Coach Bobby Lutz sometimes wonders if his players at North Carolina Charlotte have grown up too fast.
Every time they enter Halton Arena they see hanging on a wall the freshly retired jersey of Charles Hayward, who played only 10 games for the 49ers and scored just 29 points.
Hayward, the highest-rated recruit ever signed by the 49ers, spent most of his two years in college fighting leukemia. He died last month, and now his teammates must press on amid the sadness.
“They’ve learned a lot of lessons that a lot of college kids don’t have to learn until they’re a lot older,” Lutz said.
The 49ers’ practices are fast-moving and challenging, but there now appears to be a subdued, workmanlike purpose to everything the players do. When they laugh, it sounds almost guarded.
“It’s still hard. It really is,” said senior guard Kedric Smith, Hayward’s former roommate. “But that’s why it’s good to get out here and run up and down and kind of get focused on the season, because we’ve accomplished a lot here the last three years, and we want to keep that tradition going.”
North Carolina Charlotte, the defending Conference USA champion, is one of just nine teams that have won at least one game in each of the last three NCAA tournaments.
It was that kind of success that helped persuade the 6-foot-8, 220-pound Hayward to sign with the 49ers after a standout prep career at Peabody Magnet School in Alexandria, La.
But instead of getting a quick, athletic forward who specialized in running the floor and blocking shots, the 49ers found that their prized freshman moved slowly and seemed constantly tired. Tests showed he had acute myeloid leukemia, a disease normally found in people over 60.
Hayward missed his entire freshman season while undergoing chemotherapy. All signs of the disease disappeared, and Hayward regained his weight and strength and was cleared to rejoin the team last season.
With the word “Survivor” tattooed on his right arm, Hayward started his college basketball career all over again last fall. He immediately showed flashes of brilliance, blocking a school freshman record six shots in one game.
But 10 games into the comeback, two days before Christmas, tests showed the leukemia had returned.
Hayward went back into the hospital for more chemotherapy, but this time, it wasn’t enough. Not even a bone-marrow transplant could save him, and as the summer stretched on and students returned to class, it became apparent that Hayward wouldn’t survive.
Lutz, Smith and the rest of the 49ers spent the final weeks of Hayward’s life visiting him in his hospital room. Late on the night of Sept. 12, he died at age 21.
“He’s gone from this earth, but he’s definitely still in our minds,” Smith said. “We still remember him and we always will, not only for what he did on the court but for the way he fought and handled his struggle off the court.”
During Hayward’s fight, the community pitched in to help his family with the substantial medical bills. Donations ranged from large corporate gifts to $20 in small bills that inmates from a Charlotte-area prison collected and put in an envelope.
The generosity didn’t stop there. When the Charlotte Hornets heard that Hayward’s funeral would be in Louisiana, the NBA team loaned its Boeing 737 to North Carolina Charlotte. The gesture meant that the school’s entire men’s and women’s basketball teams were able to attend the funeral and be with Hayward’s family.
“This was an easy decision to make, a quick decision to make,” said Sam Russo, the Hornets’ executive vice president for business. “When people--young people, especially--have to face the situation that they did, it was something we couldn’t walk away from.”
In the weeks since Hayward’s death, Lutz and his players have gradually tried to shift their focus back to playing basketball. Lutz has just two seniors on his roster, and big things are expected from the 49ers once again. But the team’s two biggest question marks will be defense and rebounding--areas where Hayward could have had a significant impact.
“We start the season with mixed emotions,” Lutz said. “We’re certainly thrilled to get going. But there’s no question that not having Charles here is a huge loss.”
North Carolina Charlotte held a memorial service three days after Hayward’s death and announced that his No. 45 jersey would never be worn again. The players also have been given permission by the NCAA to wear “45" patches on the right pants legs of their uniforms this season.
“He gave us a lot of inspiration, and we’re going to carry that over into the season and remember him,” Smith said, smiling as he paused and gazed across the arena where Hayward’s jersey has a prime spot.
“I know I’ll remember everything. I’ll remember all the times, good and bad. I’ll remember his first visit to school, taking him out and showing him around, practicing in the summer--all the fun we had.
“He was a great person and a great friend.”