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Black History Month: Elvin Hayes reflects on how culture has changed

Hayes and Don Chaney were the first black basketball players at the University of Houston

HOUSTON – When people think of Elvin Hayes, they often think of the famous "Game of the Century" held in the Astrodome against UCLA in 1968.

If only they knew what Hayes had to go through to get there.

Hayes and Don Chaney were the first black recruits of legendary coach Guy Lewis at the University of Houston.

"Knowing that they had never had any blacks, and didn't have any black students here, I had a real difficult time adjusting," Hayes told KPRC 2.

Hayes was shy, introverted and extremely close to his mother. He knew leaving for Texas would be tough. Even the car ride to get from his home in Rayville, Louisiana to the University of Houston was terrifying.

"That was the scariest moment," Hayes said. "Coach brought his son Terry and his daughter, and that just didn't happen. You don't ride in the back with a white girl and a white boy, and you're sitting up there talking to them."

Once Hayes got on campus, things were intimidating.

Hayes had certainly experienced racism, but this was a different kind. The same students that cheered him on from the stands wouldn't sit next to him in class. Hayes remembers a student shaking so badly that he and Don Chaney thought she had a medical issue. Hayes asked her what was wrong.

"She said, 'It's you,'" recalled Hayes.

Certain professors also refused to teach him, causing Hayes to adjust his schedule and navigate things differently. Cincinnati and other schools refused to play UH.

"For Don (Chaney) and I, we really didn't realize what we were walking into, and the great change that would occur," Hayes said.

He still saw heavy racism on the road. Hayes recalls his mom having to stand out in the rain at certain hotels. But at the University of Houston, Hayes said things took a turn for the better, especially as they began to win.

"I think being here at the university, we had opened doors. Alumni began to reach out to us, and the students began to reach out to us, and it became a really harmonious atmosphere where people began to get along," he said.

Hayes said it took a lot of resilience and reminding himself why he came to UH in the first place.

"You have to say, 'Hey, I'm here, there's a reason,' you have an opportunity to make a difference," he said.

And make a difference he did.

Today, the court inside the Fertitta Center is named in honor of Hayes.

"A lot of the kids, they really don't know what that truly means and what that signifies," he said.

Hayes said it was the biggest honor to have his name grace the court, along with Howie Lorch, who was his roommate in college.

These days Hayes sits courtside as he calls his Alma Mater's games on the radio. From that view, he can see the Coogs and their opposing teams with rosters full of African American students.

"When I sit over there... it's flashbacks sometimes to when I first came here. How it was, and now I look at it, and how it is," Hayes said.

"The mixture of these kids sitting next to each other, talking with each other, fraternizing with one another, it's just really great. (They're) just enjoying a basketball game," Hayes said.

A game Hayes has helped change forever.