Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
The Tale of an Athletic Student
Arkansas' Kikko Haydar tries to rally the team against Missouri late in the first half Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Kikko Haydar will take one more stroll across the floor at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.
In the building where thousands have cheered his athletic achievements, Haydar will be met by a much different crowd celebrating his academic endeavors. Perhaps the smartest athlete in the history of Arkansas athletics, Haydar will be recognized for a Bachelor's degree in kinesiology.
Haydar hopes to further his education by one day attending medical school. His parents - Arabic language professors at the university - say he might even get his Master's degree in business administration "on the side."
Saturday will be a special day for the entire family. Before his parents escort him across the stage, Kikko's mother, Paula Haydar will be robed by his father, Adnan, for obtaining her PhD in comparative literature.
It will also be the last day the family is together in Fayetteville for some time. They will board a plane bound for Beirut, Lebanon Sunday and Kikko will be in uniform for Sageese by early next week, putting on hold furthering his education while fulfilling his dream of playing professional basketball.
"He could very easily go to medical school and live happily ever after, but he's still got a burning desire to play," Arkansas assistant coach Matt Zimmerman said. "Hopefully he won't mess around and try to coach because I'd like to see him go to medical school because of how smart he is."
From being a distinguished student to a walk-on team captain, Kikko has left a unique impression at the University of Arkansas like few before him.
"He's a first-name answer in Arkansas," Zimmerman said. "When you say Kikko, people know who that is."
Kikko Haydar has always been the brightest in the room.
At an early age, Kikko learned the value of a good education. He didn't give his best on a first grade assignment and his father, the founding director of the university's King Fahd Middle East Studies program, took the opportunity to teach his son a lesson.
"I told him the good is often the enemy of the best. Aim always at the best," his father said. "He wasn't quite at an age where he could understand that, so I had to explain to him that you always have to give your best. When you're playing you have to do everything possible to prove that you're up to that level. If you're in school you have to study hard and try to achieve the best grades."
Haydar's father recalled a time a year or two later when Kikko and a classmate were pitted against one another in a reading competition. The girl read well beyond her grade level, but Kikko wouldn't back down from a challenge.
"Kikko took that challenge and read around 40 books that week - short books - and every week after that he was trying to up the number and make it 50 or 60 books," Adnan Haydar said. "He was always reading and in his mind, at least, he was able to beat her. He's had this competitive spirit in him from the beginning and you can see that even now."
Paula Haydar said she saw her son's competitive drive when an AP teacher told his high school basketball coach Kikko wouldn't make a good grade in his class.
"He was taking the AP block of history, literature and some other AP classes, and he was a starter on the basketball team," his mother said. "The moment he heard what his teacher had said it was like, 'Wait until you see.' He likes the challenge of being told he can't do things.
"The one thing about Kikko is that in whatever realm it was, the more somebody gave the impression he couldn't do something, the harder he tried to prove them wrong."
Kikko finished with a career grade point average of 4.5 at Fayetteville High School and scored 32 on his ACT. Several Ivy League schools showed academic and athletic interest, and he also spoke to the likes of MIT and Amherst College.
"I come from a very achieved academic family," Haydar said. "My parents joke that everything I wasn't given in basketball, I was given academically. I've always been able to read very quickly and write very quickly. I've always been able to get things done at a pace others can't. When others would take two hours to do an assignment, it would take me 30 minutes. And when others would take a day to write a paper, I would take an hour."
Despite a who's who of academic institutions ready to swipe away one of the state's brightest students, Kikko chose to stay home and attend the University of Arkansas. He was first awarded the distinguished governor's scholarship, but he wouldn't stop there once he was nominated for the state's most lucrative financial aid package.
True to his personality and with his dad's advice all those years earlier in mind, Kikko would only be satisfied with the best. In 2010 he wrote essays and interviewed alongside equally intelligent high school seniors. When the process was finished he had been named a recipient of the university's most prestigious academic financial award - the Bodenhamer Fellowship.
