Elvin Hayes might have had his own line of basketball sneakers and his likeness featured on boxes of Wheaties, but he had come along at a different time. Although Hayes tied for sixth best in NBA scoring history, he had no such luck.
Not only did he arrive in the NBA some 15 years before the league became the darling of marketing wizards, he also had the misfortune to arrive within a year of his persistent nemesis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Hayes also had a prickly personality that rubbed some people the wrong way. He liked to blow his own horn and call his own shots. Some called him selfish, others called him petulant, and worst of all, some called him a choker. Alex Hannum, one of eight coaches he played for in the NBA, called him "the most despicable person I've ever met in sports."
Bernie Bickerstaff, an assistant coach with the Bullets when Hayes won his only NBA championship in 1978, saw a different person. "Elvin was very tough to read and very sensitive," Bickerstaff told The New York Times. "He was eight different people and you never knew what to expect. He was so talented he found it difficult to understand why others failed to perform up to his standards. But I don't blame Elvin, I blame the system that created him."
Born November 17, 1945, Hayes grew up in the segregated South, in the small cotton town of Rayville, Louisiana. His parents ran a cotton compress, and young Elvin honed his game on the dirt playground at all-black Eula Britton High.
He earned a scholarship to the University of Houston in 1964, along with future NBA player and coach Don Chaney, and they became the first African Americans to play for the Cougars. They led the varsity to an 81-12 record in three seasons but never won the national championship, twice losing to UCLA and Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) in the national semifinals.
Elvin's calling card was the turnaround jump shot, which he delivered with uncommon touch and accuracy. He played center in college and for part of his pro career, but at 6'9", 235 pounds, was ideally suited for power forward. He was also a prolific rebounder, twice leading the NBA.
Selected first overall by the San Diego Rockets in the 1968 NBA draft, Hayes made a sudden splash, becoming the third rookie to lead the league in scoring. In his first three seasons, he averaged 28.4, 27.5, and 28.7 points, respectively, while leading the league in field-goal attempts each year.
The Rockets franchise moved to Houston for Hayes's fourth season, 1971-1972, but what was expected to be a long honeymoon in his old college town turned into a quick divorce. Though he averaged 25.2 points and 14.6 rebounds that year, Hayes clashed with coach Tex Winter, precipitating a trade to the Baltimore Bullets for guard Jack Marin after the season.
Hayes enjoyed a productive nine-year run with the Bullets, finally winning the championship -- and respect -- that had eluded him for so long. "Winning the championship completes the picture," he said, "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."
The Bullets retired his No. 11 at the start of the 1981-1982 season, after he had requested and received a trade back to Houston. The Rockets got a player in steep decline after 13 seasons of wear and tear. Hayes lasted three more seasons before retiring in 1984.
He had played 1,303 games, a record at the time, and exactly 50,000 minutes. He never won the MVP trophy he coveted, yet he set standards for productivity and durability, never missing more than two games in a season. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1989.
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