The true mark of a champion is the ability to view one’s self, understand what has been viewed, grow in maturity and wisdom, implement what has been learned, and be able to rise to the pinnacle of it all. In the English language such a transformation is called actualization and I can think of no player that embodies that more than Elvin Ernest Hayes. A player who did not touch a basketball till the age 13, but one who will live on in the record books forever.
Elvin was born on November 17, 1945 in Rayville, Louisiana during a time of clear divided racial lines. And while growing up deep in the south, it was Elvin’s father who taught his son about gaining respect by giving it. See, in those times in America’s history young African-Americans were grappling with a prejudice that they didn’t quite understand the true root of. They knew it was because of their fundamental difference in skin color, that much is obvious, but what many like Elvin had a hard time understanding was how somebody could have such distaste for someone else that they had never met before. There was no eminent being granted in this period of history, and in my opinion, this contributed to the often times misunderstood personality of Elvin Hayes. But more on that later.
When Hayes entered high school he was a 6’5” freshman riding the pine on the junior varsity team for Britton High School. He was a lanky figure with not a lot of strength, but his true fortitude was in his work ethic. He had just started to play basketball that previous year and his talents were raw and without fluidity within the great symphony that is the game of basketball. So, that summer Elvin would spend countless hours working on this game and his progression would be rapid. Hayes would become such a dominant force in the high school game at 6’9” that he would finish his senior year with an average of 35 points on the way to winning the Louisiana state championship with a performance of 45 points and 20 rebounds! His work ethic and natural gifts had been harnessed and his father’s instilled sense of respect had given Elvin the chance to take his game to the next level with the University of Houston.
When Elvin made his voyage to the University of Houston, he and Don Chaney were the university’s first African-American basketball players. Little did he know he would be paving the way for great players like Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon who would later play at the same school, but what he did know was that coming from the small town of Rayville he was in for a big change. That change was the first respectful treatment by white people that he had ever experienced and it came by way of his new coaches. Coach Guy Lewis went out of his way to make the very racially leery Hayes feel a welcome part of his family and Elvin has said that by doing so it, “Helped me overcome 18 years of hate.”
It was also around the same time that a sportswriter for the Houston Post showed Elvin some love and gave him a nickname that would stay with him for the rest of 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 (anecdote courtesy of http://www.NBA.com).
Furthermore, it was on the biggest of NCAA stages, (the first nationally televised college basketball game ever) that Elvin, now “The Big E”, would make himself a household name. It was a game that pitted the 16-0 Cougars of Houston against the 47-0 ULCA Bruins, who were led by Lew Alcindor, and in that game it was Elvin who got the better of Alcindor as the Cougars handed the Bruins their first loss in two years.
In what many basketball aficionados consider to be one of the best collegiate games ever, the Big E found himself with the game literally in his hands with the score tied at 69 and only 28 seconds remaining. As he stepped to the free-throw line, the entire 52,000 plus fans in the Astrodome held their breath as Hayes knocked down both free-throws that would eventually win the game for the Cougars! Elvin and his crew had done it. They had slayed the basketball giants and it was behind the behemoth performance by Hayes who outscored Alcindor 39-15 and out rebounded him 15-12. That victory, plus the outstanding play by the Big E throughout the rest of the season, was enough to garner Hayes the College Player of the Year award by the Sporting News in 1968. He had averaged 27.2 points per game as a sophomore, (remember, freshman were not allowed to play varsity ball in those days), 28.4 as a junior, and 36.8 points per game as a senior on his way to a 31 point/17.2 rebound average for his collegiate career. But it was a career that was just beginning to unfold.
That next season, Hayes became the number one overall pick of the then San Diego Rockets in the 1968 draft. His impact would be immediate as the Big E would lead the NBA in scoring at a pitch of 28.4 points a game while coming in fourth in rebounding at 17.1 per and being named the starting center for the Western Conference All-Stars. Plus, another staple of Elvin’s game would come to light as he would set a rookie record for minutes played with 3,695 which worked out to be just slightly above 45 minutes per contest. A true testament to how intelligent a player he was to play that many minutes and avoid serious foul trouble when guarding the opposition’s top big man.
Two years later Elvin would have the best statistical season of his legendary, and lengthy, NBA career. In 1970-71, the Big E would average 28.7 points and grab 16.6 rebounds per game! He was once again an All-Star, but a change was on the horizon. That next season, the Rockets would move to Houston in what was an anticipated homecoming for Elvin to his alma mater state.
But the honeymoon would be short lived after that season as Hayes would be traded and teamed up with the man who won Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP with the Baltimore Bullets in the same year as Hayes’ rookie campaign; Wes Unseld.
It took a couple of years for the Bullets to earn championship supremacy, but in the 1977-78 season the now Washington Bullets ignited in the playoffs and went 12-7 on their way to the NBA crown. That team was led by Head Coach Dick Motta and now veterans Hayes and Unseld. They also had tremendous balance with the bench that boasted the likes of Mitch Kupchak, Larry Wright, Charles Johnson, and Greg Ballard who all could have started for other teams in the league. And in what was one of the best finals series in NBA history, the Bullets fought back from being down 3-2 to the Seattle Supersonics and overcame having to win game seven on Seattle’s home floor to raise the championship banner. Finally, Hayes was an NBA champion! Elvin said, “Finally winning the championship completes the picture, because no one can ever again say that E’s not a champion.”
For the remainder of this career, Elvin’s numbers would decline at a steady pace, but his legacy was being cemented in the record books. He would use the familiar turn-around jump shot and his always determined rebounding practices to solidify himself as a NBA legend and a power forward act to follow for generations to come. In the end, the critics can say what they want about the Big E’s character and modus operandi, but when all is said and done the career accolades truly do all the talking. Elvin Ernest Hayes would conclude his professional basketball career as an All-NBA first team selection in 1975,’77,and 1979, All-NBA second team in 1973, ‘74, and 1976, All-NBA Defensive second team in 1974 and 1975, NBA All-Star in 1969, ‘70, ‘71, ‘72, ‘73, ‘74, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77, ‘78, ‘79, and 1980, he scored 27,313 points (sixth all-time) with career a career average of 21 points per game, grabbed 16,279 rebounds, (fourth all-time) with an career average of 12.5 per contest, made the NBA All-Rookie team in 1969, played in 50,000 minutes of NBA basketball games only to be later surpassed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ranks fifth in all-time games played with 1,303, ranks fifth in field goals made with 10,976, ranks second all-time in field goals attempted with 24,272, and ranks fourth all-time in personal fouls with 4,193.
Talk about legacy, Elvin “The Big E” Hayes is truly the measuring stick that all power forwards are measured by today and for that reason is this installment of Historical Glimpses.
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