Walter Nathaniel Haynes was the name on the driver’s license, but those who were drawn into his sizable orbit over the years knew him simply as Big Walt.
He was tough. He was brash. He was full of life.
And then, with the squeeze of a trigger, he wasn’t.
Haynes, 30, died Jan. 9 at Hennepin County Medical Center, two days after being carted into the emergency room with multiple gunshot wounds.
He had been trying to break up a fight that started inside a club, then spilled out into the corner of 3rd Street and 1st Avenue N., friends say, when bullets started flying. He and another man and a woman were hit, police officials said. The other two survived.
His life slipped from public view for years. But back in 2004, sportswriters on both sides of the river spilled plenty of ink on the burly Haynes, then a rising basketball star at Johnson High School.
He had just led the Governors to the State Tournament, their first appearance in 80 years. Johnson finished fourth, but he averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds a game and made the all-tournament team. Colleges recruiters started sniffing around. More accolades followed.
A 2005 Star Tribune profile described Haynes, then listed as 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, as “an eye-opening combination of sprinter speed and snowplow size.”
“I don’t want to lose my weight,” he said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “I outrun most of the people I play against anyway.”
He used his beefy frame against taller opponents, gobbling up rebounds that he had no business getting to or absorbing contact on drives way to the basket, as he had done since his days of playing youth basketball, first at Wilder Recreation Center, and later Washington Middle School, friends and former teammates say.
Janice Haynes-Siedel moved her family from Kansas City, Haynes’ hometown, to St. Paul’s East Side in 1996. He took to his new home right away, she said, embodying a toughness that is often associated with the area.
“He had a heart of gold, he just smiled all the time,” she said, adding that Haynes was always cracking jokes, but turned serious if he felt that someone was threatening his friends or one of his three sisters
After high school, Haynes signed with North Dakota State College of Science, a top junior college basketball factory about three hours west of the Twin Cities, hoping to play his way to a Division I scholarship. But he was kicked off the team midway through the season for fighting and later returned to St. Paul. He worked odd jobs over the next few years, but nothing stuck.
Longtime Johnson coach Vern Simmons said that 2004 team, led by Haynes, helped put the school on the map of prep basketball greatness.
“Our history with the State Tournament, that all began with Walter,” Simmons said. “He could’ve easily went to Central or Highland or programs that were winning at that time, but he chose us.”
The 2004 team’s success, he said, persuaded other players from the talent-rich East Side to come to Johnson, for decades known as a hockey school, allowing Simmons to adopt an up-tempo style that propelled the Governors to the tournament in eight of the next 11 seasons. Johnson would capture the Class 3A title in 2010.
Few details have been released about the shooting. As of Monday, no had been charged with the crime.
Friends and relatives were still trying to make sense of the death.
“Overall, he was a pretty good human being, a pretty dynamic dude,” said Mitchell McDonald, who taught Haynes in his freshman year at Johnson.
His former pupil never lacked for confidence, McDonald said, recalling one time when Haynes sauntered into a practice for the Inner City All-Star Classic, an annual showcase of the Twin Cities’ top ballplayers, and defiantly announced that “the MVP is in the building.”
His coach wasn’t amused.
So he decided to sit Haynes in a scrimmage later that practice. As the scrimmage went on, Haynes began half-playfully tapping him on the shoulder every few minutes and pleading to get on the court.
“Hey, I’m going to be the MVP, how come you’re not playing me?” a laughing McDonald remembers him saying. Haynes went on to play in the actual game and was named co-MVP, with future Gopher Brandon Smith.
Haynes’ outspoken nature sometimes got him in trouble, but he also played the role of big brother to those around him, said childhood friend Jay Johnson.
He couldn’t stand a bully, Johnson said.
Once, when Haynes was in college, a group of basketball players tried to pick on a student who was awkwardly running sprints in the gym.
“Walt walked in, right over to them — didn’t even know this dude — and he said, ‘look why are you messing with him, he’s over here grinding,’” Johnson, 29, recalled recently.
One Jan. 22, about 200 mourners gathered at Progressive Baptist Church to honor his life.
In attendance were some of his ex-teammates from Johnson, as well as several former opponents.
Tears flowed freely in both groups.
“And it just shows, because the whole East Side loves him,” Johnson said. “If you walk anywhere, somebody’ll have a story about Big Walt.”