed as Small was with Haynes’ on-court persona, he was equally impressed with him off the court.

“I got to know him as a person and saw that he’s a really good kid,” he said. “That’s an important trait for a point guard to have. It’s easier to coach a kid that’s humble and listens to you.”

He suggested to Horn that they take a trip to Georgia. They did, and Horn was impressed.

Without seeing Haynes play in an organized game, only pick-up games, Horn invited the eager recruit for a visit to Western.

“I knew he was a guy that had won a lot of games, which I liked most about him,” Horn said. “He showed great leadership on the other teams he was on. And he really had the ability to score from the point guard position and yet was able to do a really good job on the defensive end.”

Horn was impressed and now it was his turn to bring Haynes to Bowling Green.

“I got here and I just loved it,” Haynes said of his first visit. “The arena was getting done and the school was a nice size. And the town, everyone in Bowling Green was real nice to me.”

Haynes has returned the favor.

After the team’s disappointing start, Haynes has settled in and helped the Toppers go 12-5 since beginning the season 0-5. He is averaging 11.5 points a game, while shooting 39.8 percent from behind the arc, leads the team with 4.5 assists and is second with 27 steals.

“He’s kind of like the brains of the team,” close friend and sidekick Dixon said. “He sets up plays and makes sure everyone is in the right spot. He’s just a workhorse.”

As for his up-beat style of play and success on the court, Haynes, in his usual humble manner, is quick to re-direct a compliment to his teammates or the fans.

“I don’t think there are any fans like Diddle fans in the whole wide world,” he said. “I do have a lot of energy but that has a lot to do with the fans. I’ve never been part of something like that. They’ve made me feel welcome, like I’m at home. I love them as much as they love me.”

Haynes said he feels blessed for everything he has in life.

“People pray for a lot of different things,” he said. “I just pray that I’ll be happy. I mean, I’m going to school for free and playing what I love to play everyday. I’ve got a little boy. I can’t ask for anything more.”

Reach Jay Lively at [email protected]