PORTLAND — Kenny Hayes was Stone Cold Steve Austin. Chris Wright was The Rock. Or maybe The Undertaker.
They would arrange the furniture in Wright’s basement to simulate a wrestling ring.
And then they would go at it, Hayes usually mimicking all the best moves of their favorite pro wrestlers at the time, Wright usually the victim of his moves.
“Oh yeah,” said Ernestine Grigsby, Wright’s mother. “Down in the basement. They did all that stupid WWF stuff – the DDT, the Piledriver. They thought they were having a cage match, all that craziness.”
They lived about seven houses apart on Mario Drive in Trotwood, Ohio, just outside Dayton. They played basketball and/or video games from morning to dusk. Not only were Hayes and Wright best friends, but cousins.
Ten years later, they are together again, this time as teammates – and roommates – for the Maine Red Claws.
Hayes, a 6-foot-2 guard, is in his second year with the NBA Development League team. Wright, a 6-8 forward with a library of YouTube highlight videos, is a rookie, drafted in the first round earlier this month.
“It’s crazy, how we go from playing in the backyard, wrestling, from wanting to be WWF wrestlers to being professional basketball players,” said Hayes. “Getting to play on the same team that’s a blessing. You just don’t hear that. I’m excited and I know he’s excited.
“I’m ready to get it rolling.”
And if things go as both hope, the Red Claws have got a dynamic duo capable of bringing high energy every night.
“One of the things Jon (Jennings, the president and general manager of the Red Claws) and I wanted to bring to the table with our players this year is energy,” said Red Claws Coach Dave Leitao, who is in his first season. “And both are right up front with that. They’re all-out all the time. They’ve shown that thus far in our practices.
“It’s something that I think will be good for us. It’s such a long season and those two are going to provide that (energy) for us.”
‘REALLY GOOD FRIENDS’
Kenny Hayes was grounded. Not that being grounded was unusual for Hayes. “I was probably grounded at least once a week.”
This time he had broken a window at Wright’s home while playing basketball in the backyard.
So Hayes was confined to his house. But that didn’t stop the two of them getting together.
Unbeknownst to Hayes’ mother, Wright came by the house and stood outside the window to Hayes’ room. Hayes turned his television around so that Wright could see the screen, then handed a controller out the window and they played their favorite Dreamcast game, WWF War Zone – a wrestling game, of course.
“We played all day, until the street lights came on,” said Hayes.
That was the type of friendship they had growing up. If you saw one, you saw the other. Playing basketball, riding bikes, running to the store. In the fall, they even had a leaf-raking business.
“Yeah, we ran that neighborhood,” said Hayes. “If we saw somebody else going around, knocking on doors, it wasn’t going to happen.”
“It was a pretty good life,” said Wright.
“They were just really good friends,” said Grigsby. “I knew if Chris wasn’t (home), or at practice, he was down the street at Kenny’s.”
They attended the same school, until the eighth grade. That’s when Hayes got cut from the basketball team.
“That’s Kenny’s motivation and determination,” said his mother, Sheila Johnson. “I remember that day very well. I got a call from the principal and he told me there was a problem. He told me Kenny got cut. So I went to school and took him home, told him everything would be all right.”
The family moved, and Hayes attended Northmont High in Dayton. He was the Thunderbolts’ star player, joining the varsity as a freshman. Wright stayed in Trotwood, where he starred for Trotwood-Madison High.
The games between those schools were headliners in their communities. It continued in college, where Hayes went to Miami of Ohio and Wright to Dayton. Over that time, Miami never beat Dayton, a fact Wright mentions more than once in a while to Hayes.
“It frustrated me, man,” said Hayes. “I can remember the first time we played (in college), I made a move and got by him. And I said something to him on my way by. And then when I went to lay it up, I just see this big shadow coming over my head and he just took my shot off the glass.
“Yeah, he was talking trash after that.”
‘A DREAM COME TRUE’
The two have long admired each other’s game and now they anticipate great success playing together.
“We’ve known each other’s game for our whole lives, really,” said Wright. “We click up and down the court. He can find me in transition. He knows whether to throw the lob pass or make a bounce pass.
“It’s really a blessing. To be here together, playing professional basketball, it’s a dream come true.”
Hayes, who averaged 7.4 points and 2.3 assists in his rookie season, just admires what Wright brings to the team.
“He just does the stuff that most guys don’t want to do,” said Hayes. “A loose ball, rebound he’s diving on the floor, he’s getting after the rebound. Defensively, he’s going after his guy. That’s the one thing about Chris, he doesn’t take plays off.”
The two couldn’t hide their excitement when the Red Claws drafted Wright with the third pick of this year’s D-League draft. Wright had been expected to go in the NBA draft, but didn’t.
Just before the D-League draft, Jennings asked Hayes what he thought of Wright.
“I told him, ‘That’s my cousin, you’ve got to get him. If you’ve got a chance, you’ve got to get him,’ ” said Hayes. “And when he got drafted, I got a text from Jon telling me. Two seconds later, Chris was on the phone.”
GOOD COOK, GOOD MENTOR
The trash talking continues today. And not just on the court, where they still go at each other.
They’re roommates. Hayes does the grocery shopping, Wright the cooking.
“He’s a big talker, says he’s a great cook,” said Hayes.
Well, he had some lessons. Wright’s mother, Ernestine Grigsby, is a nutritionist. She taught all her children – she has raised five biological children, four foster children and two children of relatives – the importance of eating and cooking well. She would often take Wright with her to work in the cafeteria at the elementary school he attended.
When he was 14, Wright got a job delivering lunches to needy children, earning the nickname, “The Sandwich Master.”
“I told him he had to learn to fend for himself whenever he was out on his own,” said Grigsby.
Apparently, he listened during the lessons.
“Yeah, he has proved he can cook,” said Hayes. “But I won’t tell him that. I’m just going to continue to give him a hard time.
“He made some chicken tenders and garlic potatoes the other night I told him they were just all right. It was actually pretty good.”
Whatever happens this season, their mothers are glad they’re together. Grigsby likes the fact Hayes can mentor her son on life in professional basketball. Sheila Johnson? She’s happy her son is going to eat well.
“Kenny, when he was first on his own, he would call me and ask me how to cook spaghetti,” she said. “So I’m glad Chris is there.”
Besides, Johnson added, with the NBA trying to recover from labor strife, this is their chance to shine.
“All eyes are going to be on them,” she said.
Just like old times.
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]