SANTA BARBARA Early in the 2011-12 season, as reporters surrounded Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, laughter broke out among the players.
Chuck Hayes took offense, yelling that the behavior was unacceptable. But as losses piled up over the next two seasons, Hayes blended into the background when teammates laughed afterward. Hayes now says he no longer wants to be a part of a culture that accepts losing.
"That's exactly what happened," Hayes said. "I tried to come in and be the vocal leader, but when things went bad, I let that bring me down. I let it bring down my spirit. That was wrong on my part. It's unfair to my teammates; it's unfair to the coaching staff. So I just want to sustain that veteran role."
It was uncertain if Hayes would be back this season, if the Kings could find a taker for the two years and $11.7 million still owed to him after two underwhelming seasons with the team.
Hayes wasn't traded, and now the 6-foot-6 center, who's listed at 250 pounds, hopes to fill the role as a locker-room leader that former Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie anticipated two years ago. And he likes what he has seen from new coach Michael Malone.
"We have a culture, a system of how we want to play," Hayes said. "That's good. That's something we needed, and he's coming with a lot of experience from being in the league, with his father (Kings assistant Brendan), and that's gone very, very well."
Hayes broke into the NBA with the Houston Rockets in 2005 under coach Jeff Van Gundy, one of Malone's mentors.
"(Hayes) was telling the guys after the second day of practice, 'Hey, this is what a real training camp is supposed to feel like,' " Malone said. "He's been around. He understands the demands and what needs to be done if you want to have what is hopefully a playoff-contending team."
Malone is asking all veterans to be leaders this season. He said he has seen that from Hayes but wants him to work on his conditioning.
"I love his veteran leadership, his voice," Malone said. "He knows what all the right things are about, and he's holding others accountable when he needs to. Obviously he's still working, trying to get back into game shape."
Hayes was in Sacramento for voluntary workouts last month. He also played tennis and took up racquetball in the offseason to work on conditioning, speed and quickness. But Hayes will need to be in top condition to compete for playing time.
DeMarcus Cousins will get most of the minutes at center, and Jason Thompson is a taller option and better scorer than Hayes as the second center.
"Obviously, whenever you come into training camp, you want all your guys to be in shape, in game shape," Malone said. "Right now, all I can say is Chuck is working his (butt) off. He's gone through every practice, he's given us everything he has, and he has been a positive on the court and off the court.
"And I've known Chuck for a long time. Just being in the league, I know all the things he can bring to the team, in the locker room and off the court, which can lead to a lot of wins."
Hayes is more into the game mentally than he was the last two seasons.
"From the past, he knew it was a rough situation," Cousins said. "But hearing Chuck speak about it, he knows it's a lot better around here. He's rejuvenated."
Follow The Bee's Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.