The sprawling white house sits back off the road behind a wrought-iron fence and dozens of lush pines. It could be the home of another high-powered executive on Piney Point, in an exclusive Houston suburb, where black people can usually be found only behind lawn mowers and hedge trimmers.
A Jeep Cherokee pulls into the circular drive and stops next to a Cadillac and a pair of Mercedes. The man unfolding from the Jeep is 6'9½" and dressed in a pair of worn blue jeans, a loose white cotton shirt, mud-crusted cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed straw hat. Sweat glistens on his arms and large stony face. With one huge hand he pulls a shovel, a spade and a pickax out of the Jeep and hoists them over a shoulder. But he is not here to do any gardening. He is Elvin Hayes of the NBA champion Washington Bullets, the master—at this moment—of all he surveys.
In his cozy den, which is furnished with plush antiques and thick rugs, two walls covered with photographs and trophies—the newest being an autographed basketball commemorating the Bullets' NBA championship of last spring—Hayes is as relaxed as a 32-year-old compulsive heavy laborer can be while wasting time in the middle of a late summer day. He has driven the Jeep in from his 89-acre cattle ranch 70 miles away in Brenham, where he spent the morning mending fences. There was so little time left before training camp, and so much work to be done. But in his den, with his family nearby, the man reputed to be a petulant brooder, cold, selfish, childish and—the worst name an athlete can be called—a choker, sits with his long legs outstretched, the hard face softened by a smile. On the glass-topped coffee table before him are two books, a Bible and They Call Me the Big E.
The E stands for Enigma as well as Elvin. To many basketball fans, Hayes is known as one of the original bad actors of sports' big-money era, a troublemaker who has doomed to certain failure every professional team he ever played for. As far as Hayes is concerned, the two books on the coffee table tell the real story. The autobiography traces Hayes' life from his hard days as a cotton picker in a segregated Louisiana town, to his sudden glory as an All-America at the University of Houston, to hard days as the professional basketball player who would succeed Wilt Chamberlain as the man people love to hate. The Bible, Hayes says, helped save him when, as a 24-year-old, internal thunderstorms caused him to contemplate suicide.
October 15, 1978
Even the winning of the championship after nine futile seasons failed to erase Hayes' reputation as a choker. The collapse of the Philadelphia 76ers, and injuries to Bill Walton and other Portland Trail Blazers, tainted the Bullets' win over the Seattle SuperSonics. Because Hayes fouled out of two of the final seven games—including the seventh—some fans felt that the Bullets won despite Hayes rather than because of him.
One does not have to go far to find people who dislike Hayes intensely. Alex Hannum, who coached him in San Diego during Hayes' most turbulent years, calls him to this day "the most despicable person I've ever met in sports." Reporters have been damning him for 10 years, the result of having had to chase him for low-yield interviews, and having been dealt with brusquely or stood up. Many opponents consider him a crybaby, some teammates feel he is selfish. Five years ago he stopped answering criticism and trying to correct misquotes and half-truths about himself. Last season his wife Erna and their three children, Elvin Jr., Erna Elisse and Erica, remained in Houston while Hayes lived alone in a rented house in Columbia, Md. On Thanksgiving he cooked a turkey and ate it alone. He did not spend a single social evening around Washington with a teammate, nor did he do more than eat a few meals with any of them on the road.
His prickly personality does not endear him to most of his teammates, some of whom consider him a finger pointer. For instance, after the Bullets blew a 19-point lead and lost to Seattle in the opening game of the championship series, Hayes criticized Center Wes Unseld in the newspapers for his lack of offense. Hayes insists his quotes were a year old and out of context. Nevertheless, Unseld was upset. He and Hayes have never been close. Says Unseld, "I always hear Elvin say, 'They're blaming Elvin.' I never hear anybody blaming Elvin. Not coaches or players, anyway, just the papers, and that happens to everybody when they lose. It's just that Elvin keeps calling attention to himself.
"I do my talking to other players face-to-face, not through the press. I don't dwell within Elvin. I don't know what he's thinking and I don't care. The person I know is the basketball player, and right now he is one of the best in the league. What he's done verifies that. We've had more than our share of run-ins off the court. But when he's on the court he's a professional and that's all that matters."
