The nation was introduced to Elvin Hayes at Houston, when he led his Cougars in a massive upset over Lew Alcindor and the mighty UCLA Bruins. Once we all got that formal introduction, Hayes was a fixture among those few players that could shock us on every night. His impact on the game is still there, and way, way, way back in SLAM 22 he talked about his decorated career. —Ed.
by Alan Paul
The UCLA Bruins were riding a 47-game winning streak, and their star center, Lew Alcindor (soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had never lost a college game. Then he crossed paths with Elvin Hayes and his University of Houston Cougars on January 20, ’68 in front of 58,693 fans and a national TV audience, and the “big E” dominated, scoring 39 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. That season, Hayes averaged 36.8 points and 18.9 boards a game en route to being named Player of the Year. For his three-year career, he averaged 31 and 17.2
That spring, the expansion San Diego Rockets took Hayes with the first pick in the NBA draft. His rookie year, he led the league in scoring, averaging 28.4, and pulled down 17.2 rebounds a game – sixth in the league, due to depth and quality of big men at the time. “Every night was an education,” Hayes recalls, speaking on the phone from Elvin Hayes Ford, his Houston car dealership. “There was never a night off, because you had Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Wes Unseld, Jerry Lucas, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy. These guys could play.”
So could E. Playing out of position in the pivot, the 6-9 Hayes averaged 27.5 points and 16.3 boards in four seasons with the Rockets before being traded to the Baltimore Bullets. There, in his more natural power forward slot, he teamed with Wes Unseld to form one of the most dominant front lines in league history. In ’78 they won an NBA championship, a success which helped Hayes overcome a reputation for being difficult and statistics-obsessed.
“Say what you want about Elvin, but night after night, he hit the big shots,” recalls Dick Motta, his Bullets coach.
“Every night you could count on 20 points, 12 rebounds and two or three blocked shots,” Bernie Bickerstaff, then a Bullets assistant, once said. “To this day, he’s the prototype power forward.”
Hayes also displayed an iron-willed consistency, sitting out only nine games over his 16 years in the league. He finished his career in the top five in countless statistical categories, including forth in rebounds, with 16,279 (behind Wilt, Russell and Kareem); fourth in points, with 27.313; fourth in games played, with 1,303, and second in minutes, with 50,000. “If people remember one thing about me, I’d like it to be: Elvin Hayes came to play every night,” he says. “I never took a night off. I always showed up.”
SLAM: You entered the league as College Player of the Year and had to be confident of your abilities. Did anything happen your rookie year to make you think, “This is going to be harder than I thought”?
HAYES: My first game against the Boston Celtics. I was feeling cocky. Then I went up against Bill Russell. [Laughs] I could go inside or out, so I jumped out to the corner when Russell was standing underneath the basket. I went up to shoot it with style, and he knocked the ball into the second row of seats. Now this had never happened to me in my life, so it really shook me up, and I wasn’t any good for the rest of the game. After the game, he said, “Tonight was my night, but you’re gonna have plenty of them yourself. Now you understand what I can do as a player. You have to understand what you’re gonna have to do against me and other players in this league.”
I think that was the best advice I could have possibly gotten, and it came from a guy who really cared. The next time around, it was a little different. I was a little more comfortable. I learned how to play the game and the things I could do and what I had to do to succeed against the best centers and power forwards in the world.
SLAM: Was your ability to hit the jumper the key to your success against guys who were four or five inches taller than you?
HAYES: It really was. You had to take guys like Wilt and Nate Thurmond outside, because if you tried to stay down and muscle inside with a guy that big and strong, you were trying to beat him at his game, and eventually he would win. I would try to take him to the foul line and beyond, where he did not like to go. Wilt liked to stay down inside, clog the middle and block shots. They would run plays for me where I would pop out and run to the corner, try to create switches where he didn’t want to run after me. Otherwise, he would just eat you alive on the blocks.
On the other hand, if I was going against a guy like Willis Reed, who was basically my height, I stayed inside more. But I would still try to utilize my quickness by tiring him out, just jumping from one side of the lane to the other. Then I would get the ball and shoot the turnaround jump shot.
SLAM: The turnaround was your bread-and-butter, trademark shot.
HAYES: That’s right. I was talking to Bob Lanier one time, and he said to me, “Man, every coach, every player, and every person in the arena knows that’s what you’re gonna do, but we still can’t stop it.” I was gonna set up on the right side, catch the ball, take one bounce, turn around and shoot that shot. Everybody in basketball knew that I only had one shot. I didn’t have no hook shot, no running one-hander, just that turnaround, and an occasional face-up to keep you honest. And in scoring 27,000-some points, no once could stop it [laughs].