Created by University of Arkansas alumnus Lee Bodenhamer in 1998, the Bodenhamer Fellowship is given to only five or six students each year at a value of $17,500 annually. (The fellowship was worth $12,500 annually prior to 2013). Eligible students must have a 3.8 high school GPA and ACT score of 32. Special consideration for the award is given to students who demonstrate leadership.
Haydar was the third Bodenhamer fellow to compete in athletics at Arkansas. Blake Strode, a former men's tennis player, is currently enrolled in the Harvard Law School. Laura Jakosky, a former track & field athlete, is the global public relations manager for iRobot Corporation in Boston.
"They're not just bright students, they are people, without exception, who are interested in serving," said Bob McMath, dean of the university's honors college, in a recent interview. "These are people who are going to be making a difference in our nation's society and in our economy for years to come."
A precursor to the load he would tackle in college, Haydar's ability to juggle advanced placement high school classes with basketball made him a worthy recipient of the Bodenhamer. With approximately $90,000 in four-year scholarships, he was able to live out his lifelong dream of playing for the Razorbacks.
"When you're growing up all these people tell you academics are important," Haydar said. "Without my academics I would not have gotten to play for the Razorbacks, plain and simple.
"I tell students I'm not on a basketball scholarship and my schooling is paid for because I worked hard in school. I tell them you never know what route you're going to have to take to achieve your goals and live your dreams, so you have to strive to be good in everything you do."
Haydar's recruiting class was one of the least acclaimed in Arkansas over the last several years.
Only one player, Conway's Kenyon McNeaill, signed at a school (Nebraska) in one of the six major conferences at the time. Two players signed with Missouri State and another inked with Alabama-Birmingham.
Alandise Harris went on to have the most noteworthy career of the class of 2010. He led Houston in scoring as a freshman but transferred to Arkansas after his sophomore campaign. Harris, who will also graduate from the UA Saturday, averaged 9 points in his first season with the Razorbacks after sitting out a year because of NCAA transfer rules.
A physically imposing 6-foot-4 forward, Harris averaged 20.3 points and more than 10 rebounds per game as a senior at Little Rock Central. That same year Haydar averaged 20.1 points per game and more than 5 assists playing comparable competition in the state's highest classification.
"Even though coming out of high school he had statistics that matched any of the players who were recruited at the best universities, because he's 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds he had to prove that he plays a lot bigger than his physical size," his mother said.
Former head coach John Pelphrey often made the short walk from Bud Walton Arena to Haydar's high school gym and offered him a chance to walk-on his senior season.
"He asked if he needed to recruit me more," Haydar said. "I told him, 'Coach, don't worry about it. I'm coming.'"
Kikko didn't see the floor much his freshman season. He played a total of 24 minutes in nine games.
When Pelphrey was fired following that season, Haydar had to prove himself once again. He played in 20 games during Mike Anderson's first year, averaging 4.2 minutes per game.
Following his sophomore season, Haydar met with Matt Zimmerman to gauge how he could gain more playing time the next season. A former team manager when he didn't make the team as a walk-on at Arkansas, Zimmerman sympathized with Haydar and suggested he transfer to a school at a lower division.
Zimmerman made calls to his friends in the profession, many of whom were aware of Haydar from his days at Fayetteville High. He was starting point guard as a junior when the Bulldogs went 30-0 and finished ranked No. 8 in the final national poll.
But leaving Arkansas was non-negotiable for Kikko.
"He said, 'I don't want to go somewhere else and play. I want to play here,'" Zimmerman said.
Haydar spent countless hours in the gym that spring and summer. By the time preseason practices began that fall, he was bigger, stronger and focused.
Kikko scored six points in his first six games as a junior. He was such an unknown that Michigan coach John Beilein didn't have his staff scout the guard leading up to their game in December 2012.
It turned out to be a mistake as Haydar hit four 3-pointers in the first half of the Razorbacks' game against the eventual national runner-up Wolverines. He finished with a then career-high 13 points, but Michigan pulled away in the closing minutes.
"I didn't know who he was," Beilein said following the game. "I thought he walked in off the street."
Haydar called the performance the favorite of his career and his popularity had quickly spread by the time the team took the court again.
