Getting the Lowdown from a Legend
Today, the Hoops Odyssey drove about an hour north and east of Houston, on a spate of rural highways heading out towards Louisiana, on one of those assignments we love. We were bound for Liberty, Texas.
Liberty? Just over the train tracks. Can't miss it.
We pulled up to Ervin Hayes' car dealership, a Chevy Autoworld, ready to talk hoops with one of the best college players of all time and an NBA Hall of Famer. As one of that earlier generation of stars, guys who watched the NBA boom of the early eighties either from the twilight of their careers or from retirement, Hayes helped pave the way for today's higher-paid, greater-glamour crew. When Elvin Hayes first picked up a basketball, there weren't any endorsements to be had, there wasn't any Basketball Hall of Fame. In fact, the NBA was only just being born itself.
Elvin Hayes was born in 1945 in Rayville, LA, a rural town in the northeast corner of that state. He discovered basketball late in his adolescence but he proved a quick learner and he took the game as a ticket out of town, landing as one of the first two African-American players to play ball at the University of Houston. (The other was his teammate and fellow Louisianan, Don Chaney.) By the end of his college career, Hayes had executed a career scoring average of 31 ppg and a rebound tally of 17.2 per game. He played the pivotal role, shutting down Lew Alcindor, in what was later dubbed "The Game of the Century," a game held late one night in the Astrodome when the Houston Cougars ended UCLA's 47 game winning streak with a narrow 71 - 69 victory. A record fifty two thousand plus fans showed up that night to watch the first ever nationally televised regular season college hoops game. When the Houston team came out of the tunnel to see the hordes of fans awaiting, the lights on center court, and the Bruins warming up, Hayes remembers thinking one thing: "Wow." He didn't shy away from the moment either. He dropped in 39 and pulled down 15.
Just outside of Liberty: a great spot for lunch.
Though Hayes enjoyed a remarkable NBA career, teaming with Wes Unseld on those Bullets teams of the late seventies that reached the NBA Finals three times in five years, we were most interested in talking about his college days, his thoughts on college hoops today, and what he's been up to since he left the game. As it turned out, it was well worth our trip to LIberty.
Hayes is not only a Hall of Fame basketball talent, but it's quite clear that he's both a passionate follower of the game and a devout student of it. We asked how he felt about the new rule requiring kids to spend a year in college before entering the draft.
"Now of course, in my day," he began, "you weren't allowed to enter the draft until after your class year had graduated college. That was a great service to me. To develop not only as a player but as a young man," he went on, "was invaluable. So many of these kids today, we forget that that's what they are: they're kids. But the NBA wants to say that they're old enough, because they're talented enough basketball players, you see, to make adult decisions. And they can miss out on so much."
What followed was perhaps the most concise, passionate, and reasoned argument for extending the age of entry into the NBA draft that I've heard. As a proponent of more college for young athletes myself, I was rapt. While acknowledging the economic imperative and paying understated notice to the particular challenges and cultural pressures facing young African-Ameican men who find themselves in a position to enter the draft, Mr. Hayes carefully detailed the ways in which a young man still risks much in terms of his personal development for that glory of the early entry. On top of that, Hayes noted, are the rarely talked about examples of young men who made the jump early but didn't even pan out in terms of their basketball abilities. Here were young men, particularly tragic, he said, who had forgone a collegiate experience, made such weighty decisions at such young ages, only to see their earning potential expire and their dreams deflate sometimes before their twenty fifth birthdays.
A beautiful day outside Houston meets frustration as I repeatedly mangle our intro.
Hayes comes by this honestly. A couple of things about our meeting suggested his concern with youth. Not only did he speak particularly passionately about this issue of young men balancing college and basketball, but his office itself spoke the story of a man with many concerns. Along two of his four walls hung photos of Hayes and his teammates in their playing days. Two team photos of his Houston teams show Hayes and Chaney, two young men among twelve, sharing in the pride of their Houston Cougars jerseys. Another sees Hayes in a Bullets jersey, his arms raised, just after a dramatic steal and dunk, he tells us. That was the moment the entire arena spontaneously burst out in a rousing chant of "E! E! E!", one he still gets chills to think of. On another wall, evidence of his place in the Hall of Fame.
But it's not all basketball here. The rest of his decor is reserved for perhaps an unexpected hobby of sorts. It seems that just recently, the sixty some odd year old Hayes was made a Liberty County Sheriff's Deputy. We asked him if being an enforcer on the court helps him any in enforcing the law.
"Well," he laughed. "I don't think of it that much as..as...enforcing. I'm more interested in prevention, you. For me, growing up in Louisiana at a time when, you understand, this kind of thing wouldn't have been an option for me, to become a deputy was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Now, I look out and it seems like building prisons is the biggest business in America. I just want to get to kids and talk to them about making smart choices. If you want to join a gang, I tell them, there's no better gang to join than the men in blue. So many kids," he says, "they make big decisions so young."
Sexy time: Going Mad gets spoiled in its last week with the Dodge Magnum.
Before we could let Mr. Hayes get back to the business of selling cars and helping kids in Liberty, we had to ask him about March. We are, after all, college hoops specialists. And to our surprise, he'd saved his biggest smile for that very topic.
"I've played a lot of basketball," he said. "High School, College, the NBA. But I'm telling you there's nothing like the Final Four. I love this time of year the most."
He paused, appearing to think about it some more, maybe wondering if he'd assessed it rightly. "Yeah," he concluded. "There's just nothing like it."
Apparently, the madness is alive and well, no matter how far off the beaten path you go. Even here in Liberty, Texas, if you look, you can find a representative of the best that college basketball has to offer. And you can witness this abiding passion for the month of March. Of course, we couldn't agree more. Four hours further down the road and we're checking into our San Antonio digs, a scant walk from the Alamo Dome, awash in signs and banners reading Welcome to the Final Four.