Since the Sunday in July 1973 when, Hayes says, "I accepted Jesus into my life," many skeptics have felt that Hayes chose religion as a ready-made excuse for smugness, a shroud behind which he can hide his gigantic ego. Nonetheless, religion has been the glue that has kept Hayes' life together. His convictions are reflected in his home and his well-behaved children. The two men he considers his idols are George Allen and Gerald Ford. He is tireless in his unpublicized service to crippled children, hospitals, Special Olympics and religious groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When he discusses religion, his voice, normally soft and hesitant, approximates the mellifluous tones of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. During the summer, he preaches regularly at various churches in the Houston area, and speaks from pulpits all over the country during the season. And when he finishes playing in two or three years, he expects to become the Rev. Elvin Hayes and pastor of his very own church.
Facts, however, do not always speak for themselves, especially in Hayes' case. In the face of the common rap that Hayes often gives less than 100% on the court is the fact that he is one of the game's iron men. In his 10 pro seasons he has missed a total of five games out of a possible 892. Four times he led the NBA in minutes played and he has averaged 42.3 minutes over his career. He led the league in scoring as a rookie in 1968-69 and twice led it in rebounding (1969-70 and 1973-74), the only man to intrude on the domain that for 16 years was exclusively held by Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He is the 10th highest scorer of all time and stands seventh in rebounding. The claim that Hayes may be great in the regular season but always folds in the playoffs will not make it up the flagpole, either. His average of 23.4 points in seven playoffs is the 10th-best mark of all time and just a half point below his regular-season average of 23.9. And his shooting percentage of .481 in the playoffs is 28 points better than what he shot in the regular seasons. He also has played in the All-Star Game in each of his 10 seasons.
Last season, Hayes' regular-schedule scoring average fell off to 19.7 and he missed the top 20 for the first time, but that was entirely because of the substantial scoring help the Bullets received from free agent Bob Dandridge and Coach Dick Motta's philosophy of team play. When the Bullets finally broke their nine-year playoff losing streak last June, Hayes was virtually ignored in the Most Valuable Player balloting, though without him the Bullets would never have made it to the finals. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots in the championship series, as well as in the playoffs as a whole. Most people noted that Hayes scored just 12 points and fouled out with a little more than eight minutes left in the seventh game against Seattle. "Not too many people noticed that I was fronted and double-teamed the whole game," he says, "that Seattle's whole strategy was geared toward stopping me in that game, and that I was bumped and banged by Paul Silas and Jack Sikma all night. Really, there was not a forward in history who had a playoff like I had."
Unseld was voted the MVP largely because of his heroics in the final game. "Wes didn't even play in three of the games against Philadelphia," Hayes says. "Take away my points and where would we have been?"
Be it crutch, cop-out or genuine faith, his religion does make up for what Hayes has missed in basketball. "Finally winning the championship completes the picture," he says, "because no one can ever again say that E's not a champion. But the one thing they've taken away from me that I feel I have deserved is the MVP. And I don't think I'll ever get it, because I think, more than anything else, people want to see me fail."
Fear of failure began driving Hayes when he was growing up gangly in Rayville, La., a little cotton town 24 miles from Monroe, the hometown of Hayes' boyhood hero Bill Russell. Hayes' parents ran a cotton compress, and the six Hayes children were directed toward academic excellence. By the time Elvin was in the eighth grade, his three older brothers and his older sister had gone through or were in college, and his sister Bunnatine, one year Elvin's senior, was headed for a full scholarship at Southern University. "All my brothers and sisters were valedictorians or salutatorians," says Hayes. "I just said to myself, 'Well, I'm not going to do it.' It's not that I didn't have the ability; I just wanted to do things my own way."
When Elvin was in ninth grade his father died. His grades were below the family norm and he retreated into an impenetrable shell. "I never talked to anybody," he says. "My mother used to always be on me just to make me say one word. I never really had a friend, just my sister Bunny. When I started playing basketball I would sometimes talk to one or two of the guys, but after that I would go home to my room."
