by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Alvin Hayes looks out the window. Then he looks at the clock on the wall. It’s 9 in the morning and he’s waiting for the car to pull up so he can get the hell out of here and back to the real world for a few hours. Rehab centers are better than prison, he figures. But not much. “Like the Army,” he mumbles. They check your every move, give you penalty points if your bed isn’t made right, and, ho, God forbid you get caught hiding anything when they strip-search you. Forget it. You’re dead.

So he waits for the car, his long arms dangling by his side, his gym bag packed and zipped, and as each minute passes he figures this is the morning his uncle gives up on him. But eventually the car pulls up, and Alvin Hayes gets in, and the two men drive away.

This is a story about a boxer and a cop and it begins deep in the city, the east side of Detroit, in a section where hope dies with the alarm clock and you don’t get dressed without a pistol. Not if you plan on running the streets. Here there are no carports and no croissant shops and the words
“getting high” don’t mean sneaking some marijuana in the upstairs bathroom; they mean crashing in somebody’s one-room apartment, free-basing cocaine until the money runs out.

This is is where Alvin Hayes — once the fifth-ranked lightweight boxer in the world — could be found last spring. Mixing cocaine with baking soda, melting it until it hardened into a ball, chopping the ball into little pieces, and then smoking it until it jolted his nervous system like a drill through a tooth. He felt on fire. For about three minutes. And then he had to do it again.

“Thirty times a day,” he says. “At least. I would go through $3,000 a day sometimes. I had to keep going.”

He had the money. For a while, anyhow.

Boxing had given it to him.

Too Sweet Hayes, they called him, mostly because of that angelic face, the high cheekbones, the babykins smile, and that long, tall, nail of a body that looks too frail to take a hit, much less give one. But ah, it could do both. Hayes was slick. Quick. A strong puncher. Great moves. Did a dance routine to Michael Jackson music at the start of his bouts that ignited the crowds.

People were talking about Alvin Hayes, never louder than on the June evening last year when he fought Jimmy Paul in Las Vegas for the United States Boxing Association lightweight title. The last night of his old life.

Those were the good days. Had to be. His childhood wasn’t much fun. No money, father takes off, kids run the streets. Have you heard this song before? Yeah. Well. It’s as common as air in Hayes’ neighborhood. Juvenile court became his second home. And as soon as he was old enough to be tried as an adult, he was. They sent him away at 17 for carrying a pistol and violating probation. Four years.

But boxing. That he could do. He started late — he was 21 when he laced up his first glove. But it came naturally. For a while he was knocking out everyone they put in front of him. Nineteen of his first 22 fights were KOs. All were victories. “I thought the guy would become a world champion,” says Stuart Kirschenbaum, the Michigan boxing commissioner. Hayes was making as much as $10,000 a bout, and he seemed to have found a way out. TV was after him. Promoters. Fans.

Sometimes a little success is the right medicine.

And sometimes it’s the worst. Hayes had been taking prescription pain pills following an operation on his hand. Tylenol with codeine. “I started taking one a day, then two, then three and four,” Hayes says. He became addicted. He began guzzling cough syrup. Codeine again. When he stopped using them, a few weeks before the Jimmy Paul bout, he went through a withdrawal, he says, that left him as weak and powerless as a balloon on a tether.

He got in the ring with Paul that night and got his butt kicked. Knockout. Sixth round. His first loss.

Soon after, his manager bailed out. Hayes went into a shell. A girl he knew came around and said, “Do you wanna get high?” and we’ve already told you what that meant. Hayes said OK. It was stupid. He knows it.

“I figured I could just do it once,” he said, reciting the junkie’s epitaph.

He gave her money for cocaine.

Within weeks he was free-basing all the time.

A rich man is a target in Hayes’ neighborhood, and a rich man with a weakness for drugs might as well have a bull’s-eye painted across his face. People came over. The money went fast. He fought again and lost. He used the purse money for more cocaine, until it was all gone.

One morning an acquaintance called him and said he had a way they could make some money. It was snowing. They drove to a stereo store. “Wait here,” the friend said. He came out with a stereo. Hayes wasn’t too coherent at the time, but he saw a cop car across the street and instinct was enough to tell him to run. The police chased him, tackled him, arrested him.

A few months later, he was arrested again, on a breaking- and-entering charge. He says he was so high that night, he doesn’t even remember what happened. This time he went to prison.

He called his mother. “I said, ‘You gotta get me out of here,’ and she said she wasn’t gonna get me out because I’d only get in trouble again.”

Other relatives ignored his calls. He was alone. He couldn’t stand it. He took the cord from his windbreaker and made a noose. He tied it to the bars, then slipped it around his neck. He was only pretending to kill himself, he says, figuring “that way they’d have to come get me out.”

Next thing Hayes knew, he was in a hospital. Northville Psychiatric Hospital. With a band on his wrist.

At 25, Alvin (Too Sweet) Hayes — who had electrified the Detroit boxing scene more than anyone since Thomas Hearns — had hit bottom. Rock stinking bottom. For two weeks he sat there screaming at doctors, “I ain’t crazy! I ain’t crazy!” while patients in the ward pawed at him for cigarets.

