One of the most talented power forwards ever to play the game, Elvin Hayes used his trademark turnaround jumper and aggressive defense to win a secure place in the NBA record books. Fifth on the all-time list in games (1,303) and third in minutes played (50,000), he missed only nine contests in his 16 years in the league, a tribute to his durability and conditioning.
An All-Star for each of his first 12 seasons, he scored more points (27,313) than any other player in NBA history except for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Moses Malone. He also ranks fourth on the league’s all-time rebounding list with 16,279 boards.
Hayes was immensely popular with fans, who appreciated his dominating style of play as well as his persona off the court. But he was less endearing to coaches and teammates. Critics felt he had an attitude problem that sometimes short-circuited the teams he played for and gave him a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.
“For some players and coaches, being around Elvin every day is like a Chinese water torture,” John Lally, a trainer with the Washington Bullets when Hayes was with the team, told the Washington Post. “It’s just a drop at a time, nothing big, but in the end, he’s driven you crazy.”
“I’m very honest about myself,” Hayes said in an article in the Dallas Times Herald, “and that’s one reason I get in trouble. I speak what I feel. Other people are more diplomatic, but I don’t feel, by doing that, that I’m a man.”
The roots of what some would call his abrasive personality, as well as his offensive playing style, can be traced back to his childhood in Rayville, Louisiana. It was then (and still is) a sleepy cotton town with a population of roughly 5,000. Although racial prejudice was “thick as cotton in a field” and abuses against African-Americans were rampant, Hayes’ father taught him the value of pride and the need to demand respect.
“My father,” Hayes told the Times Herald, “always taught me to be strong and to have dignity, to not have to bow down or have anyone run over you.”
A quiet, introverted youth, Hayes first picked up a basketball in eighth grade, by accident. He was wrongly blamed for playing a classroom prank and was sent to the principal’s office. But another teacher, Reverend Calvin, saw Hayes and said he was welcome in his class. Although the youngster showed no inclination for any sports, Calvin thought he would benefit by playing basketball and put him on the school team. Hayes was so clumsy, however, that he evoked laughter with his awkward attempts at shooting and dribbling.
But young Hayes was determined to improve, and during the summers he practiced long hours. As a 6-foot-5 ninth grader he was a benchwarmer on the junior varsity squad at Britton High School when he became determined to crack the starting lineup. “I was too weak to shoot the turnaround then,” Hayes recalled, “so all summer long I shot with a small rubber ball at a basket in my yard. My development was almost overnight.”
In Hayes’s senior year, 1963-64, he led Britton to the state championship, averaging 35 points during the regular season. In the championship game he picked up 45 points and 20 rebounds.
Hayes saw basketball as a free ride out of the poverty of Rayville, so he leaped at the University of Houston’s invitation to become one of the school’s first African-American athletes. He said his coaches there were the first whites he had ever met who treated him with respect. “They helped me overcome 18 years of hate,” he remembered.
Having grown up in a segregated southern town, Hayes harbored a great deal of mistrust when he entered college. But as one of only 100 African-Americans in a school of 20,000, he had to do some adjusting, and Houston Coach Guy Lewis helped him. Lewis took the player under his wing, brought him home for meals, and made him almost a part of Lewis’ family. The chip on Hayes’s shoulder began to feel lighter.
During this time a sportswriter at the Houston Post coined a nickname for Hayes that lasted throughout his career. The reporter saw a parallel between the Navy’s aircraft carrier Enterprise, called “the Big E,” and Hayes. Both, he said, were rallying points.
Hayes helped create a powerhouse team at Houston, where he perfected his turnaround jumper as a way to score against taller players. It was in a game in 1968 that he rose to national prominence. The contest pitted No. 1 UCLA, a squad riding a 47-game winning streak behind Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), against Hayes’ No. 2 Houston team, which stood at 16-0. The game was played on January 20 before a crowd of 52,693 at the Astrodome and a national TV audience, and it ranks among the greatest college games ever.
Houston wasn’t given much of a chance against the powerhouse Bruins, but with time running out, the score stood at 69-69. “I got the ball down low on the left side,” Hayes remembered later in Sports Illustrated. “I was going to shoot my turnaround when I was fouled. A lot of people thought I was going to miss because I was a 60 percent foul shooter. I didn’t even think about being nervous because I had the game right in my hands.”
Hayes stepped up to the foul line with 28 seconds left and swished both of his offerings. The final score read: Houston 71, UCLA 69. Hayes outplayed Alcindor (although many argue that Alcindor was sufferiing from an eye injury), knocking down 39 points to Alcindor’s 15 and grabbing 15 rebounds to Alcindor’s 12. At the end of the season, in which he averaged 36.8 points, Hayes was named College Player of the Year by The Sporting News.
Hayes rode the momentum of his college years into the NBA. The expansion San Diego Rockets, preparing for their second season, made him the first overall pick of the 1968 NBA Draft. As a rookie for the Rockets in 1968-69, he led the league in scoring with 28.4 ppg, ranked fourth in rebounding with 17.1 rpg, and started at center for the West in the NBA All-Star Game. He also set an NBA rookie record for minutes played in a season (3,695), averaging 45.1. The Rockets, who had floundered through a 15-67 season the year before, posted a 37-45 record and reached the playoffs. However, Hayes lost out on NBA Rookie of the Year honors to the Baltimore Bullets’ Wes Unseld, who was also the MVP that season.
