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Fran Blinebury

His NBA career was in doubt, but Chuck Hayes is grateful for another chance to continue playing basketball.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Hayes has a heart that's big in more ways than one

Posted Jan 19 2012 3:08PM

It turns out the doctors at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic used a barrage of MRIs and CAT scans to get the kind of readings they could have found simply by flipping over to ESPN.

Chuck Hayes has a lot of heart.

For six years it had been what pumped blood into the unlikeliest of NBA careers, unknown, undrafted, undaunted by a trip to the D-League and unrelenting in carving out his place.

You could always look up the 6-foot-6 Hayes in the history books and find him listed as shortest regular starting center ever to play in the league when he moved into the middle to replace the injured Yao Ming in Houston. And you could always look down in the low post to find the reasons why.

Hayes often gave away the better part of a foot to opponents, but never gave an inch of ground. He was almost always outweighed doing battle for rebounds and positioning, but was rarely outworked or outhustled.

"It's just what I do," Hayes said with a shrug.

Except that on the morning he was getting ready to hit the floor for the start of training camp, his first workout in Sacramento after signing a four-year, $21 million free agent deal with the Kings, he was told that he couldn't.

"It was like getting hit with a sledgehammer," Hayes said. "I was about to go out and scrimmage in front of the fans and I got hit with the news by the trainers and doctors. 'You can't play,' they told me. 'There's something wrong with your heart.' "

It was the kind of pre-season physical that every player takes and rarely gives a second thought. However, since the death of Atlanta Hawks center Jason Collier in October 2005 from what was called a sudden rhythm disturbance caused by an abnormally enlarged heart, those cardio exams have been scrutinized more closely.

Which is how Hayes had his world turned upside down in, well, a heartbeat. He had spent six years with the Rockets, first clawing his way onto an NBA star and eventually becoming an invaluable part of the core lineup. When the Rockets had made a change from Jeff Van Gundy to Rick Adelman in 2007, the front office had to re-sell Hayes to the new coach. Adelman, like just about every other coach in his career, took one look and didn't figure there was a way for such an undersized player to thrive down on the low block. At least, not until he got his first several glimpses in training camp. By the time Yao went down with another injury in 2008-09, Adelman was calling Hayes his best defender inside.

Smart, tough, motivated and driven, he is a steady, positive force in the locker room backbone made of titanium on the court. In short, Hayes just gets it.

That's why it was hard for him to get that he might not ever go back onto the basketball court when he was delivered the news.

"It was a tough time," he said. "I had to have a whole bunch of MRIs, because I'm claustrophobic and they had to keep starting over and over. Eventually they had to put me to sleep and when I woke up they told me the news."

Rumors flew that Hayes' condition could potentially be life threatening. The Kings voided his contract and he went from being a jubilant free agent looking to make a new start close to his hometown of San Leandro to feeling lost.

"All sorts of things were going through my mind," he said. "I was wondering what the next step in my life would be? What was I gonna do? It's not like I felt sick or that anything was wrong. I still had my competitive drive, my passion for the game. But I realized that it might not be an option for me anymore.

"I'll admit that I had my doubts about playing again. All I could do was say, 'Lord, if you don't want me to play basketball, then you're going to have show my something else to do with my life.'

"But at the same time, I wasn't ready to give up hope just like that. I got with the people close to me and I took the right steps to try to explore every option and get all of the right answers. That's how I ended up at the Cleveland Clinic."

That's how a couple of days before Christmas Hayes got news that was completely different. While the rest of the league was still celebrating the end of the lockout and the saving of the 2011-12 season, his was a career that was saved.

"When the doctors came and gave me the news, I thought I might cry, but my mom used up all the tears," Hayes said. "It was just a tremendous feeling of relief.

"The doctors told me, 'You're healthy, Chuck. You just have a big heart and you can play. When I heard that, I couldn't wait to get onto the plane back to Sacramento and get back with my teammates."

Hayes played in just eight games before dislocating his left shoulder and has been out since Jan. 5. In his absence, Sacramento is 2-5 and already dealing with the turmoil surrounding DeMarcus Cousins, the firing of Paul Westphal and the installation of Keith Smart as their new coach.

While his eventual return alone isn't likely to make everything suddenly right with the Kings, it won't hurt to put Chuck Hayes' heart back on the floor. It is bigger than most.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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