With stops in Italy, France, Alaska, Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, Utah, Iowa and Illinois, Steve Hayes’ basketball journey had more twists and turns than the Snake River that winds its way through his home state of Idaho. But Hayes learned valuable lessons and made life-long friends while travelling basketball’s long and winding road that eventually led him to a successful corporate position with ConocoPhillips, the third-largest integrated energy company in the United States.
“It’s hard to sum it up … basketball doesn’t necessarily define who I am, but the life experiences I have had because of basketball certainly helped define who I am,” said Hayes, Secretary of the NBRPA’s Board of Directors. “Doors opened for me in life because of basketball. With the experience of living in so many places, constantly having to make new friends and adjust to new situations, it has made it easier for me to not hesitate to pursue opportunities and take on new things. Plus I learned the value of teamwork, persistency, and dedication that has helped me tremendously in my life outside of basketball.”
Hayes’ journey began in the tiny, sports-crazed town of Aberdeen, Idaho where he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the town had less than 2,000 residents, everyone came out to support high school sporting events and Hayes – who had two older brothers that were athletes – was drawn in to competition at a young age.
“It was really fun,” Hayes said of growing up and playing sports in Aberdeen. “I played Little League Baseball, but I was always tall and skinny with dreams of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.”
Tall and skinny may be an understatement, as Hayes – who grew eight inches in his final three years at Aberdeen High School – finished his prep career standing 6-foot-10, but weighing just 180 pounds. With a senior scoring average that exceeded 30 points, however, many basketball programs in the West had their eye on the young and wispy center.
Despite scholarship offers in California, Utah and New Mexico, the first step in Hayes’ basketball odyssey was short and safe – just 40 miles eastward to Pocatello, Idaho, home of the Idaho State Bengals. Hayes emerged as a star at Idaho State from 1973 to 1977, playing for a Big Sky powerhouse that worked its way into the national college hoops landscape with a stunning NCAA Sweet 16 upset of UCLA in 1977.
“It was definitely the biggest win in school history … they still talk about it,” Hayes said of the Bengals’ victory over a UCLA program that had been to 10 consecutive Final Fours. “There are two defining moments in the history of Idaho State athletics, one is our win over UCLA and the other is the football program’s Division I-AA National Championship (in 1981).”
Though Idaho State lost to UNLV in the 1977 Elite 8, Hayes – who had grown to 7-feet tall – solidified himself as a star center for the Bengals and remains the Big Sky’s all-time leader in field goals and rebounds. With stardom came opportunity, and Hayes was drafted in the fourth round of the NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. With that, the small-town boy from Idaho made his way to the big city.
“The Knicks drafted me and invited me to training camp, but they were honest,” Hayes said. “They liked me and they said I had a chance (to make the team), but they had 12 guaranteed contracts and were pretty much set at center.”
Without a roster spot in New York, Hayes found himself at a basketball crossroads and was eventually offered a deal to play in Bologna, Italy that included an apartment, a car and a good salary. With the life-altering move to New York now behind him, Hayes leapt at the chance to take his game to another continent.
“It was a culture shock in itself to go from Aberdeen and Idaho State to a summer camp with the New York Knicks,” Hayes said. “Then to go to Italy … it was a big adjustment, but I enjoyed it. I think I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t wanted to be playing in the NBA so badly.”
Hayes spent two seasons in Bologna before making it back to the United States, counting NBRPA President & Chairman of the Board Bob Elliott and NBRPA Board Member and Treasurer Marvin Roberts as his teammates in Italy. Once back stateside, Hayes had additional NBA training camp opportunities with Portland and Chicago, but his pro career didn’t really take off until he went to the CBA and won a league championship in 1981 as a member of the Anchorage Northern Knights.
Playing in Alaska for a championship team that included fellow NBA players Brad Davis and Tony Fuller led to a basketball breakthrough for Hayes during his second season in Anchorage, the 1981-82 season. San Antonio called upon the 26-year old big man first, and he played with the Spurs on two short-term contracts. Though Hayes headed back to the CBA after his stint with the Spurs, Jack McCloskey, general manager the Detroit Pistons, followed with a phone call to Anchorage asking the Idaho native to take his talents to Motown for the remainder of the season.
“It was strange, because players usually are told by their CBA coach when an NBA team wants to pick them up,” Hayes said. “But I got a phone call directly from Jack McCloskey after a game in Anchorage and left immediately. I flew into Seattle, spent the night there, then went on to Indiana and headed straight to the arena for a game against the Pacers. I played about 20 minutes that night.”
Hayes finished that season in Detroit and went on to have a five-year NBA career. Hayes’ NBA path also included stints with Cleveland, Seattle, another season in the CBA with Tampa Bay where he won the league MVP and got called up to finish the season with Philadelphia, followed by a season with the Utah Jazz .
After playing with the Jazz, alongside fellow NBRPA Board member Thurl Bailey, Hayes wasn’t quite ready to hang up his sneakers and went to Paris to play in France. Coming back to the states, he then pursued a coaching career in the CBA. He was an assistant coach in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then a head coach in Rockford, Ill., followed by a position as General Manager/Head Coach for Tri-Cities, Wash.
Eventually – after spending the better part of two decades in professional basketball – Hayes stepped away from the game and took a job in the Idaho State athletic department in 1994 as the Director of Athletic Development and Executive Director of the Bengal Foundation.
“I had very fond memories of my time at Idaho State and enjoyed coming back,” Hayes said. “I worked with boosters and businesses raising money for the Athletic Department and was involved in marketing and advertising. A lot of boosters and business owners in town remembered me, so I kind of got to relive my celebrity days on campus.”
While at Idaho State, he was also asked to be interim coach of the women’s basketball team when their coach developed heart problems just prior to the start of the season. Hayes originally intended to parlay the Idaho State job into an Athletic Director’s job, but he was evolving into a businessman. His personal growth in business started while cobbling together an ownership group for the CBA’s Tri-City Chinook and blossomed while interacting with civic leaders in Pocatello. Now fully tapping into his business potential, Hayes took his biggest step away from the game of basketball when he accepted a position with a start-up IT consulting company in Houston.
“Leaving Idaho State was hard, but I was excited for the opportunity,” Hayes said. “I joined them to help manage a major IT project at Conoco and that led to an even better position with Conoco.”
His basketball journey now complete, Hayes works today as a Business Process Management Consultant for ConocoPhillips. He keeps his hand in the game that opened so many doors for him by serving on the NBRPA Board.
“The people I met in basketball at all levels, the camaraderie and friendship … that stays with you,” Hayes said. “By playing in the NBA, you’ve accomplished something that very people get to experience and there is a respect you get from other business professionals for having achieved that. Because of that respect, basketball has opened a lot of doors and created many opportunities for me. Being on the board is a way for me to give back to my fraternity of NBA friends and hopefully, by sharing my experience and talents, I can help benefit the members of our organization.”
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