Blacks were not allowed to play on the outdoor courts at the then all-white Rayville High School; they mostly remained on the east side of the railroad tracks that divided the town. The area where Hayes grew up was called Niggertown by blacks and whites alike. The one outdoor court at Eula Britton High—the black school—had one wooden backboard with a rickety rim nailed to a light pole, and the floor was plain old Louisiana dirt. Hayes would practice 11 hours a day during the steamy summer days and nights. The gym in which Britton played its games had a cement-tile floor and brick walls flush behind each basket. "They didn't bother us so much," says Hayes. "We were a fast-break team and every one of us was on close terms with those walls."
In 1964, Hayes' senior year, Britton won 54 consecutive games. Having already developed his trademark turnaround jump shot, Hayes averaged 35 points per 32-minute game. At Baton Rouge in the state AA championship game for black schools, he scored 45 points, had more than 20 rebounds and was voted the tournament MVP. The next day he saw his name in the Baton Rouge paper. It was the first time it had ever been in print. "Back home in Rayville," he says, "no blacks ever got their name in the paper. Never."
The next fall, he, Don Chaney, who later played for the Celtics, and football player Warren McVea (Kansas City Chiefs) became the first blacks ever to play sports at the University of Houston. Hayes' immersion into the 99%-white student body constituted more than culture shock. "All I had known about white people was the way they treated blacks in Rayville, and I totally disliked them," he says. "I never had a white coach or teacher, and I never played any kind of game with or against a white person. About the only time I was ever near them was in the movie theater. The blacks sat upstairs and the whites downstairs and they had separate doors."
When not playing basketball or attending classes as a speech major, Hayes was rarely seen. In the summer he would go back to Rayville and play with the poor blacks on the dirt court. Houston Coach Guy Lewis and assistant Harvey Pate became surrogate fathers to Hayes, and because of the racial situation, he was often pampered. "Sometimes Lewis would really get on me in practice," says Hayes, "and I'd give him a real hurt kind of look and say, 'You just don't like black players.' He would get all upset and fall all over himself denying it and apologizing, and I'd stand there laughing, unable to convince him that I was only joking."
By 1967, Hayes' junior year, Houston had become a national power, beaten in the NCAA semifinals by UCLA and Hayes' bitter rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. That game set up one of the greatest matches in college basketball history. On Jan. 20, 1968, a national television audience and 52,693 fans at Houston's Astrodome watched Alcindor's Bruins, winners of 47 straight games and ranked No. 1, play Hayes' Cougars, 16-0, ranked No. 2. Hayes can re-create that game minute by minute because, to this day, it is his single biggest thrill in basketball. And when he decides to answer those who say he chokes, he recalls how he won the game.
"It was 69-69 and I got the ball down low on the left side," he says. "I was going to shoot my turnaround when I was fouled by Jim Nielsen. A lot of people thought I was going to miss because I was a 60% foul shooter. I didn't even think about being nervous because I had the game right in my hands—swish, swish, 71-69. And then, in the last seconds, I acted like a guard, dribbling around and then passing off. I completely outplayed Kareem. I scored 39, he scored 15. I had 15 rebounds and he had 12. And then he tried to make a big deal out of some eye injury. But I know that it wasn't the eye that was bothering him."
Hayes' rookie season with the San Diego Rockets was like an extension of his college career. He was the Western Division starting center in the NBA All-Star game, ahead of Chamberlain. He led the league in scoring, finished fourth in rebounding and carried the Rockets, a 15-67 expansion team the year before, into the playoffs. He had come out of his shell and was running around Hollywood and Las Vegas with movie stars and appearing on television shows. Everything was beautiful.
The next year things changed drastically. Some of his teammates, particularly Forward Don Kojis, Hayes believes, became jealous of his celebrity, his money and his special relationship with owner Bob Breitbard. Kojis demanded a trade and dissension grew. Coach Jack McMahon, now the assistant at Philadelphia, was caught in the middle. When the team's record was 9-17, McMahon was fired. Hayes was blamed. Into the breach came Hannum, a caustic drill-sergeant type, who had had successful NBA coaching stints in St. Louis, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
"His thing was 'I'm gonna break him'—like I'm a horse," Hayes says. "So every little thing I do, he jumps on me. He's going to make me an example. He would holler and curse at me all the time. It was 'Hayes this' and 'Hayes that.' Hayes! Hayes! Hayes!"
