Modesto Christian grad brings hardhat to court every night for Rockets
OAKLAND — Eighty minutes before tipoff and Chuck Hayes juggles a handful of duties.
Tickets for former Kentucky teammate and current Golden State Warrior Kalenna Azubuike. Settling an NCAA Tournament bet he lost to Houston Rockets teammate Steve Novak, whose Marquette Golden Eagles beat his GoldenWildcats. And, finally, settling into Game 69 on the NBA schedule.
Hayes, the Rockets’ worker bee in the paint, is doing off the court what he does on it — the little things that people, if they’re watching closely, admire.
“I’m trying to play according to what the team needs,” Hayes said before Friday night’s game. “It’s a blessing that I’m here and it’s a blessing that I got here. It could be a curse but it’s still a blessing.”
Hayes refers to the role no one thought was there for him in the league. If you’ve followed his already laudable career since his days at Modesto Christian, you know what was expected from him at this level — essentially, nothing.
He had no takers until the Rockets signed him to a 10-day contract — one of those “Let’s see what he’s got” dress rehearsals — in January of 2006. He’s been a Rocket ever since.
Has it been easy? Not to someone who rebounds, defends and retrieves without scoring much in the NBA. He understands he’s blessed. He also acknowledges his pigeon-holed role and the frustrations attached with it.
Hayes, 24, confronted this dilemma long ago, and he’s at peace with it. Because if he wasn’t, he’d probably be rebounding, defending and retrieving at a much less prestigious hoops address.
“When I got to Kentucky, I was told, ‘If you want to get on the court, this is what you have to do.’ I did it,” he said. “The same coach I had here before this year (Jeff Van Gundy) told me the same thing. And I want to play.”
Charles Hayes, Chuck’s father, admires his son. He also thinks he could score more points, garner more minutes and pull a few more headlines toward himself. His is a reaction where reality collides head on with fatherly love.
“This is a kid who used to be the catcher on his grammar school team and a wide receiver in football. He just had to be near the ball,” Charles said. “I think he’s capable of much more, but Chuck doesn’t like to sit.”
The Rockets like Hayes enough to look past games like Friday night. The matchup with the high-flying Warriors didn’t figure to be comfortable for his defense-first style, and it wasn’t. Hayes, struggling with mismatches, picked up three fouls in only 4:25 of the second period and never returned. Without him, the Rockets’ bench more than compensated in a 109-106 win.
“I got caught in the gray area. When in doubt, (the officials) picked 44,” he summarized. “I would have scripted it a little bit better, but we won.”
Truth to be told, it hasn’t been an easy season for Hayes (2.9 ppg, 5.4 rb), whose minutes have dwindled after he started 44 games. First-year coach Rick Adelman replaced him with 6-9 Luis Scola, a more offense-minded forward, and then rested Scola by inserting explosive rookie Carl Landry.
So much for Hayes, the Rocket often asked to put up a fight against stars such as Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom. If the ex-Crusader is sobered by his reduced role, he’s not letting on. Fact is, Yao Ming’s season-ending injury resulted in an opportunity, a chance for a bigger impact. And Hayes cashed in that chance during Houston’s celebrated 22-game winning streak, the last 10 minus Yao.
“I think Chuck coming off the bench knows he has to bring it more. He’s a high-energy guy. Chuck, being the professional that he is, still comes in and plays the same game,” teammate Rafer Alston praised. “You have to tip your hat to a guy who stays professional, especially in this day and age when you have so many unprofessional guys.”
Hayes’ ultimate trump card never has changed: His teams usually win. He rates the Rockets’ streak better than the 26-game run his team enjoyed at Kentucky and the 25-game streak strung together at Modesto Christian.
“People asked me if I’ve ever been involved in a streak like this before and I said, ‘I’m not new to this,’ ” he said. “But at this level, it was pretty amazing.”
Truth be told, there were more than a few observers in the NBA who thought Hayes would be a poor fit in the open-court game preferred by first-year coach Rick Adelman. Instead, Adelman found a spot for Hayes’ skills.
“He’s our best defensive big defensive man at forward. The reason we’re good defensively is a lot because of Chuck,” Adelman said. “I watched him last year and he was effective. You appreciate him more when you see him in person.”
For Hayes, more little things to do and more points to prove tonight at Phoenix.