The following season Hayes finished third in the league in scoring with 27.5 ppg, and he paced the NBA in rebounding with 16.9 rpg, but the team struggled. After 26 games, coach Jack McMahon was replaced by Alex Hannum. Hayes and Hannum never saw eye to eye, and the club fell to last place in the division with a 27-55 record.
In 1970-71 Hayes hit his career high in scoring, pouring in 28.7 ppg, and he ranked third in the league in rebounding (16.6 rpg). The Rockets improved to a 40-42 record but missed the playoffs by one game. Because Hayes was the team’s bulwark, local sportswriters blamed him for the Rockets’ dim glare. The criticism didn’t sit well with him.
“I was totally unhappy, disgusted with it all,” he said. “I lived up in the hills of La Jolla and I’d be driving home late at night — I had this fast car — and the thought of just running it off the road was always with me.”
Prior to the 1971-72 season, the franchise moved to Houston, where adoring fans still remembered Hayes from his college days. The Rockets also brought in a new coach, Tex Winter, but Hayes and Winter didn’t get along either. A disgruntled Hayes averaged 25.2 ppg, 10th in the NBA, and the Rockets missed the playoffs for the third straight year. Shortly after the season ended, Houston traded Hayes to Baltimore for Jack Marin and future considerations.
Bullets coach Gene Shue already had Wes Unseld playing center, and he realized that Hayes was at his best in the power forward position, where he could capitalize most on his scoring and rebounding skills. Hayes welcomed the move, and he responded by averaging 21.2 ppg in 1972-73, helping Baltimore to the Central Division title. The club advanced to the playoffs but lost to the New York Knicks in the first round.
The next year the Bullets played as the Capital Bullets. K.C. Jones took over as coach, and the team won another division title. Hayes pumped in 21.4 ppg and put together a career year on the boards, averaging a league-best 18.1 rebounds. He also led the NBA in minutes played, averaging 44.5, and ranked fifth in blocked shots with a career-best 2.96 per contest, earning the first of two straight selections to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. But once again, the Bullets lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.
In the 1974-75 season, a powerful Bullets squad tied with the Boston Celtics for the best record in the NBA at 60-22. Hayes, who made his seventh straight All-Star appearance at midseason, averaged 23.0 ppg for the year and earned his first selection to the All-NBA First Team. Many expected Washington to contend for the title, and the Bullets seemed headed in that direction when they rolled past the Buffalo Braves and Boston to reach the 1975 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. But an underdog Warriors squad led by Rick Barry won in a sweep to stun the Bullets.
Over the next two seasons, the Bullets posted strong regular-season records but failed to advance past the conference semifinals. Hayes began to take heat for the team’s disappointing performance, although he turned in two more All-Star campaigns. In 1975-76, he averaged 19.8 ppg and 11.0 rpg. In 1976-77, he contributed 23.7 ppg and 12.5 rpg, led the league in minutes played, and earned his second selection to the All-NBA First Team.
Things took a surprising turn in the 1977-78 season. The Bullets posted a modest 44-38 record that year, but they caught fire in the playoffs, eliminating the Hawks, Spurs and 76ers en route to the NBA Finals against another unsung team, the Seattle SuperSonics.
Seattle and Washington exchanged wins through the first six games, setting up a Game 7 showdown in Seattle. For only the third time in the 12 NBA Finals that had gone to seven games, the visiting team pulled out a victory on the road, as the Bullets won the title with a 105-99 triumph. Hayes averaged 21.8 ppg throughout the 1978 playoffs.
At last, after 10 seasons in the NBA, Hayes had a championship ring and partial vindication for at least some of the criticism that had dogged him along the way. “Finally winning the championship completes the picture,” Hayes remarked, “because no one can ever again say that E’s not a champion.”
For the next three seasons, though, the picture was clouded by critics who said Washington’s failure to repeat its championship was due to Hayes. His stats were still good, however. In 1978-79, he averaged 21.8 ppg and 12.1 rpg and helped the Bullets back to the Finals, where they lost a rematch with Seattle. In 1979-80, Hayes scored 23.0 ppg, but the Bullets finished third in their division and were blown out in the first round of the playoffs. And in 1980-81, with Unseld and Hayes winding down their careers, the Bullets missed the playoffs entirely. In what would be his last season in Washington, Hayes led the Bullets in scoring (17.8 ppg), rebounding (9.7 rpg), and blocked shots (171).
Following the 1980-81 season, the Bullets traded Hayes back to Houston for two second-round draft choices. At 36, he was the oldest player in the NBA at the time, yet he played in all but two games over the next three seasons. After starting at forward alongside Moses Malone in 1981-82 and averaging 16.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg, Hayes moved into a reserve role for his final two campaigns. He finally retired after 1983-84, his 16th NBA season.
Hayes then returned to the University of Houston to complete his academic education and after 2 1/2 years of hard work, he graduated with degrees in recreation and speech. He later took up the life of a country gentleman, raising cattle on his ranch near Brenham, Texas, and acquired a Houston car dealership.
In 1990 he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.