SLAM: Speaking of one-dimensional, what do you think about the hype surrounding Dennis Rodman’s rebounding?
HAYES: Dennis is a really sad case. His ability has been overshadowed by all the little disguises and off-the-court antics. He has been one of the greatest rebounders in a long time, one of the greatest to ever play the game, but he will never get the full attention or accolades of the basketball world.
SLAM: Okay, but you averaged 17 rebounds your rookie year – along with 28 points. How many boards do you think you or Wilt or Nate could have averaged if you did nothing but go for the glass on every shot?
HAYES: Still, that’s a specialty, and you got to give it credit. There were always guys like that. Bailey Howell was one of the greatest rebounders I ever saw. Johnny Green was a specialty rebounder. Satch Sanders was just a defensive player with the Boston Celtics. KC Jones was one of the great players, and he was strictly defensive. Al Attles was like that. Guy Rodgers was strictly an assist guy for Wilt. You have some guys who are specialty guys, and Rodman is one of them. And he is one of the best at it and would have been in any era.
SLAM: He’s also a very physical player, which is a bit of a lost art.
HAYES: That’s right. The game is not as physical today. When I first came in the league, you had to survive. You used to be able to beat a guy to death away from the ball. The addition of the third ref took away a lot of that stuff. Guys used to use their big wide bodies to screen the back ref so they could do some nasty things. Guys like Gene Tormohlen used to come in and give out pain. They weren’t there to play. They just existed to hurt you, very much like hockey goons.
I don’t think players like that really exist today, in part because the league is more geared toward protecting the scorers. They feel they have to, because the offense has really dropped off. They’re saying it’s [due to] defense, but I don’t really think so. You just don’t have the outside shooters or the depth of guys who can put the ball in the hole. Every team has one or two scorers, but there used to be more depth – five or six good scorers on every team.
The league today is about marketing and advertising, not winning. They’re making so much money, and they’re just throwing it around. Big Country signing for all those dollars? Please. Or you see a high school kid ain’t even played a lick of real basketball – never bounced the ball in a meaningful game – and the shoe companies are giving him a $10-million contract, and the league is signing him to multi-year, multi-million-dollar deals. Money is so free now that players don’t have to be concerned about winning. Guys used to want to win because they’d think, “Hey, I’ll be able to get a new contract. I’ll be able to get playoff money.” I just don’t see the same thing there anymore. That’s good for the players, but it ‘s taken the edge off the game.
But that’s how the league works. It’s all about marketing. They’re selling shirts, they’re selling new logos, they’re selling women’s basketball, they’re selling TV contracts. Basically, they’re spending a bunch of money to support merchandising. That’s what basketball is about today – advertising and promotion. And when you actually go to the game, it’s hard to even concentrate anyhow. It’s all about making noise.
SLAM: You were drafted by the San Diego Rockets, a struggling second-year team. Was that good or bad?
HAYES: Both. I really feel for a kid like Allen Iverson. He’s kind of out of control, but I understand probably more than anyone what he was dealing with on that team. I was put on a team that had won 15 games and lost 67 the year before. I was brought in with the expectation, “Make us a winner.” You’re put in there with all these players who are on their way out of the league, so you have to really put out every night. I averaged 45 minutes my first year.
I came out the same year as Don Chaney, who went to Boston and had Russell, Havlicek and everyone else, and Wes Unseld, who went to Baltimore and had Gus Johnson, Jack Marin, Kevin Loughery and Earl Monore plus a bench full of great veterans. I go to San Diego, and I have Don Kojis, Art Williams, Toby Kimball, Jim Barnett…And as a rookie, I’m expected to turn this crew into a winning basketball team. Not having any great veterans to talk to and help me in my transition from college was probably one of the most difficult things I ever went through. But I’m certainly not alone. Lots of players have gone through it, and I think you come out better for it at the end. I scored over 2,000 points every season I was with the Rockets.
