Four years ago April, just after we had first arrived at PC, I got a phone call in my office from Dave Brown in the Alumni Office. Being new to the school I had never met Dave, but he was calling on behalf of an alum from the Jersey area who knew about a high school basketball player that was coming to Providence. Dave just wanted to make sure I knew about the kid and see if he would be able to go out for the team.
We tell anyone who is interested in walking on to come see us in the fall as soon as school starts. I told Dave to tell this guy the same thing. I wrote down his name and assured Dave that I would talk to him when school began and that he would certainly have a chance to try-out for the team.
Kareem Hayletts came into our office one day that September and explained to me that he was interested in going out for the team. I told him we would have a try-out and he said he would be there. He was strong enough and athletic enough to play with our guys, and he was a quiet kid with a great attitude. We decided he'd be a nice addition to our team, would never cause any problems, and would be able to challenge some of our guys in practice when we needed him to.
That first season Kareem only played one minute and had to have surgery on his knee. The following year I remember talking to our trainer at the time, Kevin Gorey, about getting Kareem's year back. Usually you don't think about a medical red shirt for a walk-on, but there was no harm in looking into it.
Kareem was awarded a medical red shirt, so he played the 1999-00 season as a freshman once again, and played in only one game. He was a sophomore on our NCAA Tournament team in 2000-01, still seeing limited action in just 5 games. Chris Rogers was a back-up guard on that team who always seemed to find his way onto the court at the end of games, because he was smart and he was tough. I remember as a staff thinking that by the time Kareem was a senior, he could possibly help us the same way Chris did.
Kareem's approach to practice and his great attitude always stood out, but there was one more thing that we kept noticing: Linehan couldn't take the ball from him. He played against John every day in practice for what seemed like a decade, and he was the one guy that John never really seemed to get to. If you want to talk about tough, try dribbling a basketball with John Linehan inside your practice jersey.
Last year, as a junior, Kareem found himself gaining some regular minutes. As a tough defender and a great rebounder, he was a guy we would count on for tough stops at the defensive end of the floor. In the BC game at the Dunk, we put him in at the end of the game to make sure he contested Troy Bell at the top of our zone. Here is a guy who just walked into our office from Bergenfield, NJ back in 1998, and now we were putting him in to guard Troy Bell. Kareem ended up getting the huge rebound on our last defensive stop that day and then nailing a free throw to put the game out of reach.
Fast forward to the Big East Tournament. Kareem went in late in the 2nd half against Georgetown for a quick minute on defense before a TV timeout. There was no whistle for a couple of minutes, and all of the sudden our team's level of play picked up. We were moving the ball well, getting Ryan touches inside and playing tougher defense. We realized on the bench that we couldn't take Kareem out - he was making the simple play, but the right one, every time down the floor.
Our trip to Italy was a great opportunity for Kareem. Without Donnie and Abdul, two guys who would expect to get minutes in our backcourt, Kareem had a chance to shine. He got comfortable running the team and making plays under game conditions. He proved that he could make plays. Our guys also got comfortable with Kareem as a leader on the basketball court.
A lot of the drills we do in practice are competitive, and we keep score so the losing team has to run. We change the teams every day to stay fresh, but Coach Welsh keeps pointing out one similarity - Kareem's team never seems to be running sprints. His team always seems to find a way to win.
I don't know how much Kareem will play this year, but it will certainly be more than he has in the past. And I'd imagine he'll find his way on the floor a lot during crunch time, for two simple reasons - he is smart, and he is tough. Those two things will take you a long way.
And so will paying close attention to an off-season phone call from the Alumni Office.