The walk-on is always a fan favorite, but it was Kikko's style of play that endeared him most to fans. He made up for his lack of size with big effort, pestering opposing players on defense, diving into the scorers table for loose balls and wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
"The fans were unbelievable," Haydar said. "I think they were able to relate to me because I'm not big, I'm from here and I am a fan. I think they looked at me as one of their own."
Anderson rewarded Haydar's effort with an unprecedented step midway through his junior season. Anderson personally named Haydar as team captain, a distinction usually reserved for a team vote.
If anything, the captain title made Haydar work even harder. He played in all but one game that season - Arkansas' only home loss of the year to Syracuse - and upped his playing time to 13.3 minutes per outing.
"Every day when you came to work, he was the first player you were going to see," Zimmerman said. "If we were doing those 6 a.m. workouts in the fall, he was always the first one here. If it was a day where they don't have practice until 3 o'clock, he was the first player going to roam through here at 8 or 9 in the morning in between classes or on his way to class to see if there is any video he needs to grab or to visit with the coaches.
"He was always early, never late. He always had a good attitude and was encouraging his teammates. He never, never complained. A lot of that sounds normal, but with today's kids it's not normal. He did extraordinary things."
Kikko also continued to do the little things on the court. The smartest guy on the floor played the game with a cerebral approach, understanding that getting under an opponent's skin could be as effective as a dunk or a blocked shot.
He nearly caused Florida's 6-foot-9, 240-pound Patric Young to throw a punch when he forced a jump ball during an upset over the No. 2 Gators. He was lifted off the floor when he wouldn't let go of a jump ball later in the year against Missouri's 6-foot-9, 255-pound Alex Oriakhi.
Regardless of size, Kikko never backed down.
"Early on we had some guys who would do the blue collar things we needed, but not everyone on the team would do that," Zimmerman said. "He was doing it every day in practice. That first year he struggled to ever play but he kept telling us coaches, 'I can do it. I do all this dirty stuff. I just need a chance.'"
For a style that requires all-out effort at all times, Haydar had the perfect makeup for Anderson's system.
"I know one way to play the game and it's full speed," Haydar said. "I can't do the things my teammates can do, so I have to do the things people won't do. I guess everyone can dive on the floor, but not everybody will. I believe you should play with everything you have every second you have on the court or you're wasting your time.
"I think I was fit for this system, especially getting up and down the court. To be able to pass and move, run around and make people chase you, that's what I'm built for."
Kikko was once again a team captain his senior season by virtue of a team vote. He twice scored in double-figures, including a career-high 15 points in a loss at LSU. He made 43 percent of his 3-point attempts, hitting at least three 3-pointers in five games.
And he made a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining in overtime to help the Razorbacks win their first game at Kentucky in 20 years.
"I would tell him all the time, 'You can make 99 out of 100 free throws, but how many can you make out of two? How are you going to do on that one-and-one?'" Zimmerman said. "After the Kentucky game he reminded me of that.
"When he got fouled and that place is going bananas, it was so nice as a coach to be able to say, 'He's not missing these.' He put in too much time, too much work, too much heart and soul for the Razorbacks program. He drilled the first one and I looked down at the other bench and it was such a good feeling. He made the second one and all the energy was sucked out of that building.
"That's something I'll always remember: Kikko Haydar making two free throws to beat Kentucky."
What the coaches didn't know was Kikko was playing with a broken pinkie on his shooting hand suffered midway through the season. Haydar never told coaches or trainers for fear they would use it as an excuse to not play him.
"He refused to even tape it," his father said. "He didn't want to give the impression he couldn't play. He said, 'I want to play and I want to win.'"
A Balancing Act
It isn't easy being a walk-on.
From trying out for a team to maintaining a roster spot, the process results in failure over the course of four years more often than success.
It's even harder being a Bodenhamer fellow. Those selected to the program must maintain a 3.0 GPA and are encouraged to study abroad and attend professional and educational conferences in addition to their research.
When the two tasks meet, the results can be exhausting.
"They require me to be in at least 15 hours every semester, so I would be in anywhere from 15 to 18 hours per semester," Haydar said. "A lot of those have labs and tests at night that I had to navigate through. My days were very full and my sacrifice was sleep.
