After a decade of professional basketball in South Korea, Aaron Haynes still doesn’t speak much Korean. But, he’s quick to point out, everybody speaks the same dialect on the hardwood.
“The plays are in English – ‘1, 2, 3, Chicago’ – and I have a translator,” Haynes said. “Even if I didn’t, basketball is a universal language.”
Since graduating from Boise State in 2004, Haynes – 6-foot-6 and built like an Italian cypress tree – has been a scorer for hire in Finland, Sweden, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and, most notably, 10 years and counting in South Korea.
“My mom says I’ve loved basketball since I was 3 or 4 years old,” Haynes said. “I still love the game as much as when I was a little kid. It’s like my safe haven; anything not going right (in my life), I play basketball and it clears my head.”
Haynes is a bit longer in the tooth than he was during his Boise State days, but the forward's game hasn’t changed much. The ability to put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways — outside shooting, posting up smaller guards, getting to the hoop with his left hand — is still there. In early March, four weeks shy of his 37th birthday, Haynes went off, scoring 50 of the SK Knights' 108 points in a late-season Korean Basketball League (KBL) victory against Sonic Boom KT. In 37 minutes, Haynes shot a blistering 18-of-26 from the floor and 11-of-11 from the free-throw line.
“He’s not just playing, he’s still killing it,” Booker Nabors, who played alongside Haynes at Boise State for two seasons said. “I think it’s awesome. God blessed him with so much talent and that’s what he was put on this earth to do — so he’s doing it.”
“I have this goal in my head to play until 40,” Haynes said. “I have three, max four, years left. I still work just as hard as I did when I was young ... to get better. I still pride myself on being the best I can be.”
In a volatile job market in which American import players are replaced as frequently as disposable razors, Haynes cited his willingness to learn and adapt to Korean culture as a factor in his longevity.
“It’s not easy for a guy to stick in one country for two years, let alone 10,” Haynes said. “I look at it like a second home — I’ve been there for so long. They treat me very well. I love it. The money doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the only reason."
The high point so far in Haynes' career in the KBL came in 2010 when his 12.5 points per game helped pace Ulsan Mobis Phoebus to a league championship.
The low point came during the second quarter of a December 2013 game in an apparent flop gone awry. Trailing a fast break, Haynes bumped a South Korean guard, who appeared to sell the hit by launching himself onto floor; flailing his arms and legs. The South Korean player missed the following game with injury — though it’s unknown if the damage occurred because of the contact with Haynes or the subsequent banging of limbs against the hardwood. The fallout for Haynes included a five-game suspension and a televised press conference in which he apologized.
“A player flopped and I had to pay a little fine,” Haynes said with a laugh. “Really, I didn’t hurt him. He hurt himself banging his leg against the floor. They flop everywhere; you see in the NBA a guy blows on someone and they go flying into the crowd.”
After graduating from Sacramento City College as the school’s all-time leading scorer, Haynes, a native of Fresno, Calif., arrived in Boise in fall 2002 as a junior-college transfer.
“I liked that there was no NBA team and we were the main attraction,” Haynes said. “I liked that small-college feel and the support I had. I committed right after visiting.”
Fresh off summer scrimmages in Sacramento against Kings players Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson, Haynes walked into the Mountain West Conference ready to make an impact. In his first season, he led the Broncos in scoring, averaging 14.7 points a game.
“My first impression was ‘Man, this skinny dude can play,’” Nabors said. “He came to Boise ready to go and his game literally improved drastically month to month. He competed hard every night and led by example on and off the court.”
As a senior during the 2003-04 season, Haynes again led the Broncos in scoring, dropping 14.8 points per game, and the team improved from 13 to 23 wins, and earned an NIT Tournament berth. The final three games of Haynes' collegiate career proved to be his finest. Averaging 20 points on 58 percent shooting, Haynes helped a surging Boise State win in the first two rounds of postseason play before the team finally lost to Marquette.
“All of us played with a huge sense of urgency in those games,” Nabors said. “Aaron single-handedly kept us in a few of them — he put us on his back. He was a tough defender and rebounder in those games, too. He’s the type of teammate you love going to battle with.”
“I became a smarter player and learned how to score over small guys or around big guys (at Boise State),” Haynes said.
The 2018 KBL Finals had all the excitement of an NBA Championship — overtime, frantic play, unlikely bench heroics.
DB Promy took the first two games of the series, but the long season finally caught up with it. The SK Knights worked itself off the ropes. Buoyed by burly American guard Terrico White, Haynes’ SK Knights pulled away in the fourth quarter, capturing the league title. The moment was bittersweet for Haynes, who watched from Southern California, just nine days removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL — the first significant injury of his career.
“It was tough,” Haynes said. “I was there in spirit. I wish I was on the court, but I was still as excited as if I was.”
Despite the injury, Haynes is emphatic that he will be back in South Korea for an 11th year, when the new season tips off.
“I should be back on the court in 4 1/2 months, maybe sooner. I’m also told after the injury you get a little quicker and little more hops because you have to do so much to rehab.”
Noah Perkins is the editor in chief of the basketball website popgates.com.