The unique career of the streetball icon who played with Air Bud and impressed KD

Kyle Parker / theScore

Think of any NBA star, active or fondly remembered, and the competitive fire that distinguished him will come to mind, Joey Haywood said recently. LeBron or Harden. Magic or Jordan. Kobe, of course. This kind of luminary excels in team settings, but certain personal traits make him phenomenal. He's tough. He's wired to conquer. His play acquaints defenders with a dispiriting truth: He can't be contained.

Basically, he operates much like streetballers do.

"They're separated from everyone else because they have that next-level mentality, that street mentality - that no one can stop them no matter what," Haywood said. "That all comes from street basketball: playing outdoors, playing one-on-one with friends or going against the best players in that city - and trying to be on top."

Haywood is an authority on the subject. The 6-foot-1 guard from Vancouver has straddled street and organized basketball for years, crisscrossing Canada and the world to compile a singular playing career: not that of an NBA icon, but of someone who's seen and done things few others have. He's appeared in cult mixtapes and feature films. He led Canada in scoring as a university senior - after his coach taught him not to travel out of the triple-threat position. He played for Kevin Durant, against a team coached by James Harden, in a summer exhibition held in an airport hangar in New York. Jamal Crawford once told him he admired his game.

The time has come for Haywood, 35 and alternatively known as "King Handles," to reflect on this wealth of curious experiences - and to return home for one more adventure. Earlier in April, he signed with the Canadian Elite Basketball League's Fraser Valley Bandits, the first pro team to represent British Columbia's lower mainland since the NBA's Grizzlies left for Memphis in 2001. He'll play in front of family for a coach with whom he won an international title in 2017, putting off retirement in deference to an abiding drive.

"I still have the competitive fire," he said.

The abridged chronology of Haywood's basketball life goes like this. He idolized Michael Jordan, but also Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. As a middle schooler, he went to a camp run by Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, where he was handpicked for a role in the 1997 movie "Air Bud"; he was a teammate of the preteen protagonist and his golden retriever. ("Man, the dog had some game," Haywood said.) In 1998, the release of the first AND1 mixtape changed his life; Rafer Alston, aka Skip to My Lou, exposed him to the creative abandon with which he wanted to compete.

In high school, Haywood starred in the Notic tapes, an underground, Canadian production in the AND1 vein. He and other Notic guys shot motion capture for EA Sports' NBA Street series. Later he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to play for St. Mary's University, where coach Ross Quackenbush empowered his speed and slick handle while urging him to dribble a little less. His 28.8 points per game topped the country in 2010-11.

Subsuming his street-honed flair within the bounds of team play was Haywood's path to minor pro renown. Twice he was an all-star for Halifax in the National Basketball League of Canada. He played, briefly, in Denmark and Iceland, and at points along the line, he won the notice of megastars. In 2013, he crossed up defenders and whipped no-look passes for Team Durant in a Nike-sponsored summer game. (He's No. 15 in blue in the video below.) A few years back, at the offseason pro-am league that Crawford runs in Seattle, the dean of NBA sixth men approached Haywood to say he'd followed his career for years.

"To hear that from an NBA guy," Haywood said, "it gives me hope still."

The NBA dream Haywood nurtured as a kid effectively ended before the 2016-17 season, when the Toronto Raptors' G League affiliate made him a late cut at an open tryout. Figuring he was done with pro ball, he'd been reluctant to try out before his wife, Janisha, persuaded him to give it a go; Vice Sports cameras captured Haywood blocking an opponent's step-back jumper, splitting two defenders for a layup, and, later, speculating that his age deterred the team from signing him.

Instead, Haywood has searched far and wide in his 30s for ankles to break and egos to bruise. He won gold with a Canadian team in Taiwan at the 2017 William Jones Cup, a world tournament. He flies to China a few times a year for as long as a month at a time in summer, running streetball clinics and one-on-one games in basketball cradles from Shenzhen to Shanghai.

What's he learned to value along the way? For one, coaches who believed he could thrive within their system without renouncing his style. That includes Quackenbush and Kyle Julius, the 2017 Jones Cup head coach who assumed that role with the Bandits this winter and persuaded Haywood to join up. Despite reaching three league finals, Haywood has never won a pro title; they'll pursue that elusive prize together when the CEBL season begins. (Tip-off is scheduled for May 7, but that may change soon in light of the coronavirus pandemic.)

In his physical isolation, Haywood has started posting drills online for the kids, Grades 4 through 10, who typically attend his Vancouver ball-handling clinics - the School of Handles - in person. Beyond his arsenal of jukes, he has hard-earned perspective to share, like his refusal to let his fruitless Raptors 905 tryout discourage him.

Think of it this way, he said: even Jordan, once upon a time, got cut.

"I'm not saying I could probably make the NBA now," Haywood said. "But look at this opportunity I have for the Bandits, to go back and play professional basketball. You just don't know where life could take you if you (don't) quit."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

The unique career of the streetball icon who played with Air Bud and impressed KD
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