Imagine an oil derrick stuck in the Astrodome, give it movement and sneakers, let it jump center—put a little fun into the game. Or go down the road to get the same effect: watch Elvin (The Big E) Hayes play basketball for the University of Houston. Presumably a human derrick could beat Hayes in a matchup, but there are few other mortals who can.
It is generally agreed that Lew Alcindor's talent is matched (or approached) by only three men in college today. One is Mel Daniels of New Mexico, who once challenged a glass door with his arm and lost (SI, Dec. 5). Another is Westley Unseld of Louisville. And the third is The Big E, Elvin Hayes. At Houston there is no question as to who is the best, the conversation including Alcindor. The best is The Big E.
"Big E" is a direct steal of "Big O," the name given to Oscar Robertson when he, too, was just a growing child. But Big E is 6 feet 8, 240 pounds. Make that Huge E. Put the nicknames together, in fact—E-O—say them quickly a few times, and it sounds like a jackass, which, also, is the way the Houston team usually plays defense.
"I have 14, 15 combination zone-press defenses," says Coach Guy V. Lewis, who seldom wears the same sharkskin, glow-in-the-dark suit twice and is reputed to be a millionaire. "It's our offense that worries me. We don't shoot very well." On paper Coach Guy V.'s team looks impenetrable. And on the court the Cougars—10 of whom are 6 feet 5 plus—are awesome enough to provoke night screaming. But their combination defenses are wild, risky affairs that do not produce the traps they are designed for, and could not stop Mary Poppins from bombing away all night from the corners. Coach Guy V. is right about the offense, however; Houston does not shoot very well.
Despite all this, the team has gone to the NCAA tournament the past two years. Last season the Cougars were favored in the Far West regional, but lost to Oregon State 63-60 while missing more shots than the winners even attempted. This is one of many quaint statistics concerning the team and the school that has earned a place in Ripley's. But Houston is a university where golf is a curriculum and a man once went 18 holes in 55, where a basketball team can total 100 shots and 80 rebounds and still lose 86-75—which Houston did early this year at Michigan. That is the Cougars' only loss in 10 games and should, but won't, be the only one they will lose, The Huge E and a forecourt on the high side of 700 pounds notwithstanding.
Houston attained basketball respectability while in the Missouri Valley Conference, but only since Hayes arrived last season out of Rayville, La. have the Cougars started to scare people and draw large crowds. An independent now, the school is not ready for prosperity. Lewis is forced to hold practices in Jeppesen Gym and play his home games in Delmar Field House. Both are owned by high schools, and Delmar is 13 miles across town from the Houston campus. Since the Jeppesen court ends where a wall begins, and the gym has only two baskets, and the high school authorities kick the team out after two hours anyway, Guy V.'s boys do not get much shooting practice.
The situation should change when a new field house is completed; it will seat 12,000 and be the same color as the dorms and most of the other buildings on the campus: hard-sauce yellow. The Huge E, Melvin (The Savage) Bell, Leary (The Tree) Lentz and Guy V. deserve the crowds they will attract, for theirs is one of basketball's most entertaining shows.
Elvin averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds as a sophomore and is playing above those figures this year. Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU and Tulsa were afraid of this. They all had their look at The Huge E last season and backed off the Houston schedule. Showing up this year are cupcakes like Albuquerque, West Texas State, Hawaii and Nevada Southern. "I had to get someone fast," says Guy V. Next year the Cougars again will mix it up with some good ones—UCLA, Illinois, Loyola of Chicago, Marquette and VPI.
Bill Scott, who came to school to play for the golf team, shot par, was cut and is now a statistician, says good teams should schedule Houston. "This is such a fun team. Anything can happen when we play," he says. The goal tend and the technical foul, two of the unsung plays of the college game, are SOP at Houston. Hayes averaged about four goal tends a game last season and was called for the violation six times in the recent Michigan game. Against Idaho State, Melvin The Savage, who is 6 feet 7 and 240 pounds, went high to smash home a one-handed stuff, but missed and was fouled. His first free throw hit somewhere in the vicinity of the top of the backboard, and his second missed the backboard, rim, net, everything. "The Savage is shook up," said one observer. "See?" said Bill Scott. "Anything can happen."
