The many faces of Chuck Hayes, from left: college freshman, defensive stalwart and valuable playoff contributor.
For a player once relegated to the D-League after going undrafted in 2005, postseason heroics in Games 2 and 5 are pretty heady stuff
Nearly two years after Chuck Hayes waited by a phone that never rang, the messages came one after another through the night.
“All last night, a lot of text messages,” Hayes said Tuesday. ” ‘Good game. Way to put your body in front. Huge charge. Way to play.’ Just a bunch of little stuff.”
Not long ago, the NBA had lost Hayes’ number. He went undrafted. He was cut in the Rockets’ training camp. He was unwanted as his first season out of Kentucky began.
When the Rockets brought him back from the NBA Development League, he failed his physical and began to doubt he would have an NBA career.
Yet here he is, between such luminaries as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. And there he was, a star in Monday night’s playoff games, right up there with Robert Horry, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady.
Hayes stepped in front of Derek Fisher’s drive to draw the charge that sealed the Rockets’ 96-92 Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz.
The 6-6 power forward with a jump shot, plucked from the D-League to play with two of the league’s most celebrated name brands, had made the difference.
“I try not to think about it too much, but it’s one heck of a story,” Hayes said. “As much as my mind wanders and I think so much, I can’t believe where I came from. But I’m not complaining. I’m enjoying it. I’m loving it. And I’m living in the moment.”
• • •
The night of the 2005 NBA draft, Hayes sat alone. The house was full, but he banished himself to the bedroom in his parents’ home in Modesto, Calif.
“I sat in my room . . . sitting, watching it by myself,” Hayes said. “That’s where I wanted to be: by myself. I didn’t hear my name called. I had to go to summer camp. I think about the process I had to go through to get here. So many times I could have given up. My family would not allow it.
“I had a lot of doubts. ‘What more do I have to prove? What more do I have to do? Don’t my credentials speak loud enough for me?’ I doubted everything I had done at that point.”
Hayes had started all four years at Kentucky, but he was ready to believe he would never make it in the NBA. The Rockets were ready to sign him out of the D-League in December 2005, only to back off when he arrived in Houston with a sprained ankle.
“I have great support, as far as my parents and the people who have been there,” Hayes said. “They kept me in their prayers, and when the opportunity came, I took advantage of it.
“When they called me and I failed the physical, that one really hurt. That was the first time I thought maybe it’s not for me. You keep striving; you keep pushing. And when you get that opportunity, when you see that daylight of a chance, you hit it and hit it hard.”
By the second game of this season, Hayes, 23, was starting, with coach Jeff Van Gundy deciding that despite his lack of a perimeter shooting touch, Hayes’ defensive quickness, intelligence and tenacity made him a good complement to Yao.
“Chuck is a really special player,” McGrady said. “To be 6-6 and coming from being in the D-League … to being on a franchise, a first-class organization, and playing with two great players and a bunch of individuals that are really great, and to come in here and get in the starting lineup and contribute the way he did this year, it just shows you how much having confidence and hard work pays off.
“If Chuck goes out on the basketball court and plays all out with his energy and rebounding, playing great defense, running the floor, for him to be 6-6, he’s one of the best. He has great hands. He has a great basketball IQ. He just has a great feel for the game. He can be a really special player and last in this league a long time.”
There was a time, however, when Hayes thought his career might be over after 10 days.
Last season, when he was summoned to Van Gundy’s office for an 8 a.m. meeting, Hayes assumed he would be released. Instead, he was signed for the remainder of the season.
“That’s when I knew, I can play this game,” Hayes said. “I can survive in this league. The night before, we played in Minnesota. I was at the end of my 10 days and John Lucas was at the end of his second 10-day. (Van Gundy) said, ‘the media is going to want to talk about 10-day contracts. I don’t want you to even think about it.’ But it was all I could think about.
“That night, I played well. I got a call from Keith (Jones) saying coach wants to talk to you at 8 in the morning. I was nervous. I was freaking out. When I was released, it was in a meeting at 8 in the morning. When he told me, I called my mom, dad, everybody.”
More than a year later, he already has been around long enough to be used as the example of the way the Portsmouth Invitational (the pre-draft camp where Hayes was MVP) and the NBA Development League can launch a career.
“It’s pretty neat. It’s cool,” Hayes said of becoming a role model. “When I was in the D-League, they were using Rafer (Alston) and Bobby Simmons as the poster children of the D-League. ‘If they can make it, you can make it.’ Well, I guess I go on that list as guys that go from the D-League to the next level.
“It’s a competition. That’s what this game is. As a competitor, I pride myself on outworking my man. It’s a competition, and I hate to lose. It’s in me. It’s always been in me.”
• • •
This was already going to be a spring Hayes would never forget, no matter what happened on the court. The day of his Game 2 breakthrough, when he had 12 points and 12 rebounds and was called the key to the Rockets’ win, his girlfriend, Nicole Anderson, delivered their first child, Dorian Titus Hayes, hours before the game.
As much as Hayes’ success has drawn attention, he lights up at the mention of his son.
“This fatherly thing is new to me, but I’m learning,” Hayes said. “I’m trying to take everything my father (Charles Sr.) taught me to my son’s life. I’m just trying to be there, to talk to him, to let him know my touch, just be there promising I’m going to be there.”
So after the locker room cleared Monday night, after Hayes had done his national television interview for TNT and met with wave after wave of media and teasing teammates, he finally returned from the shower and leaned far back in his chair.
“Now I can go home,” he said, “and my baby will be waiting up for me.”
There were dozens of congratulatory messages there, too, but they waited until morning.