Ron Agostini

Hayes into big things

Events both big and bigger are seeking out Chuck Hayes.

He wishes he could deal with them one at a time, but they're not happening one at a time. They're all good, and life-changing, he understands, yet more difficult and complex. You can't check off this to-do list with a 3-point basket and a couple of assists.

Because Hayes, 24, has become, in order, a father, a millionaire and a businessman.

"I'm thrilled," he said during a weekend stay in Modesto, "and busy."

Wasn't it just yesterday Hayes led the Modesto Christian Crusaders to within a hoop of a state Division I title? Wasn't it just last week he was a small deity at Kentucky? Wasn't it just the other day he signed a 10-day contract, one of those NBA sink-or-swim agreements, with the Houston Rockets?

"I've always been the underdog," he said. "That's perfectly fine with me."

He didn't have to add the following: It's good to be the underdog when you've scored some serious coin.

Hayes capped a tedious and sometimes uncertain summer last week by signing a four-year contract with the Rockets. That is noteworthy by itself for an undersized power forward who averaged only 5.6 points and 6.7 rebounds last season.

He didn't exhale until the Rockets agreed to reportedly pay him a base salary of $1.5 million for three seasons with an option for the fourth. Hayes received the job security he demanded, the payment for an offseason of questions and doubt.

For starters, there was the exit of coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose half-court style seemed to be a good fit for Hayes. Van Gundy's successor is Rick Adelman, the former Sacramento Kings coach whose offense-minded let-it-roll approach invited speculation about Hayes' future.

Adelman's philosophy manifested itself in the Rockets' personnel moves, beginning on draft day when they traded for rookie power forward Carl Landry. Then, about three weeks before Hayes signed his contract, the Rockets traded with the world-champion San Antonio Spurs for 6-foot-9 power forward Luis Scola, a gifted and experienced product of Argentina and, equally important, a talent Adelman coveted. Clearly, the Rockets seek more points from the position where Hayes started 43 games last season.

"It was pretty obvious," Adelman said at the time, "we needed to fill that spot."

Small wonder Hayes was worried.

Yet at the same time, the Rockets said all along they were intent on signing Hayes. Three weeks later, they made good on their word, though the series of events probably whacked years off Hayes' life span.

"From now on, I'll be watching the NBA Draft a lot closer," he said. "When I heard about the first trade (Landry), I thought, 'They're bringing in a young guy. I'll have to go at him to keep my job. I've got no problem with that.' "

The acquisition of Scola, however, struck Hayes like a slam dunk.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe they (the Rockets) want to go in a different direction,' " he said. "I understand it's a business but for a moment I was heartbroken. It was a long process, sometimes discouraging. I wondered for a while if Houston was the right place for me."

Hayes discovered there was no problem in Houston, after all, whether or not he starts. See, Hayes' identity in the NBA already is etched in stone. He overcomes his physical mismatches and offense shortcomings by being a little smarter and by, well, knowing the game and making his teammates better. Like his collegiate coach Tubby Smith always said, "All Chuck does is win."

"It makes me feel appreciated that I'm not going unnoticed," Hayes said. "It's a stereotype that's been put on me. I take pride in that label."

Yes, life is full-court pressing Hayes. He used his weekend in Modesto to visit friends and get his newly expanded financial house in order. He's also agreed to appear at the Modesto Basketball Reunion Dinner, a celebration of Slam-N-Jam's 20-year anniversary along with state titles over the years by Modesto High and the Crusaders, Sept. 22 at Modesto Christian.

But before all contracts, appearances and all things hoops is Hayes' baby son, who stops his father colder than a Shaquille O'Neal screen.

"Changes everything," Hayes said. "What a numbing experience, to see fresh life looking at you and knowing it's part of you. I've never had a feeling like that. It's a different world."

For Hayes, a bigger and better world.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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