"I would wake up early, go to the gym, have a workout, go to class and then come back to the gym for weights, stay extra and then I'd go home, do homework and go to sleep. That was my life for four years. I didn't have much of a social life, but I came in knowing that I would have to sacrifice some things and I was more than happy to do it. If I could do it all again I wouldn't change a thing."
Haydar perhaps pushed himself harder than any athlete before him. Having grown up attending Fayetteville public schools and knowing the thrill of when the Razorbacks visited, he took joy in giving back to the community whether it was talking at an assembly or reading to an elementary classroom.
And he didn't always stop at the city limit sign.
"Just the other day he came back from Clarksville (90 miles away)," Adnan Haydar said. "He went to the junior high there and spent the whole day talking to the different classes. I told him at the time you've got to worry about finals and make time to study for the finals, and he said, 'This is just as important going to talk to these kids.'"
Haydar, a two-time member of the SEC's Community Service Team, spent hours reading to local students as part of the Book Hogs and Read Across America programs. He volunteered at the Arkansas Children's Hospital and at facilities for underprivileged teens and families, and was also involved with Make-A-Wish, Special Olympics and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Zimmerman often called Haydar during the off-season to ask if he wanted to take advantage of open gym hours. Sometimes Kikko would have too much going on, but would usually show up even if he was the only one on the floor.
"You would look at these hard, hard, hard classes he had and he was up here so much, even on a Saturday afternoon in April or May," Zimmerman said. "I'd ask him, 'Kikko, when are you getting all this stuff done?' He was doing it at night or doing it early in the morning."
"My parents instilled the idea in me that to get ahead I had to work hard, outwork my competitors and put in time when others wouldn't," Haydar said. "From the basketball aspect, when people were out partying or going to Dickson Street, I was in the gym. When people were sleeping or going to bed, I was studying. I kind of took pride in doing that when others wouldn't."
In part because of Anderson's emphasis on the value of academics and Haydar's leadership by example, Arkansas basketball has quickly evolved from the university's worst academic athletic program to one of its best.
Two seasons after the NCAA stripped the Razorbacks of a scholarship because of multiple years below its academic progress rate (APR) benchmark, Arkansas' basketball team had a cumulative GPA of 3.02 last fall. Seven years after a slew of seniors left school academically ineligible and without graduating, six Razorbacks will participate in commencement ceremonies this weekend.
Haydar was the face of the turnaround, becoming the first basketball player to serve as the university's Student Athlete Advisory Committee president and speaking at a banquet honoring graduating athletes earlier this month. Haydar's GPA in his final semester at Arkansas was a 3.9 before final exams.
"I think at this university this year the other sports saw Kikko as a leader," Zimmerman said.
'One of a kind'
There are players known solely for what they do in their arena and there are some known for what they do after their athletic careers are over.
But once in a while a player comes along who makes an impact on more than just sports while at the top of their game, earning the respect of many. Brandon Burlsworth did that as a football player at Arkansas. Kikko Haydar did it, too.
"Our students came to know who Kikko was," Paula Haydar said. "Over the course of four years we went from being professors on campus to being Kikko's mom and dad.
"When President Clinton came to a game, President Clinton said to Kikko, 'I know who you are.' Kikko replied, 'Yes, Mr. President, and I know who you are.'"
It's likely many more will come to know Kikko in future years, whether in the international basketball circles or in another professional field. Haydar, the only Lebanese player in college basketball last season, signed a three-year contract with Sageese believed to be worth six figures per year.
He hopes to use the money he makes playing professional basketball to put toward medical school. He wants to attend UAMS in Little Rock but won't rule out a more prestigious school like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
"When I put my mind to something I'm pretty stubborn," he said. "If I decide that I want to go to medical school, I'm going to do it."
As Kikko steps onto the podium Saturday, he'll do so as one of the most recognizable people in the building. Through hard work and self sacrifice, he created a blueprint for others like him to follow.
"His mother and I always wonder how anybody could do a thing like that," his father said. "Kikko is one of a kind."