Chuck Hayes makes his NBA living getting beat up underneath the glass
OAKLAND — Chuck Hayes’ left knee aches the day after each game. His coach frets about Hayes’ limited shooting range and stamina. Hayes doesn’t know if his physique can handle a full NBA season as a starter for the Houston Rockets.
Hayes will deal with this. He’s having the time of his life.
“It’s really surprising, knowing what I’ve been through,” Hayes said before Thursday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors. About 10 feet away, Yao Ming watched film on a monitor next to Rafer Alston and Bonzi Wells. Hayes sat, elbows on his knees, hunched forward, eyes alert, a slight grin creasing his face.
An NBA locker room always was his desired destination.
And here he was, on a midweek night in December, doing what 99 percent of the smart money figured was impossible for him.
He made his 16th start of the season, 16 more — in fact — than even he can believe.
“It’s really surprising, knowing what I’ve been through,” he admitted. “It’s a blessing, a testimony for me to tell. Funny how things turn out. I came a long way.”
Every available NBA fact insists Hayes, the most famous graduate of Modesto Christian, should be plying his trade in Europe or some other obscure basketball outpost. He was not drafted by any NBA team after his graduation from Kentucky, and no one was surprised, and why not?
Is there any place in the league for a 6-foot-6 power forward minus a perimeter jump shot or through-the-roof hops?
The high-percentage answer is “no” but, then again, this is Chuck Hayes, one of those overachievers who laughs at the long odds. What does he do best, you ask? Why is he starting alongside teammates like Yao and Tracy McGrady for the 14-8 Rockets while more skilled players are working on their jump shot in Istanbul or selling three-piece suits back home? Because Hayes is good at, as his former coaches like to say, just being Chuck.
Setting screens as strong as Sequoia trees is just being Chuck. Catching every pass or retrieving all loose balls is just being Chuck. Holding his ground and taking the offensive foul against the Warriors’ Baron Davis is just being Chuck. Snatching rebounds, feeding open shooters and not making mistakes is just being Chuck.
He became a folk hero in Kentucky by just being Chuck, and he’s used the same formula to carve a niche — invent one, really — in the world’s best league. The only people who thought this wasn’t a silly dream were Kentucky coach Tubby Smith and Hayes himself.
“I got a lot of doubters,” he said. “I’m sure there will be people watching me tonight who can’t believe I’m here.”
A year ago this month, Hayes was starring for the Albuquerque Thunderbirds, deep in the pro hoops bush leagues, when he sprained an ankle. Because of his ankle, he failed a physical with the Rockets.
“Horrible timing,” he admitted.
But in January, the Rockets signed him to a 10-day contract, an NBA dress rehearsal. Do it or don’t. Sink or swim. Hayes swam. By the end of the month, he signed to finish the season. Last June, the Rockets picked up the option on the rest of his contract.
Before Game 2 of this season, Hayes was named a starter. By now, even the former Crusader shook his head in amazement.
“I expected this season to come off the bench and play sporadic minutes,” Hayes said. “To be starting right after the first game, that one caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting that one.”
His problems are not unlike most second-year pros. He injured his knee during a violent collision with Shaquille O’Neal and missed four games.
Jeff Van Gundy, the Rockets’ coach, isn’t sure Hayes is strong enough to last the NBA’s grueling 82-game regular season. And there always will be issues with Hayes’ perimeter game (he has none) or penchant for foul trouble. He and Juwan Howard virtually split minutes at power forward.
“It’s an ongoing concern with Chuck,” Van Gundy said. “Chuck has got to figure out how he can screen out, and cut and offensive rebound to take advantage of teams that ignore him (on offense). He’s aggressive by nature and an undersized player. Those kind of guys have to fight for every inch on the court. I’m more concerned with his lack of sustained energy over a three- or four-day period — 6-5 or 6-6 power forwards can play well in this league but they have to do it with a great level of intensity, energy and basketball IQ.”
Hayes is lucky to have a coach who believes in his skills. But truth be told, every coach — from grammar school through the NBA — has loved to coach Chuck Hayes.
His Rockets lost 109-107 Thursday when Davis beat them with 1.2 seconds left. Hayes walked slowly off the court with his teammates after a nominal Chuck-like night — 22 minutes, two points and nine rebounds. He wasn’t on the court when the Rockets failed to rebound a miss, opening the door for Davis.
Tonight, Hayes and the Rockets drag their bodies to Staples Center to meet the Lakers. His body will not be 100 percent, a fact of life in the NBA, the life he’s always craved.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t say, ‘Chuck, be grateful.'”