By Chris Kowalczyk
D.J. Haley dips his head slightly to make sure he clears the door frame. With temperatures in the Richmond area dropping into the 20's and 30's, the Southern California native has tucked his seven-foot, 247-lb frame into a pair of grey VCU Basketball sweatpants and blue Chicago Cubs hooded pullover. He completes the outfit with a pair of bulky, black-rimmed eyeglasses, adding a touch of a Clark Kent to his casual basketballer chic.
It's tough for Haley not to stand out. He's a bit of an arresting image, this seven-foot giant. His demeanor is reserved, and Haley is unfailingly polite and earnest. But not five minutes into the interview, he says, only half-joking, that he'd like to go into space one day. A seven-footer in space? It's never happened, but it's obvious after talking to Haley for a few minutes that that you can't underestimate the 18-year-old freshman. It seems that Haley isn't your typical Division I banger in the low blocks.
"He doesn't mind being different," says VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart. "That's what's really good about him. He has an inner belief and a confidence, which I think is terrific."
How different? Well, he's majoring in mechanical engineering, a demanding course of study that scares away plenty of typical undergrads, let alone those with a student-athlete's harrowing schedule. Need more? Haley plays the piano and the alto saxophone and loves classical music.
That's not to say he eschews popular culture. Haley says he has more than 2,000 songs on his computer, everything from Muse to Kanye West and Nas and everything in between. But classical music, notably Beethoven and Mozart, plays to his inner curiosities. "I find it beautiful," Haley says.
Haley carried a 4.0 grade-point-average at Palmdale High School, which is located in Los Angeles County, roughly 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Smart, no academic slouch himself, calls Haley "cerebral", and it's easy to understand why. Haley admits he spends a lot of time thinking, even overthinking things around him. He likes Star Trek because he feels that the series was often built on plausible concepts and reasonable science. I thought everybody just liked spaceships and lasers.
He doesn't even eat like everybody else. In high school, Haley played at a lanky 225 pounds. However, the VCU Coaching Staff, including Strength Coach Daniel Roose, made it clear that he was going to have to bulk up to compete at the next level. Not only would Haley have to hit the weight room hard, he'd have to eat. And eat. And eat. Like his other pursuits, Haley approached food with the cool, pragmatist's resolve.
"I've never seen a guy so driven and determined in the cafeteria," Smart says. "The staff would go to lunch with the freshman at Shafer [Dining Hall] Monday through Friday and D.J. was so antisocial and he just wouldn't say anything. I'd say, 'is D.J. okay?' Someone would say, 'yeah, he's just eating.'"
Feasting on three, sometimes four plates of rice, beans and lean meats like turkey and chicken, Haley attacked food with a purpose.
"I'm not a talker when I eat," he says with a laugh. "Everybody will be sitting there talking and I'll just have my head down, trying to get it in. When I start talking, usually that's when I'm finished."
Roose preaches strength training and nutrition with all the delicacy of a drill instructor. He is not easily impressed, but was won over by Haley's dedication.
"It's amazing. He's such a smart kid, you're not going to get much out of him [when he's eating] because he's going to get to work," Roose says. "He's going to eat. There's a drive in him when he does that."
Improbably, Haley packed 25 pounds onto his frame in a few months time, most of it muscle. Instead of a lanky freshman getting abused in the post, Haley was now able to hold his ground and compete for minutes.
"I came in here with the mindset of, I'm not going to play if I don't get bigger," Haley, who Smart believes could eventually play at 275 pounds, said. "So, in the summer I tried to really focus on eating and making sure I go hard in the weight room."
The added heft has taken a little while to get used to. In the beginning, Haley's stamina and lateral quickness were affected, but his workouts with Roose are closing that gap.
In addition to his diligence at the lunch counter and in the gym, Haley has to meet the demands of a challenging slate of classes that includes calculus, an engineering course and a chemistry lab. He admits it hasn't been a breeze, but Haley believes it's within his abilities.
"I won't lie, it's been tough, but it's definitely manageable," he says. "It really comes down to time management. You really have to sit down and say, at this time I've got to study, at this time I'm going to get some shots up, at this time I'm going to get some rest. You have to have a lot of organization. If you study, you're fine."
In the meantime, Haley is finding opportunities on the basketball court, albeit in short spurts.
"There are stretches at practice where he's physically dominant," Smart says. "Unfortunately, part of being a freshman for 95 percent of guys is inconsistency. But I think, as he understands more and more about what he needs to do, as he gets stronger, he'll get more consistent with that excellent play."
It could be said that the sky is the limit for Haley, academically and athletically, but that's probably selling him short. If the kid wants to go to space, maybe it's safe to shoot for the moon and go from there.