"He was spoiled," says Hannum, now in the construction business in California. "Because of his relationship with the owner, I had no authority with him. I guess the climate in pro sports was changing and I was not willing to change with it. Hayes was exactly the kind of player I did not want. He's a front-runner. Put him in a situation where there's tension and he does not face it with courage. Give him a challenge and he'll always find some excuse to fold. I still believe it. Even last year, the Bullets won despite him rather than because of him."
The following year the Rockets were 40-42 and missed the playoffs by one game. Hannum wanted Hayes gone, but Breitbard refused. When Hannum quit to join Denver in the ABA, it was widely assumed and reported that Hayes got him fired. "It was always, 'Hayes got the coach fired,' " says Hayes. "They used to say the same thing about Wilt. Well, Wilt used to say, 'Oh yeah? Well how many did I hire?' "
Hayes was miserable in his second and third seasons in San Diego. Newspapers regularly blasted him when the Rockets lost. It was then he made the mistake of engaging in a running battle with a San Diego Union reporter. "Every morning he would have written something else about me," Hayes says, "and every night I would be on radio or TV saying something about him. Every day, he and I. It got ridiculous. It was the ultimate sin. I should have known then I couldn't win. Now I do know, so I keep quiet.
"All of a sudden the thing that's been my only joy in my whole life—going to the gym, playing ball, exploding, setting myself free—had become an agony. I was totally unhappy, disgusted with it all. I was taking stomach pills, sleeping pills, I lived on Alka-Seltzer, Turns, Rolaids. I always had a pocketful of them. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and think I was dying. One day I read one of those stories about me and I said to myself, 'Wow, where does it all end? The best thing to do is kill myself.' 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."
It seemed as if Hayes' problems were over during the summer of 1971 when he learned that the Rockets were moving to his beloved Houston. But the relief was short-lived. His new coach was Tex Winter, an NBA rookie who had spent the previous 24 years coaching at Marquette, Kansas State and the University of Washington. "He was a very nice man," says Hayes, "but he treated the players like they were on scholarship."
"It was as much my fault as it was his," says Winter. "I really thought I could coach the same way as I did in college. That didn't work with Elvin." Winter's idea was to convert Hayes, one of the greatest scoring machines ever to play the game, into a passing center. And he would have Hayes pass off to such luminaries as Cliff Meely, Stu Lantz and Dick Gibbs.
"One of our first games that year was up in Waco, against Chicago," Hayes recalls. "I'm messing around with the ball in the high post and all my teammates are on the other side. Now the clock's running down and I have to shoot. But I'm not supposed to. Well, I must have had four or five shots in a row blocked. And I never have my shots blocked. Guards were blocking my shots."
Hayes' masquerade as a passer was never satisfactorily explained to the Houston fans, and even they got down on him for not shooting. Soon Hayes decided that the experiment was over, and one night he came out shooting and scored 37 points. Afterward Winter told him, "You're fighting me." The season was disastrous. The San Diego stories were retold, and Hayes wanted out. "Elvin carried quite a burden and I felt sorry for him," says Winter. "The Houston people bought the Rockets solely because of him. They thought he'd fill the Astrodome like he did one time in college. Instead we played some games there in front of 500 people. He was crushed. On top of that, I found him so lacking in fundamentals. It's true that I tried to mold him into my concept of what a post man should be, but I could not get any response from him and that caused all sorts of problems on the club. He knew he was more valuable than I was and there was just no way I could build a young club around him."
In 1972, Hayes got his trade to the Bullets, and 47 games into the following season Tex Winter was gone, too. Bullet Coach Gene Shue recognized that Hayes' strength lay in scoring and rebounding—and even better, Shue had the luxury of returning Hayes to his natural forward position, because Unseld was there to play the pivot. Shue also knew how to communicate with the modern superstar. "Nobody is going to blame you if we lose," he told Hayes. "Nobody is going to say anything if you miss a shot or commit a turnover. Just play ball, Elvin. Forget all that stuff you got in San Diego and Houston. All that is over."
