The trajectory of the University of Houston was forever changed because of one phone call between a student who needed government assistance to attend school and another who grew up on small-city basketball.
Howie Lorch was one of those men. Before the Fertitta Center was completed, he acquired the rights to name the courtside and decided to share the honor with his good friend and other half of that call, UH alum and basketball legend Elvin Hayes.
The pair were two of the first biracial roommates in UH history and set the stage for what would become one of the most diverse schools in the nation.
The Howie Lorch & Elvin Hayes Courtside will debut Saturday at the Fertitta Center’s inaugural game.
Lorch had worked his whole life to be in a position to take that call.
Born and raised in Schenectady, New York, Lorch had to play catch-up for most of his youth. His grandparents fled the carnage of the Holocaust in Germany, leaving behind a successful business, after some loyal friends warned them of the horror they could face.
Lorch’s grandparents sent each of their children away one at a time on boats to escape to New York, where his grandfather became a street sweeper to make ends meet.
Lorch’s parents met on the journey to America as a result of this effort. They spent much of their time together on the boat and for years after as they fell in love and built a life in their new home.
They both left lives of relative comfort and were living through the struggle of life as immigrants. Enter Howard “Howie” Lorch, a boy who never witnessed the prosperity his family once had in Germany, but was greatly affected by his grandfather’s legacy of hard work.
When he turned 12, he started a small paper route and earned enough money to buy himself new clothes instead of using his brother’s hand-me-downs.
From his street-sweeping grandfather to his working, widowed mother, Lorch had shining examples of the value of hard work, and he always put his family first. They might not have been able to afford every luxury, but they never went without necessities.
Despite being a hard worker, Lorch’s success did not well translate to academia. He wouldn’t know until many years later that he suffered from attention deficit disorder.
In the sixth grade, he was reading at around a second grade level until one of his teachers, Mrs. Kennedy, introduced him to a method that helped him catch up and surpass his fellow students.
He had a goal and, for the first time, focus. This was the only motivation Lorch needed, as he not only reached his grade level for reading, but he was also reading at an eighth grade level by the time the school year finished.
Perhaps it was his love for competition that led him to sports.
While attending Linton High School, Lorch was a member of the football team and manager on the basketball team. The basketball team was a pretty big deal, as it featured future NBA great Pat Riley. It was also one of the only teams to beat legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his high school career.
Sports became a passion for Lorch. He loved being around the players, and he was always well liked by his teammates. Sports were an escape for him, a place where he could always enjoy himself. He did not have to worry about how much money he had or didn’t have.
He could just enjoy the game.
When graduation came around, however, he was again forced focus on money. Lorch had aspirations to go to college, but it wasn’t going to be easy. His mother was able to get him a job as a bellman and chauffeur for a hotel, and he still had money from his successful paper route.
But, all of this would not be enough for four years of college. He would need a grant or a scholarship to finish.
Luckily, sports — specifically basketball — again came through. Lorch’s high school coach told UH basketball coach Guy V. Lewis about Lorch, specifically about his relationship to basketball stud Pat Riley.
Riley was a hot commodity for college recruiters, and he and Lorch were good friends at Linton High. Maybe if UH could bring in the manager that Riley liked so much, then it could also reel in Riley himself.
Lewis wanted Riley, and the team needed a manager. It was a match made in heaven.
Lewis offered Lorch a spot on the team, a small scholarship and a chance to go to college. Unfortunately, the following year, Riley didn’t follow Lorch to Houston and instead went to University of Kentucky. But Lorch’s spot had already been set, and unless he ran out of money, he was going to be a Cougar.
Just like at Linton, Lorch quickly became well liked and lived with the team at the brand new, revolutionary athletic dormitory, the Baldwin House on North MacGregor.
Lorch, still a young man at this point, would go on to be one half of one of the most important phone calls in UH history.
Set up for success
Basketball legend Elvin Hayes was a tall, skinny kid from Rayville, Louisiana. He went from never having touched a basketball to tearing up the high school stage in his state.
