E Stands for Elvin . . . And Excellence, 1969

[In January 1968, when UCLA played Houston University in the “Game of the Century,” members of the American Basketball Association (ABA) Board of Trustees gathered in a posh skybox just below the roof of the Houston Astrodome. “Just under heaven,” joked T.C. “Nick” Morrow, the oil tycoon and majority owner of the ABA’s Houston Mavericks who hosted this group outing in his personal skybox. While just under heaven, Morrow vowed to his ABA friends that Houston’s All-American center Elvin Hayes would be shooting a red, white, and blue basketball next season as a the 6-feet-9 centerpiece of his Mavericks.

In the weeks that followed, Hayes seemed open to the idea, reportedly telling a local reporter that he would sign with the Mavericks. Though Hayes publicly changed his mind back to undecided (then announced he was leaning toward the NBA), Morrow thought he had a legitimate shot at signing his hometown hero. But Morrow faced a moral dilemma. The city was gearing up for Hayes’ Houston Cougars to chase down a national championship in the 1968 NCAA Tournament. If Morrow talked money with Hayes during the season or God forbid signed him, his name and reputation would be mud should the NCAA ever find out. As a ranking member of Houston’s business community and a neophyte in world of pro sports, Morrow decided to lie low. He and his general manager Slater Martin could wait until after the season to woo Hayes.

In the meantime, the NBA and its San Diego Rockets operated under no such civic compunctions. On March 22, UCLA took revenge on Houston in the NCAA semifinals, ending Hayes’ collegiate career. Then, on March 25, Rockets owner Bob Breitbard correctly guessed tails to claim the first pick in the NBA’s 1968 college draft. On March 27, Hayes, a.k.a., the Big E, signed a big four-year $440,000 contract with the expansion Rockets. Hayes, dressed for success in a dark sports jacket and a white turtleneck, explained after putting down the pen, “I want to play against the greatest players, and they are in the NBA.”

Morrow, who had earlier floated in the press that he would start the bidding for Hayes at $750,000 for three years (his first bid seems to have been only $300,000), declared “all-out war” on the NBA. Though many realized Morrow was just blowing smoke, they paid closer attention when he claimed that the NBA had given Hayes at least $5,000 [today, the equivalent of close to $40,000] under the table during the college season. The allegation brought loud denials from the NBA and Hayes. The latter, after signing with the Rockets, had embarked on an exhibition tour across New York and parts of New England with a college all-star team. Shadowing Hayes was Max Shapiro, a quasi-Rocket scout. With overtones of the earlier pitched and often-paranoid NFL-AFL battles to sign the top collegians on the gridiron, Breitbard had assigned the young Shapiro to watch over Hayes and ensure nothing funny happened to his $440,000 investment. 

With Morrow providing no further proof, his allegation of NBA underhandedness quickly exited the nation’s sports chatter. But the quick-turnaround on Hayes’ signing remained curious. In 1972, Seattle owner Sam Schulman, at loggerheads with the NBA establishment and very much speaking out of turn, filled in a few blanks in Bill Libby’s book Stand Up for Something: The Spencer Haywood Story.

Trying to justify his early signing of Haywood, Schulman railed, “And, four members of the league already had violated their four-year rule and draft regulations in signing and being permitted to keep Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld prior to the completion of their collegiate eligibility . . . The fact that the league hushed up the signing of Hayes and Unseld so as not to disqualify them from NCAA postseason tournament activity did not in my mind eliminate their responsibility in the matter.”

All of the above indicates that when Hayes arrived in San Diego during the fall of 1968 to start his rookie campaign, much was expected of him to justify his heavy price tag and all the NBA hijinks to get him and his All-American credentials. The high expectations wouldn’t last, and the Big E’s stay in San Diego and later Houston, where the struggling franchise relocated, would devolve into controversy and the unfair claim that Hayes was a limited, one-dimensional scorer incapable of doing the small things that produce winning team basketball. 

But in this January 18, 1969 cover article in The Sporting News, Hayes’ pro stock remained sky high, and with good reason. Three months into his rookie campaign, Hayes’ oncourt numbers showed him to be a 23-year-old force of “excellence,” as told here by San Diego Union reporter Bud Maloney.]

Elvin Hayes, the Big E, the two-time All-America from Houston University, started the current National Basketball Association season as the most heralded rookie since Oscar Robertson arrived nine years ago, but not even Elvin imagined that he would be such an extraordinary success. 

Sure, it was anticipated that the 6-feet-9 ½ Hayes could play in the pro ranks, and San Diego Coach Jack McMahon expected that Hayes’ shot-blocking ability would bolster the porous Rocket defenses. 

But no one offered the thought that the “super rookie” would lead the league in scoring by a wide margin or that he would be voted to the NBA’s Western Division All-Star team ahead of Wilt Chamberlain. Such things have not occurred since Wilt was a rookie back in the 1959-60 season. 

After a fine start, the Rockets have slumped in recent weeks, but he’s gives no indication that he’ll ever slack off from the form that has made him a “must see” in the minds of basketball fans in every NBA city.

With the 23-year-old averaging 30 points and 18 rebounds a game, McMahon made no bones about it when he declared: “E is a cinch for Rookie-of-the-Year honors. There’s no one even close to him.”

“E” is all McMahon ever calls last season’s collegiate player of the year. “On any given night, we can beat anybody because of E,” McMahon continued. “Against the better clubs last season, there was no way we could win except by sheer luck.” 

