Then Elvin used up his last semester of eligibility and ignored the local ABA professional basketball team to sign for an estimated $440,000 with the NBA's San Diego Rockets. The folks who used to chant "E...E...E" now took a new view of him. Letters to the editors began mentioning how ungrateful Elvin had become. Fans would call radio programs and air their objections to the way their former hero had ignored the offers of the Houston Mavericks. Street-corner conversations were even more to the point. "I used to think he knew his place" a cab driver said, "but now he's acting like one of your smart-ass Northern jigs." A Houston reporter summed up the attitude of the townsfolk: "When Elvin was representing the University of Houston on the court, he was called 'a credit to his race.' But when he signed with the San Diego team he became another 'smart nigger.' Houston's attitude about him turned just like that." And once again that familiar cry was heard: "Sports has been good to him. He should be more grateful to the people who made him." One is reminded of a remark made long ago by the heavyweight champion of the rational world. "Who made me is me," said Cassius Clay with authority. Who made Elvin Hayes of Rayville, La. is Elvin Hayes.
Rayville is a town in northeast Louisiana about 60 miles up-country from Waterproof, four miles from Bee Bayou and just down the road from Alto and Holly Ridge. Its 5,000 residents, divided about 50-50 racially, work in small businesses, cotton gins, a clothing mill or two. The farms around Rayville are tilled by machines nowadays, and hundreds of field hands, Negroes almost to the last man, have gone away to places like Dallas and Los Angeles and Chicago seeking work. The Negro youth of Rayville has a tendency to rattle around in meaningless pursuits, now that cotton has ended as a way of life.
Racially, Rayville is relaxed as Southern towns go. The big midtown high school has been integrated for a couple of years, although hardly any Negroes elect to attend. The malt and sundae stand on the corner of Madeline and Louisa streets has a window for whites and a window for Negroes, but no one gets upset about it. "You have to expect that in a Southern town," says Elvin Hayes's sister, Bunnatine. "It doesn't bother us."
Now that Elvin Hayes is a famous All-America basketball player, everyone in Rayville professes to be his dear friend, his old acquaintance. "Ah've known Elving all his laff," says a white man at the Rayville Motel, on the west end of town. "Fan boy, fan family." Later someone passes the remark along to James Smith, principal of the all-black Eula D. Britton school where Elvin attended class. James Smith laughs a big laugh and says, "That white man doesn't know Elvin or anybody else on this side of town. This is a different world."
The "different world" is the east part of Rayville, literally the other side of the tracks, where black families live in homes ranging from shacks to a few fairly comfortable dwellings. The Hayes family is better off than most. You walk across a few wooden boards that span a gully and you're on the front steps of the rectangular frame house at 603 Texas Street. There are no sidewalks. The Hayes house is not fancy; the ceiling sags, and now and then a leak has to be patched, but there is space and order and warmth and a 59-year-old matriarch runs the show, and don't you forget it. Mrs. Savannah Hayes, mother of Elvin and five others, sits in a stiff-back chair in the parlor and explains how and why she and her late husband sent their six children to college:
"I been in the fields. Raised on a farm. My daddy worked another man's land. I chopped cotton and I picked cotton. Before I was married, I always said, 'If I ever own a family I want them to have a better chance than I have.' Well, I married a man who felt the same way. Chris Hayes. A powerful man. He had a fourth-grade education, but he'd traveled all around the world as a fireman on a ship, and he'd learned a few things. We settled here, and he began firing the boilers at the Union [cotton] Compress, and when the children came along he'd tell 'em, 'I'll wear overalls for you if you'll go to school, but if you won't, I won't!' And what he wasn't telling them, I was. So we started sending our children off to college one by one, and my husband worked two jobs to pay for it. Sometimes three jobs. Even after my husband had a heart attack, you couldn't stop him. And when he lay on his death bed, he said to me, 'Don't feel like everything gonna be done when I'm gone. Keep them children in school. The Lawd's gonna make a way for you to do it.' Well, the Lawd did. Four of our children were either in or through college, and that left my daughter Bunnatine and Elvin. Bunnatine got a full academic scholarship to Southern University, and Elvin got a full athletic scholarship to Houston, and that made it six out of six."
"If you lived in my parents" house," recalls Elvin's oldest sister, Christine, who holds a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin, "you had to be a success. Otherwise, my mother wouldn't let you in."
Elvin was the baby of the family, and by the time he entered the Eula D. Britton school a few blocks from his home the Hayes pattern of academic excellence had been firmly established. For a while the tradition worked against the gangly boy. In school he was deeply troubled by the idea that too much was expected of him, that he would be judged by the records of his five older brothers and sisters and found wanting. "And my mother used to be on me all the time," Elvin says now. "She'd say, 'If you don't do well you're gonna be a failure!' "
Elvin's marks remained poor, though passing, and his personality problem became more severe. "My sister Bunnatine came just before me, and she was valedictorian, and all my brothers and sisters had made straight A averages, and I just said to myself, 'Well, I'm not gonna do it.' It wasn't that I didn't have the ability, but I was trying to do things in my own way."
Mrs. Hayes well remembers the device Elvin contrived to help him retreat from the troubling reality around him. "Oh, how I do remember!" she says. "He put up a bucket with a hole in the bottom, right on a beautiful water elm I had in the back of the house, and he threw a rubber ball into that bucket and stomped around that tree and dried the ground out till he killed it. Killed my beautiful water elm! Then he hung the bucket on the side of the house and kept right on."