The windshield wipers squeak as they clap back and forth, flicking away the snow. We are inside the car that picks up Alvin Hayes every morning from the rehab center. Sam Williams’ car.

Sam Williams is a cop, and a cop really shouldn’t be getting too involved with criminals, especially drug addicts. But Sam Williams is also Alvin Hayes’ uncle. And that counts for something, he figures.

Williams is 40 years old, thickly muscled, and street-wise enough to be soft-spoken. Five years ago, while on patrol, he was attacked by a drunk with a knife. He pulled out his gun. The guy kept coming. He could have fired. Self-defense. Instead he let the drunk get closer, closer, until the blade was within inches of his gut. Then he swiped at the drunk’s arm and punched him helpless.

When Sam Williams spoke to the nurses at the hospital and they told him about Hayes, something clicked. Without knowing it, it was happening again. He was letting the danger come closer, in order to save a life.

“Let’s go,” Williams says. He and Hayes get out of the car and trudge through the snow and into the Coleman Young Recreation Center. Into the boxing ring.

It is time to train for the fight.

Oh yes. There is a fight. Thursday night. Cobo Arena. The return of Alvin
(Too Sweet) Hayes, after eight months of hell.

Roll the credits. Begin with Sam Williams.

When Hayes stood in a courtroom a few months ago, ready to be sentenced, Williams asked to speak to the judge privately. He asked that his nephew be placed under his jurisdiction. A policeman’s jurisdiction. The judge agreed.

And when Hayes was put in a rehab program for his drug problem, Williams

agreed to pick him up each morning before work, drive him to the gym, come back at lunchtime, take him to another gym, pick him up in the afternoon and get him back to the rehab center by the 5 p.m. deadline.

“I don’t know why I’m doing it,” Williams says. “I know he could slip back to his old ways. Maybe I’m crazy. But everything Alvin’s done wrong has been on account of drugs. He was high both times he was arrested. These guys he hung around with, he couldn’t resist them.”

Williams figured if he could shake the cocaine dust off Hayes, he’d find his nephew. And bring him back.

So he laid down the rules. Said he couldn’t keep Hayes from jail, if that’s what the courts wanted. Said the first sign of drugs, Hayes was out. Said things had to be his way or no way.

Alvin Hayes said OK. Quickly.

Sometimes, all people are looking for is a little caring.

At the end of the day, when the sparring and the weight work and the jumping rope is finished, Hayes and Williams, the boxer and the cop, drive back to the rehab center. The snow is still falling, and Hayes, sitting in the backseat, talks softly about the things he’s done. The people he’s hurt.

He says he is sorry. You can believe that or not. But when his voice goes raspy and his eyes tear up, you give him the benefit of the doubt.

“If I got high again,” he says, “I think . . . I’d just take myself to the police and tell them to lock me up. Instead of me gettin’ high again, I’d rather kill myself. I’d . . . rather die.

“When I lost to Jimmy Paul, it hurt me. I felt real bad. But it don’t hurt nothing like when I think what I did on account of drugs.”

Back at the rehab center, Hayes gets in line for dinner: macaroni, string beans, salad, green Jell-O. He spills some water and quickly wipes it up. There are penalty points if he doesn’t, and Hayes says he’s playing by the rules. No matter what. He has three months left on his time here, then he must face a judge again. The judge could sentence him to three to five years in prison anyhow.

But he has been clean from drugs since July. And that’s what this is all about. At one point he is asked what he would tell a 17-year-old in the east side who was carrying a pistol and feeling cocky. He launches into a speech as if the youth were sitting across the table.

“Look here,” he says, “tell me if I’m right. You think nobody can tell you nothing. You think it’s all about money, right? School can’t teach you nothin’, right? What you gotta learn is how to make some money, right?

“You think you’re too slick to get in trouble? You’ll get caught eventually. It might not be that bad at first but it’ll get worser and worser. You’ll wake up one morning and be an addict.”

He is breathing fast. “People gonna tell you stuff you don’t want to hear, but believe me, you’ll wish you’d listened to it later. You don’t want to go through what I gone through. Because I . . . don’t . . . think . . . you’ll make it.”

His eyes are wide, as if listening to his own speech. He exhales, picks up his fork, and starts poking at the Jell-O. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes.

There’s no payoff to this story. No moral. No Cinderella slipper. Fact is, Alvin Hayes spent the last couple of days in jail over a traffic violation. It never ends.

Or maybe it does. The drugs were the problem. The drugs seem to be under control. Caring was a problem. Sam Williams has cared. Boxing was the way out, and boxing is on the verge of coming back into the life of Alvin (Too Sweet) Hayes.

If hope is the ground floor of salvation, then the guy has at least a fighting chance.

On Thursday morning, the car will roll up to the rehab center and Hayes will hop in. And on Thursday night, when the fight is over, win or lose, that car will go back to the center and Hayes will be strip-searched before being re- admitted.

He won’t make big headlines. After all, he’s fighting a nobody. A relative beginner. But that’s OK.

Sometimes the longest road is the one that takes you back to square one.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!