"T.J. introduced me to the game, and my dad also taught me a lot. But I knew if I ever could beat John, I had a chance to be something special."
Hayes moved from Oakland, Calif., to Modesto when he was in the sixth grade. It was only an hour away from Oakland, but it was like going to a different world for Hayes.
"Oakland was getting bad in the neighborhood, so my dad had to move us out," Hayes said. "He wanted us to live a good life where the crime rate was not so bad.
"I thought I was being punished. I hated it. I had no friends. I left John. I left my grandma. I left T.J. I didn't like Modesto. The schools were strict. It was no fun for a sixth-grader. It was tough on me."
Eventually Hayes accepted the move and understood why his father made the decision to relocate the family.
"It was a great move looking back," Hayes said. "Who knows what would have happened if I had stayed in Oakland? I love Modesto now. I get excited when I go home because it's a place of peace. It's a real mellow time. It has about 180,000 people and is growing quickly. I love it."
Early days in Oakland
Still, it was those early days in Oakland that shaped his basketball career and even now Hayes has to pause to compose himself when he thinks back to those days with his cousins when he was just developing the skills that have made him a mainstay in UK's lineup the last two seasons.
"I used to live in a three-bedroom house in Oakland with eight people," Hayes said. "My uncle built a basketball court for me and John. When I go back to Oakland now and see the house, I think about the days me and John used to play against each other.
"T.J. was about 6-3 and was a powerful player. John was shorter, but more skilled. Between the two of them, they knew everything about basketball."
Hayes lost T.J. before he had a chance to properly thank him for starting him toward an all-star high school career that included All-America honors in basketball and all-state honors in football.
"T.J. was such a giver. He was the best all-around person you could think of. I still miss him," Hayes said.
He's never had the courage to tell John, who now lives in Houston and watches most of Hayes' games on television, what a big influence he was, either.
"After my senior year in high school and before I left for college, my mom threw a going-away party for me. John showed up. Before that, I had hardly seen him for years," Hayes said. "I was thrilled he was there. My mom knew me and John were close, so that's why she invited him. It was an emotional time. I didn't see him again until this past May when he came down to visit here. We hung out. It was a great time.
"I almost told him how much he meant to me, but I couldn't. I'm almost afraid to tell him. Don't ask me why because I don't know."
Dream is to get John to a game
Hayes' dream is to have John attend a game this year. He was hoping his cousin would get to see him play in San Antonio, the site of last year's Final Four, but the top-seeded Wildcats were upset by Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"He is supposed to be coming to a game this year. Since it is my last year, he is going to try and make it," Hayes said.
Hayes decided he could "make it" at the big-time level once he got serious about basketball.
"I played sports when I was little only because all my friends did and I wanted to be one of the guys," Hayes said. "My eighth-grade year, I got serious and started working out. After my sophomore year, I got focused on basketball."
Numerous college coaches got focused on him, too, after he averaged 26 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists per game for Modesto Christian as a junior. His senior season he averaged 25 points, 19 rebounds and five assists per game and led his team to a 34-4 record.
Hayes said picking Kentucky and coming halfway across the country to play college basketball was an easy choice for him, but a harder choice for his family to understand.