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.”