Then I went to Baltimore and was made a part of the team. Now I had a guy next to me-Wes Unseld-who could hold his own and keep people away from me. I had guards behind me who could do things. I didn’t have to do it all, and that was a great feeling. And, though my numbers went down, I feel I was a much better player with the Bullets than I was with the Rockets.
SLAM: How was it to play with Wes?
HAYES: It was wonderful. It just made my job so much easier. Because he was a hell of a rebounder, and when you’re trying to block him off the boards, you can’t throw three guys at me. I could just pick my lanes and be the kind of rebounder I had always dreamed of being, and do it with a lot less hard work. It also made it possible for him to be a much better rebounder. When you’re alone, you’re trying to block the whole team off, fight off three guys to get position. Every single time, it’s a struggle. Now, all of a sudden, there’s two of you they need to worry about, and it feels like the seas have parted, because I’ll take my odds one-on-one every time.
SLAM: You played both center and forward. Which did you prefer?
HAYES: Definitely big forward. I loved the freedom of not having to stand still with my back to the basket. It was very difficult for me to play center, especially being an offensive-minded player. And I really wasn’t that great a passer, so having me down low wasn’t that great for the team offense. When they ball went down there, the play was basically for me, and it wasn’t coming out. I had to make a go at it every time, and that may have hurt a lot of other guys. Playing forward gave the point guard and me the opportunity to set things up, and for me to get the ball where I could score it, instead of just grabbing it in the middle with nothing to do but shoot every time. I would have really preferred to play forward my whole career.
SLAM: In ’68, playing for Houston you stopped UCLA’s 47-game winning streak, outplaying Lew Alcindor. How does that rank in your personal list of accomplishments?
HAYES: Probably at the top. Here’s a kid from a small town in Louisiana, my name had never been in the papers, nobody knew about me. I went to the University of Houston and slowly built my name. Then here’s a guy who was the most highly recruited high school athlete ever, one of the winningest players ever, on a team with one of the longest winning streaks ever. They had been dubbed unbeatable.
All of a sudden, on January 20, 1968, I get the opportunity to look up at the sky and see the brightest star shining with a long beautiful tail behind it. For me, here’s what that night meant: this guys had everything I ever wanted, and if I could beat him, my own star would shine a little brighter. So I took every opportunity I got to get him one-and-one or block his shot or anything. That night, I shone more brightly than him, and that year, I was voted College Player of the Year over him. That was a definite highlight of my career.
SLAM: Did you maintain that intense rivalry throughout your pro career?
HAYES: Yes. I think that night created a taste in both of us, so that every time we played against each other, we tried to totally destroy one another. When we played one All-Star teams together, I would not talk to him, even to say hi. We just didn’t like each other. That went on for a long while. A very long while.
Believe it or not, the first time I really talked to him was when Michigan had the Fab Five and we were in New Orleans for the Final Four. We were both there being honored for NCAA accomplishments. I was sitting on one end of a row, and he was sitting on another. Someone said, “Hey there’s Jabbar,” and I was like, “Man, I ain’t got nothing to say to him.” I wouldn’t even look at him. Then he said, “Hey, E,” and we started talking, and it was the first time we ever had a real conversation. We had a very nice conversation, and he’s a really fine guy.
It’s really sad when you get into that sort of intense competition because you miss out on having relationships with guys, but I never could see being him friend or even liking him, while I was playing against him. I felt that would take away some of my intensity and what I wanted to do as a basketball player against him. It’s sad, but that’s part of life, and it’s part of this business.
SLAM: How would you like to be remembered as a basketball player?
HAYES: I’d like people to say, “Elvin Hayes went out every night and tried to give more than 100 percent.” I’d like people to know that Elvin Hayes not only took from basketball; he also gave to it. I think that’s the highest compliment a player can have-and also to have players who have to play against him say, “He never took a night off. He was always coming after us.” That to me is saying, hey, I gave the fans their money’s worth. I always showed up. And that’s the bottom line.