He led Britton High School to the state championship game during his senior year, in which he scored 45 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. But because of the size of his tiny town and the tendency for newspapers to not cover black teams, Hayes was relatively unknown.
Hayes’ father passed away when he was in the eighth grade. Hayes promised his mother that he would graduate college, and nothing was going to stop him from keeping that promise.
“I think that was a big part of it,” Lorch said of his friendship with Hayes, “we both had strong connections to our mothers.”
Lewis had been a coach at UH for eight years and had just come off a solid season that unfortunately resulted in a regional semifinal exit for the Cougars in the National Tournament. Junior Joe Hamood was Lewis’ highest-scoring player at 17 points per game at the time. Lewis had already been a coach for a while and had already had some success.
But he was ambitious, and he knew that in order to reach the heights he desired, he would have to have an integrated team with black athletes. Lewis failed at an earlier attempt to integrate the team. He pursued Dave Lattin, a Houston native who was the first player from Texas to earn an All-American team selection.
Lattin was interested in going to UH, but the school was not allowed to recruit black players yet and he ended up winning a national championship with Texas Western against Riley and the University of Kentucky. The game featured a fully-black starting five against a fully-white starting five. Lewis knew he needed to keep the dream of integrated basketball alive.
Down the street from UH, the TSU coach Davey Whitney was noticing something incredible happening in Louisiana. A young man by the name of Hayes was scorching every team that came his way.
He was too big, and too athletic, to be stopped. Hayes was mulling over his college prospects. He thought of Wisconsin, the school his sister attended. He also thought of Southern University, a school close to his hometown.
Whitney knew his school wouldn’t attract a talent like Hayes, but he didn’t want to run the risk of having to put his team up against Hayes should he choose to attend Southern.
He knew UH had started recruiting black players, so he was hoping it could lure Hayes away from TSU’s conference. Whitney convinced Lewis that he needed to attract this player somehow, even though the school had never before signed a black player.
Lewis invited Hayes to Houston for a campus visit, and Hayes accepted.
An unlikely pair
After Hayes’ tour, some members of the team took him out for his first taste of the city. Hayes loved it.
He immediately hit it off with Lorch. They talked and enjoyed each other’s company for the rest of Hayes’ visit. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
When UH assistant coach Harvey Pate made the final pitch for Hayes to attend UH, Hayes had only one request: He wanted to room with Lorch.
Despite the original plan for Lorch to room with Don Chaney, another black player Lewis had been recruiting from Louisiana, Pate called Lorch from Hayes’ home in Rayville.
The University of Houston would never be the same.
Lorch and Hayes roomed together every year until Hayes’ marriage. Lorch eventually received a full scholarship and was even able to go to graduate school at UH. Hayes became the greatest UH collegiate player ever, and the two kept a friendship that has stayed strong to this day.
This turned out to be Lewis’s greatest recruiting year. He signed the school’s first two black players, and one went on to make history for the University.
Hayes secured nearly every school record, UH won “The Game of the Century” against UCLA and the Cougars reached the Final Four twice. In Hayes’ final collegiate season, he scored nearly 37 points and almost 19 rebounds per game.
He went on to the NBA and become one of the greatest players of all time.
He was an all-star 12 times, led the league in rebounding twice and in scoring once. It seemed at every level, Hayes was too big and too athletic for the competition. He also kept his promise to his mother by returning to graduate from UH after his NBA career.
Hayes’ attendance and friendship with Lorch changed UH forever, through both its sports and student body history. When Lorch and Hayes agreed to room together in 1965, UH was still freshly integrated.
More than 50 years later, UH is home to one of the most diverse campuses in the country, and both Lorch and Hayes said they have immense pride for the University’s growth since their attendance.
“I think all of the first black students that integrated the University made a great deal in history,” Hayes said. “I never thought UH would be one of the most diverse schools in the nation, but thinking about it now, I am really surprised and proud of the steps and ground work the University has made.”
The Fertitta Center debuts Saturday, Dec. 1 when the basketball team plays Oregon. Both Hayes and Lorch will be in attendance, enjoying the results of a friendship nearly half a century old.