Why does The Huge E goal tend? Why does man climb mountains? The ball is there. Lewis, in fact, is the prime reason. He actually teaches Hayes to pin or hit out any ball he can reach up on the board. "I know I'm the only man in the country who thinks this way," says Guy V. "But if the referees called them the way they should we'd get more breaks. We still get our percentages anyway, because if E is batting away everything that goes up there, the shooters are going to think twice the next time."
Elvin agrees. "Most of the goal tends are bad calls, really," he says. "Why, against St. Mary's I blocked the first six shots in a row, then the refs started on that whistle. I think I had seven goal tends in that one. My high was last year against Wisconsin."
That's 24 points for Wisconsin.
"We won by 25."
Though he loafs much of the time, The Huge E's potential as a pro is obvious. His self-confidence is enthralling. Howie Lorch, who is, himself, an interesting example of what college athletic programs have come to (he was recruited out of Linton H.S. in Schenectady, N.Y. to manage the team) says Elvin thinks he can beat anybody. When he first entered school Hayes was shown the freshman record book and started thumbing through it. "I got this one, this one, this one," he announced. Finally he threw the book across the desk. "Hell, I got all these. Forget this book."
"Chamberlain, Russell—I think I'm as good as any of them," says The Huge E. "And I'll always think so until they come down here, put on some shoes and show they can whup me good."
Lorch, a short fat kid who, on a team of nicknames, is, of course, called Lurch, has to be the only man ever to manage two All-Americas in high school—Barry Kramer of NYU and Pat Riley of Kentucky—and then room with a third at college, The Huge E.
Hayes's best friend is Don (The Duck) Chaney, the team's 6-foot-5 guard, with whom he spends the time not taken up by basketball, eating and his girl, Verna Livingston. "We're quite the television watchers," says The Duck. "Cartoons. E's up at 7 every Saturday morning watching cartoons—Underdog, Space Ghost, Road Runner."
What does Underdog do?
"Fight crime. He's also a pote." A what?
"A pote. Everything he says, you know, it rhymes. 'Never fear, Underdog is here.' "
What does Space Ghost do?
"Fight crime in space."
Then Road Runner must—
"No, he gets chased by Coyote," says The Duck. "Coyote never gets him either. Road Runner fast."
Life is not all fun and games with the strong and tough Cougars. Their practices are, in a word, murderous—no place for faint hearts. Stories about the workouts are rapidly passing into exaggerated legends, but it is true that last year Hayes beat bloody one teammate who first badgered him and then made the mistake of challenging The Big E. Another player, Bob Hayward, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound veteran of four years in the Navy, is said to have put Elvin up against the wall in practice one day, threatening to punch him out. "That was no fight," says Howie Lorch with disgust. "We have those kind several times a week. I don't consider it a fight until a man is cut, or until I see blood. And I've seen plenty of that around here. Coach doesn't mind it. 'Wipe it off. Let's go,' he says. Now last year on the freshman team The Savage and Ken Spain went at it. I heard those punches—slap, slap, slap—from the other end of the court. What a great one that was!"
"They hit each other as hard as they could," says Hayward, "and neither one was hurt. Sometimes I don't think they're human."
Two weeks ago against San Francisco, a team now on hard times, Houston demonstrated a definitely human characteristic—laziness. The exceptionally small Dons constantly outfought the Cougars on the backboards, outrebounded them 56-43 and, had they been able to shoot at all, would have reversed the 90-74 loss. Hayes, Bell and the others intimidate such a short team, forcing it to back off from close-in shots. But the Cougars play their terror game only as hard as they have to, and what will happen when they run into a team their own size?
Houston backers seem unconcerned, claiming, perhaps justifiably, that there is no such team. What surely must be true is that no team ever will match the Cougars sartorially. A stickler for dress, Lewis gets his sharkskins from Harold's Men's Shop and, from the same place, has outfitted his men in loud red blazers, black slacks and red paisley ties with black stickpins. Next year, though the team's physique will remain, its outfits will change. The Cougars will have on the varsity the brother of The Savage, 6-foot-4, 220-pound Carlos Bell, from junior college and 6-foot-10, 260-pound freshman Mars (The Planet) Evans. For that team Lewis has ordered material from London for red-and-white, houndstooth-check team jackets.
"Can you just see that?" says Navyman Hayward. "Elvin, Melvin and The Duck in Guy V.'s red-and-white houndstooth? Whoo-E!"