"Well, a kid in my neighborhood had to play outside or not at all," Elvin recalls. "We didn't have the facilities that other kids have. No concrete to play on. No baskets to shoot at. My basketball was one of those five-and-ten-cent-store rubber balls about the size of a softball. I lallygagged around with balls like that right through high school."
Elvin's idol and model was Bill Russell. All day long he would stand under the bucket, perfecting moves that were designed to confound and defeat the great Celtic center. "Once in a while I'd see him bouncing that ball," says Melvin Rogers, "and he'd spin to his left and shoot a basket, and he'd say to me, ' Bill Russell got me to the right, so I hooked to the left!' That's all he had on his mind: Bill Russell. If there was a President of the United States, Elvin didn't know it."
In the eighth grade Elvin was still playing the role of the child who wanted to be different from his brothers and sisters, and he had started running with a bad crowd. "I became tough, and they had to put me in a special section of my class. But while I was running with that crowd I learned a lot about kids that they called bad. Nobody understood those kids. Nobody took the time. A lot of them had no other way to be noticed. They were poor; they had no books in their house; they had bad backgrounds. The only way they could be noticed in the world and get any attention at all was to be bad, to do mischievous things."
Elvin had not been in with the "bad" crowd for long when he came under the influence of the Rev. Dr. John Calvin, a former dean of men at Grambling. "Dr. Calvin showed me that someone understood me, and he made me realize that someone was willing to give me a hand and help me. He told me it was fine for me to want to be a basketball player, but I couldn't if I didn't study. He told me that the two things went together. This was the eighth grade. This was the turning point. From then on I started bearing down. From then on it was nothing but study and practice, study and practice."
At first, Elvin was too gawky and clumsy to count for much in the free ebb and flow of a basketball game. One year he was cut from the freshman team, and he spent that whole summer shooting baskets. He shot 11 hours a day. Eleven. He is sure, because it is not the kind of thing you forget. "That boy worked," says Melvin Rogers. "He had that little rubber ball and that bucket and he wore them out. And Bill Russell was always in his mind. In his thinking he saw himself playing against Bill Russell right away. College was just a means to that. That's why I knew this year that there wasn't a chance that Elvin would sign with the Houston Mavericks. There's no Bill Russell in that league."
Louisiana maintains its segregation policies by having white high school teams play in one grouping and black in another, and Eula D. Britton High School won the black championship behind its superstar, Elvin Hayes, in his senior year. The University of Houston then offered him a scholarship and Elvin went into a world that flabbergasted him. "I walked around the Houston campus without saying a word, because I had a speech problem. My speech problem was that I talked like a small-town Southern Negro. I mumbled my words and strung them together, and certain words like 'individual' and 'computer' I couldn't say at all. I still have trouble with those words. I spoke the way the kids of Rayville spoke, not the way English was spoken in my home. So I decided to major in speech education, for two reasons. One was to help myself. The other was to try to help other kids with the same problem."
Elvin Hayes was almost the precise opposite of the typical Negro scholarship athlete from the minute he walked on the campus at Houston. He seemed to carry his stern mother perched on his shoulder. Ted Nance, the university's sports publicist, remembers when someone offered Elvin a cigarette and Elvin backed away as though in deep shock and said, "My mother'd whip me if she saw me with a cigarette!" He attended classes and studied his lessons as though his only chance to go up against Bill Russell lay in getting straight A's in every subject, and his diligence astounded his professors.
Hayes and Don Chaney were the first Negroes to play basketball for Houston, and Elvin immediately noted that, "the crowds expected us to be terrific every minute. When we weren't they got on us." Off the court, Elvin's size and personal dignity held racial incidents to a minimum, but four years at the University of Houston crystallized Elvin Hayes's own thinking about race, caste, delinquency and the problems of poverty. He had married as a junior and become a father as a senior, and except for his appearances in class and on the court, he had seldom been seen about the campus. "People would ask me where I was keeping myself, and I'd just shrug and say, 'Around.' "
Elvin was keeping himself in Houston's black ghetto, jiving around with the poor boys of grammar and high school age. "It's like this," he says. "Before I got into basketball in high school nobody noticed me. I know what that's like. So I go down there and I try to correspond to those kids, to show them that somebody cares for them, to show them that they have a place in life just like everybody else.
"You should see the change that comes over these kids when they find out you care. And that's what people can do nowadays. That's what whites can do, too. Just go around caring about people and instilling some truth into the younger heads. Tell them from birth why discrimination is wrong, how the world can be better."