Hayes saw in Shue another Guy Lewis. In Hayes' eyes, Shue was clean, Catholic, crew-cut and compassionate. His was the kind of life Hayes craved. So Hayes, raised a Methodist, converted to Catholicism. That season the Bullets won the Central Division title, only to lose in the playoffs to the New York Knicks. Shue left the Bullets for Philadelphia, but his impression on Hayes was lasting.
At home that summer in Houston, Hayes was attending Mass regularly but was becoming disenchanted with the Catholic ritual. In general, he felt uneasy about his future. "All the things I had done in my life made it seem like I had succeeded," he says, "and yet I knew I had failed. I was not the person I really wanted to be. If I was successful, where was the joy?"
One Sunday while mowing his lawn, Hayes felt moved to join Erna at her Pentecostal church. During the service he was called to the pulpit by the Rev. J. L. Parker. "He whispered in my ear, 'God showed me your life,' " Hayes says. "And he told me about some things I had done in San Diego, New York and back in Louisiana. He didn't have any way of knowing these things, and yet he did. He said, 'Christ had told us to enter into a closet and pray secretly to the Father. He will answer you in the open.' "
Hayes took Parker's words almost literally. He took his Bible into a tiny room and remained for days, reading Revelation and Matthew. When he came out, he says, "I was infused with the spirit of Jesus." News of Hayes' rebirth was met with skepticism. Stories of his problems in Houston and San Diego were recycled, as if they would somehow invalidate Hayes' religious experience.
In 1973, K.C. Jones took over as the Bullets' coach. That year they again won their division, and again lost in the playoffs to the Knicks. The following season, with Unseld, Mike Riordan, Truck Robinson and Nick Weatherspoon up front, and Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter and Jimmy Jones in the backcourt, the Bullets were a powerhouse. They won 60 games and tied Boston for the best record in the league. In the playoffs they took out Buffalo, the league's third-best team, and then the Celtics in six games to reach the finals. Their opponent was Golden State, an underdog that had somehow beaten Chicago. The Warriors were given no chance against the Bullets, but swept the series 4-0.
Hannum's explanation was, "Hayes quit colder than a mackerel." Others noted that the bench support that powered the Bullets to the finals had disappeared. Weatherspoon, who had come off the bench to rattle Buffalo and Boston with 12.2 points a game, had a total of 16 against the Warriors. Jones, the steady third guard, was lost with a knee injury in the Boston series. With him gone, the Warriors' strategy was to harass Porter, the Bullets' volatile point guard. They succeeded in keeping him in constant foul trouble. Because Unseld is not a scorer, and Riordan was being eaten alive by Rick Barry, it was clear that Hayes would have to be the Bullets' show. So Golden State threw waves of big forwards at him, just as Seattle did last year. Hayes averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, but that was not enough. The Bullets' starters out-scored the Warriors' starters 321-251, but Golden State got 147 points from its bench while Washington had just 61.
The next year the Bullets were even stronger on paper. With Dave Bing replacing Porter, they had four All-Stars in the starting lineup. But they were upset by Cleveland in the playoffs. Hayes got most of the blame again, and when K. C. Jones was fired, some blamed Hayes for that as well. In 1977, after Houston knocked the Bullets out, Dick Motta, Washington's new coach, beat most reporters to the question: "It seems that whenever the Bullets lose in the playoffs Elvin gets blamed." And so he did.
Then came Hayes' long-awaited triumph of last June. His elation was unbounded, and despite the press criticism, Hayes' good relationship with the Washington fans never deteriorated. During playoff games at Capital Centre last spring, they held up thousands of white cards containing a single block letter and screamed "EEEEEEE!!!" loud enough to topple the Washington Monument. During the Bullets' victory parade, no one drew more adoration than Hayes.
Now, stretched out in his den, getting ready to start from scratch again, Hayes smiles and says, "You know, winning that championship was a very happy moment in my life. That night after the final game in Seattle I felt tremendous joy and happiness. I was all by myself in my hotel room, all high, couldn't sleep—oh, just happy. Then we got back to Washington and it was just out of sight. I still remember the joy of winning that championship but I don't feel it anymore. That joy was only for a little while...."