Ryan Hawkins first told the story in a beige cinderblock room tucked underneath the east concourses of the St. Joseph Civic Arena Nov. 2. But it’s unclear where the story starts.
Hawkins, Northwest men’s basketball’s junior forward and reigning MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, had just wrapped up a 100-88 win over Southern Nazarene at the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in St. Joseph, Missouri.
Two facts defined the win over Southern Naz for Hawkins: he had scored a career-high and program-record 44 points and, he told reporters after the game, his hair was as long as it had ever been.
The first time he told the story, Hawkins described his hair length as the product of a bet with sophomore guard Diego Bernard. Over the course of more than a month, the narrative has evolved.
“I should've got a haircut before this — holy cow,” Hawkins said Nov. 2. “I lost a bet: I’ve got to grow it out ‘til Christmas. With Diego Bernard, so he’s got to grow his out ‘til Christmas, too. The deal is we can trim the sides a little bit.”
Even when prompted, Hawkins never clarified then what wager he had won or lost that resulted in what he said is unprecedented hair growth, which is set to last more than two months. He was perhaps too focused on the end game to be bothered with the prologue.
“I’m thinking I’m just gonna grow it out and then go (with a) mullet for a few games over Christmas when nobody’s at the gyms,” Hawkins said then. “’Cause then I can get rid of it and I’m gonna have the experience of it. I’ll get a feel of that luscious hair, you know? But it’s just my idea; we’ll see what (coach Ben McCollum) says about it — he’s a pretty big hair guy.”
McCollum is, indeed, “a pretty big hair guy.” The most decorated coach in Northwest men’s basketball’s storied history at times struggles to get through sessions with reporters without talking about hair, be it his or someone else's. He leans on the phrase, “He’s got great hair,” when talking about more than one of his players, often applying it to graduated senior forward Joey Witthus last season and lately using it with senior guard Kirk Finley.
McCollum had heard nothing of the bet Nov. 19. Facing reporters alongside senior forward Tyler Dougherty, he was fully out of the loop. Dougherty, though, brought insight into the origins of agreement that Hawkins failed to mention and that McCollum and reporters were oblivious to.
“I didn’t hear about it as a bet,” Dougherty said. “I thought it was that —”
“That they’re just gonna keep it going?” McCollum interjected.
“I thought that household — ’cause (Ryan) Welty, Hawk and Daric (Laing) live together, and I thought they were gonna do it,” Dougherty said. “But I guess maybe Hawk and Diego talked about it. … You’ll have to hold Ryan accountable for that.”
McCollum said the unkempt look atop Bernard’s head is just “his kind of swag,” but the look, for Hawkins, would be different. The fourth-year player has kept a mostly buzzed-cut for the duration of his time with the program, a career arc that’s come with two NCAA Division II National Championships.
Without any prior discussion with Hawkins on the potential styling of the junior’s grown-out hair, McCollum, like Hawkins, was hoping for a mullet.
“I think Hawkins is — is he gonna go with like a ‘party in the back’?” McCollum asked Nov. 19.
“That’d be very Iowa of him,” Dougherty said of the Atlantic, Iowa, native.
“I like a good mullet,” McCollum, who is from northeast Iowa, said. “There’s nothing wrong with a good mullet.”
Nearly three weeks after Hawkins first mentioned the so-called bet, clarity on the matter remained elusive. It wouldn’t come until the aftermath of Northwest’s 102-59 win over William Jewell Nov. 21.
Sporting what he called the longest hair of his lifetime, Bernard scored a game-high 21-points against the Cardinals and grabbed a contest-leading 11 rebounds. Hawkins trailed him closely with 19 points in 30 minutes of action.
In the aftermath of Northwest’s 43-point win, Hawkins and Bernard faced a group of reporters in a converted classroom tucked inside Lamkin Activity Center, separated from Bearcat Arena by only a hallway, and reflected on their team-leading performances, the Bearcats’ 44th-consecutive win and their unsettled wager that never was one.
“It’s not really a bet as much as, like, an agreement.” Hawkins, who originally called the agreement a bet three weeks prior, said Nov. 21. “We just said that we weren’t gonna cut our hair until after Christmas break. This is the longest my hair has ever been in my life.”
“Yeah,” Bernard said. “Mine, too. Yeah, mine’s pretty long.”
For at least one game and perhaps only one game over Christmas break, Hawkins said he plans to wear a mullet and a mustache before returning to his traditional buzz cut form.
The reason for the duo’s months-long agreement appears to revolve around the notion that there isn’t one. At one early-season practice one day, Hawkins told Bernard that he wasn’t going to cut his hair for a while, Bernard said, and the sophomore decided not to cut his either. They have had no reason to avoid their barbers for the last two months, they’ve just done so, Hawkins said, “because we’re goofy.”
More than a month into the agreement, Bernard is moving forward with resolve. He isn’t opposed to continuing his growth past Christmas and into the new year. While he’s maintained a close cut on the sides of his head, Bernard said he wants to see how long he can go without trimming any off the top.
Hawkins, though, is wavering already, limping toward a finish line that is now less than a month away.
“This is driving me nuts. Thinking I got another month and a half of this,” Hawkins said Nov. 21, cringing. “Let’s just say I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.”
The agreement that started at a nonspecific practice, likely on the court at Bearcat Arena or at Martindale or in a training facility at Lamkin, is set to come to a close in the last week of December. And with it, the saga that helps illustrate the easygoingness that comes with Northwest’s basketball program appears to be nearing its end. At least for now.
“I don’t know what their moms think, though,” McCollum said. “That would be the curious part. … Now that’ll be a good question next time: ‘What do your mothers think of your hair?’ And then we’ll see what that answer is.”