Elvin Hayes: The Big E Took Giant Step

Like every other teenage kid who goes away to college, Elvin Hayes brought plenty of baggage. There was the usual variety that fit inside a suitcase and the kind that you carry inside your head and your heart.

“I was scared,” Hayes recalls of his early days on the University of Houston campus back in 1964. “Where I came from, blacks had been taught to hate whites and whites had been taught to hate blacks.”

Hayes had been born and raised in Rayville, tucked into the northeast corner of Louisiana, population of less than 5,000, where the horizon never went much farther than the cotton fields.

Yet here was the long, lean forward with the sweet turnaround jump shot and the voracious appetite for rebounds joining fellow freshman Don Chaney as the first African-American basketball players to suit up for coach Guy V. Lewis’ Cougars and among the first African-American athletes in the South.

Houston today is the fourth-largest city in the United States and a 21st century model of multiculturalism. But nearly a half-century ago, there were barriers that hadn’t been broken.

“I remember as a kid sitting at home watching on TV as the governor of Arkansas stood in the doorway of the school and wouldn’t let that little girl in,” Hayes said. “I remember seeing Medgar Evers being denied at Mississippi. Becoming one of those people who did something significant and symbolic wasn’t anything that ever crossed my mind.”

In fact, Hayes wanted to play his college ball at the University of Wisconsin until Lewis and assistant coach Harvey Pate came by his house for a visit.

“It wasn’t long after they got there that Coach Pate was talking to my mother about coming back another time to go out fishing with her and the deal was done,” Hayes said. “My mother said, ‘I like these people and you’re going to Houston.’ Hey, in those days in the South, your mother made all the rules and you obeyed.”

So Hayes took his brother along for support and joined Chaney, who came from downstate in Baton Rouge, to change the profile and the fate of the UH program. By the time they were done playing and were both chosen in the first round of the 1968 NBA draft, the Cougars were a national power, playing in the NCAA Tournament eight times in a space of nine seasons. The teams of Hayes and Chaney reached the Final Four twice and defeated UCLA and Lew Alcindor in the so-called Game of the Century at the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968, the first-ever college game televised nationally.

After being picked No. 1 by the San Diego Rockets in 1968, The Big E played 16 seasons in the NBA, was a 12-time All-Star, the league scoring champion in 1969 and led the Washington Bullets to the NBA title in 1978 and was voted one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

“None of it would have been possible without coach Lewis reaching out and making me a part of his plan and his dream,” Hayes said.

It was anything but an easy transition as Hayes and Chaney withstood withering racial slurs in the hallways of the dorms, on trips to play road games and even on their own practice floor. Yet they persevered and prevailed.

“Don had grown up in the big city and he was naturally more of a laid-back guy than I was,” Hayes said. “I’m not saying it wasn’t just as hard on him, but there were times when he’d just say, ‘Let it go, Elvin.’ “

It took a sit-down in Lewis’ office to finally set him straight.

“Coach Lewis looked me in the eye and said, ‘Elvin, I have put my career, my family, everything at risk for you. What have I done to you to deserve your anger?’ It was a conversation that changed my attitude and changed my life.

“Yeah, I think we did make a difference. I think we showed something to people. I know that 50,000 people from Houston jammed into the Astrodome that night and were completely behind us. And I know that during a time when there were racial problems and riots all over the country, we never had any of that in Houston.”

The Big E is 67 now, a father, businessman, rancher, fixture in the Houston area.

“When I finally put down my baggage,” said Hayes, “I found a home.”

 

6 Comments

  1. Civil Rights has everything to do with sports & everything else in society!!! :)

  2. @ Eli Odell J.-i don’t know about what else you commented about but as far as the sport being okay now-a days, yeah-but back in those times civil rights had everything to do with sports in general as 10-15 yrs before Russell, Hayes, Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton, Earl Loyd, Chuck Cooper (first Afrikan American drafted by an nba team w/ Celtics), there were no people of color in the all white nba. For me i treasure understanding & knowing this history. I’m interacial of AfrikanAmerican, IrishAmerican, Native Choctaw & Cherokee Indian, & French Canadian descent-lol-so i’ve got a lot of mixing on both sides that i’m proud of! :)
    Anyways, yeah we see articles, movies, awareness commercials of black history more often around this time of year for Black History month as this is extremely important history. It really should be all year round all the time instead of just one month-the awareness & teachings of it. All though our country has come a long way w/ it, we still have a ways to go because of the way people think as racism still exist in a lot of places more than you would think. I’m born in “69, 10 years prior blacks & whites couldn’t couldn’t sit next to each other on buses, restaurants, other establishments, or drink from the same water fountains-now 2013-that was not really that long ago! Some, not all people, may wonder why this history is still talked about, like it’s over so forget about it-well we must not forget about it because we will repeat it if we do! Also our young people & people from other countries need to know this stuff & appreciate that if it weren’t for that era, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today. I’m surprised that there are people in the USA that don’t even know about the more popular civil rights events. I grew up on it & have learned more of it so it’s a part of me that lives on of that! Imagine if the nba was still all white-no Russell, no Wilt, no Dr. J, no Jordon, no Pierce, no kobe, no lebron=no civil rights=no freedoms!!! Bill Russell said “Jackie Robinson took us from point A to point B & all i did was take us from point B to point C”! & i cried when he said that! Just try to imagine where we would be if it wasn’t for all the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement!!! I’m just Grateful!!! :)

  3. Thank you for doing this article of Big E & coach Guy V. Lewis as this type of history i’ve grown up always treasuring. When i read about it or watch a movie about the struggles thru oppression before, during, & after the civil rights movement-then seeing the people who were champions of a spiritual nature-this is what brings tears to my eyes & a bottomless depth of gratitude to my soul-tears of joy! :)……
    Mr. Elvin Hayes-Big E. & Mr. Guy V. Lewis, for that-thank you for your contributions to society & everybody!!! :)

  4. Eli Odell J. says:

    i’m gettin real tired of these aint we some great non-racists stories
    this’s sport okay? civil rights aint got nothin to do with it
    by the way fran you’s a carpetbagger to the bone

  5. mahlon says:

    I used to watch Big E and Don Chaney at the delmar field house withTheodis Lee, Ken Spain and even Vern Lewis to name a few… place was packed….what a memorable time to watch UH basketball… Guy V. Lewis needs to be in the Basketball HOF while he has time to enjoy the honor!!! Furthemore at Hofffeinz Pavillion, the basketball court ought to be named the “Guy V. Lewis Court”!!!!

  6. cougardue says:

    Thanks you Fran, what a great story. I wish Coach Lewis’ story was more well known.