Hayes, who signed a multiple-year contract for a figure approaching a half-million dollars, has demonstrated he can get his 30 points a game playing as either a center or a forward. He is so adept at blocking shots that he is already in the Russell-Thurmond-Chamberlain class as an intimidator.

And perhaps Hayes’ greatest asset is that he has proved to be a quick learner who already has acquired the perspective of a seasoned campaigner. “We were worried about E getting into foul trouble and about him getting called for goal-tending,” said McMahon. “Instead, he has been in foul trouble only twice all season and the only goal-tending calls on him in recent weeks have been borderline cases. 

“He’s learned very quickly when to go after people and when to leave them alone, and when to block shots and when to lay off.”

Recently, it has been common in San Diego games to see Hayes go some two feet about the rim in pursuit of a shot you know he could swat in the balcony, only to have him pull back his hand when he realized that touching the ball would be goal-tending. 

At least a dozen times, Hayes has dropped off to make clean blocks of opposing shots, only to have the whistle blow and a foul called on his shorter teammate who was buried under the play. 

It was only the second game of the season against San Francisco when Hayes first astonished McMahon with his “quick leap.” “On at least four occasions,” said the awed coach, “the driver had gotten through for an easy basket, but E blocked the shot with this quick, last-instant leap.”

Hayes loves shot-blocking, and he loves using the stuff shot he had to forego during his senior year at Houston when the college rules-makers legislated it out of existence. 

Elvin’s stuff shot is a two-handed affair that he starts behind his head and slams with tremendous velocity through the wedding. “I feel I can shake them up a little if I can block a shot at one end of the court and then come right up to the other end and slam the ball through the basket,” explained a grinning Hayes.

Elvin has learned many things about the NBA in his brief career, but perhaps the biggest revelation is the defense played by the pros. “I didn’t think they played any defense at all,” recalled Hayes, “but that’s what the game is all about.”

The 235-pound native of Rayville, La., feels he has improved his own defense since the start of the season, and he’s far more relaxed and confident now. “I think I’m shooting better, and I’m concentrating much more now,” he said. 

“My confidence comes from learning what to do with the ball. I hope to improve every phase of my game, but I think my passing needs the most work. There are times when I can see the pass, but I’m just not good enough yet to make it.”

Hayes’ favorite shot is a short jumper around the free-throw line and one of his weaknesses is that he tends to step away from trouble (and the basket) to get his shots off. When he goes toward the basket, he’s devastating, and if he learns to do this consistently, there’s no telling how many points he’ll score. 

Elvin rates Nate Thurmond of San Francisco and Willis Reed at New York as the finest all-round opponents, both on offense and defense, he has faced. He calls Boston’s Bill Russell far and away the best defensive player, and says Zelmo Beaty of Atlanta has proved to be particularly tough to defend against. 

From a physical standpoint, Hayes thinks New York is the toughest, strongest team in the NBA and that Luke Jackson of Philadelphia is the roughest individual. “There are lots of others, though,” he said, “guys like Reed and Walt Bellamy and Wilt, and that Bob Rule of Seattle.”

McMahon has called upon his star to go the full 48 minutes more often the not, and Hayes thinks it is getting easier rather than more difficult as the season wears on. “I’m learning to pace myself, and I think it helps now that I have an idea which shots to block and which to leave alone. At first I was jumping at everything that was tossed up and getting awfully tired, but I’m not doing that anymore. 

“Some games, it seems to be easy to go 48 minutes, but at other times, against certain clubs, I get pretty tired. It seems hard in Chicago—that building is always so cold that I never really warm up there.”

Elvin Hayes (left) and San Diego owner Bob Breitbard (middle) are all smiles during March 1968 press conference to announce the Big E would join the NBA.

Hayes has been pleased by his acceptance in the NBA, both by the players and the fans. Russell, Chamberlain, and Thurmond have been particularly kind to him, and both Wilt and Thurmond offer advice on the court. Elvin considers it a tribute to his abilities that this trio has noticed him and has been so helpful. 

Regarding the fans, Hayes said, “I’ve been better received with the pros than in college. They seem to accept you for what you are. I’ve been well treated in Los Angeles, and it sure wasn’t like that last March when we (Houston University) played UCLA. 

“The fans in New York get on me, but they get on everybody. I guess you’re not really very much until the New York fans get on you.”

Hayes’ teammates are lavish in their praise of what the Big E has brought to their team. 

Said Don Kojis: “When Elvin is at center, I take off from the defensive boards and get going on the fast break. If a rebound comes off the rim on the other side of the court and Elvin is in position, I don’t have to go over and help out like I did last year. It works the same way for John (Block).”

Said Hambone Williams: “Having Elvin in the middle takes the defensive pressure off our guards. Most of the guards on the other clubs have been told to collapse on him.”

Said Block: “He gives you confidence when you drive to the basket. You know he’s there and you can drop the ball off to him and know he’ll score.”

Williams, Jim Barnett, and Pat Riley are in agreement that Hayes has helped the Rocket fastbreak immeasurably because of his quick lead-out passes after he gets the rebounds. In addition, Elvin is swift enough to come down the court and fill one of the fastbreak lanes for a return pass. 

The best measure of Hayes’ value, however, is the win column. By the first of the year, San Diego had already won more games than it did all last season. Among the Rocket victims were Baltimore and Cincinnati, teams San Diego just couldn’t beat in 1967-68.

Without Hayes, it was 15 wins and 67 losses last year. With Hayes, in the words of McMahon, “. . . we can beat anybody.”

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