SLAM: Who do you think were the most underrated players of your era?
HAYES: Nate Thurmond was great all the way around, and he was one of the best defensive players ever. If I tried to keep posting him up, he would just end up throwing off my rhythm and timing. That’s what defense is all about. It’s not about blocking shots; it’s about making the guy you’re guarding adjust his shot until eventually it’s just plain off. Nate was superb at that.
A no-name player who never accomplished much on the surface but was one hell of a defensive player was E.C. Coleman, of the Houston Rockets. He came out of a tiny school, Houston Baptist, and was one of the toughest defensive forwards in the game.
Another guy was Walter Davis. If you gave him a chance to beat you down the stretch, he would do it. Walter ran the court very well and was just very dynamic. He got his accolades to a certain extent, but never like he should have.
SLAM: Who do you think was overrated?
HAYES: I don’t know if I would use the word overrated. More often what may have been the case is they were going downhill. For instance, I heard so much about how great George McGinnis was in the ABA, and I don’t think he ever lived up to that billing.
Then there’s David Thompson, who was just an absolute skywalker, and all of a sudden his career fell apart. But that was for other reasons, that most everyone knew about.
One guy who was sort of overrated was Darryl Dawkins. He was overpublicized because he made up funny rhymes and broke backboards. But if you look at his accomplishments as a center, he’s just not there.
SLAM: Who would you rank as the top players you went against, by position? Centers first.
HAYES: Bill Russell. Second would be Reed.
SLAM: You would take Willis Reed over Kareem or Wilt?
HAYES: Willis had the heart of a champion. That’s not knocking any other player, but Willis Reed was unreal. When they played the Lakers, and he went out there dragging his leg, unable to walk – well, that sums it up, and it was typical of him, not atypical. He lit a fire in every player to say, “That guy is a leader.” He exemplified the word captain.
SLAM: How about forwards?
HAYES: First, I would take John Havlicek. John was just a mover. He was fluid, he never tired and he came at you consistently. Zoom, zoom, zoom. It was a relentless assault on you. Very few players were like that.
My other forward would be Bob McAdoo when he was with Buffalo [1972-76]. It was all in his name: McAdoo can do. I think for three or four years there, he was one of the greatest scoring machines I ever saw. He could shoot and just play the game. When he left Buffalo, he started moving around a lot, and he never totally regained that form. And that happens sometimes, that a player switches teams and can’t quite blend in. Larry Bird and Julius Erving would have to be the next two.
SLAM: And in the backcourt?
HAYES: My guards would be Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, with Magic Johnson and Clyde Frazier backing them up. Oscar was the complete player – he could do it all – and Jerry was just a winner. He would beat you. I have watched the game of basketball very closely all my life, and there’s only been a handful of guys who would beat you every time if they had the ball in their hands at the end of the game: Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Walter Davis, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Walt Frazier.
If I expanded my team to players who have come along later, my starting five would be: Hakeem at big forward, John Havlicek at small forward, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson in the backcourt and Bill Russell at center. Coming off the bench would be Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Jerry West and Bob McAdoo.
SLAM: What’s wrong with centers today? There just don’t seem to be as many quality centers around anymore.
HAYES: Nope. When you start talking about centers, they’re just not there. Look at the Bulls and what they’ve accomplished without a center. You put Luc [Longley] and [Brian] Williams together, you got a decent center. David Robinson is a very good basketball player, with lots of ability. Hakeem is just dominant. Patrick Ewing is great, but on the downside. Alonzo Mourning could be a very good basketball player if he learns to control himself and be comfortable with himself. But other than that, you have to wonder: where are you centers?
When I came into the league, every team had a quality center. Atlanta had Zelmo Beaty, All-Star center. Baltimore had Walt Bellamy, All-Star center. There was Wes Unseld, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Leroy Ellis, Mel Counts. You could go on and on. Luke Jackson with Philadelphia. Nate Thurmond with the Warriors. Every team had these good, big centers.
What do you have today? Not a heck of a lot. They have to puff players up to make them into All-Stars. I mean, Mikembe [sic] Mutombo? [Laughs.] He’s totally blown out of proportion. Now there’s an overrated player. Yeah, they guy blocks some shots, but he’s not a dominant player. He’s not a scorer. He can’t control the flow of a basketball game. Just standing back there blocking shots ain’t nothing. Standing round wagging your finger, “No, no, no” while Michael Jordan goes in and dunks on your head…come on! I just don’t see it. Mutombo can’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Nate Thurmond or Walt Bellamy. The guy begs to be put on a the All-Star team – “I lead the league in blocked shots!” So what? He’s not even in the same league as Ewing or Mourning, much less Robinson or Hakeem. Even [Rik] Smits is better than him.