When you finally see that your child or grandchild has taken a shine to an unexpected player that never quits, one of the first guys you’ll bring up is Chuck Hayes.
Undrafted, undersized, and not skilled in the way that you want, but in the way that you need, Hayes’ stories embodies the one of a person who never gives up. After not being picked up in the 2005 draft, Hayes, the 2004 SEC Defensive Player of the Year out of Kentucky, didn’t see an NBA court until January 2006 when the Houston Rockets signed him to a 10-day contract. He and the Rockets never looked back.
Hayes is only 6’6”, but a combination of great footwork, low center of gravity, high defensive IQ, nose for the ball, and sitting at a whopping 240 pounds saw that he would play power forward and center for his entire career. Let me repeat that: he played center, and did it a lot too. In fact, when Yao Ming when out for the entire 2011 season, Hayes saw starting time at center, and he had a career year too: 7.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 52.7 FG%.
Despite the fact that Houston didn’t really have much shot blocking outside of Yao during his tenure in Houston, that didn’t mean opposing players could just stroll in the lane. Hayes and his defensive brother in arms Shane Battier were known for their uncanny ability to stay in front of their assignments and draw charges, arguably top one and two in that category at the time. And down low, Hayes was anything but a pushover. Strong, heavy, and disciplined under the rim, Hayes was an immovable object that couldn’t be goaded into fakes, making him a guy you didn’t want to post up on.
A fan favorite isn’t necessarily a fan favorite without his quirks, though. In his second year, Hayes became known for fouling, averaging 3.6 fouls a game, enough for third most in the league. He wasn’t the best scorer, either, averaging only 3.7 points a game in a career where he averaged over 18 minutes per night. And arguably the most memorable thing about Hayes to any non-Rockets fan, he had a very strange free-throw relationship. The forward averaged 64% from the line the first year of his career, and his percentage and his form gradually got worse each and every year until he averaged 36.8% from the line, and his shot looked like... this:
The good news is that his free-throw percentage immediately got better the next year, even if his form exactly didn’t. (Also, can you imagine the meme value he’d bring to today’s viewers?)
Still, none of that mattered. Hayes had a long, successful 11-year career in the NBA, six of them with Houston. He was no where near a premiere star the league, but he ended up signing a lucrative shoe deal with Chinese athletic brand Li Ning. A heart abnormality prevented him from signing a 4-year, $21.3-million contract with the Kings in 2011, but after being cleared by doctors a few days later, he signed with Sacramento for a little over $1 million more than originally proposed.
A box score doesn’t tell the full story of Hayes’ impact. There probably isn’t a highlight reel in the world that shows why he was in the league for so long, either. But all of that isn’t important. All those who were able to witness him play know exactly what he was worth to an undersized Houston team, and all those Rockets fans who were around at the time fell in love with The Chuckwagon.