The Big E vs. Wilt, 1968

[One month into his rookie season with the San Diego Rockets, Elvin Hayes traveled to Chicago and laid 40 points and 20 rebounds on the Bulls. Hayes and the Rockets caught the redeye flight home to San Diego after the game, and the next night the Big E dropped 54 points on the Detroit Pistons, breaking the NBA rookie scoring record. 

All of this activity out of sunny San Diego had the NBA beat reporters chattering. Bob Logan, curmudgeonous Bulls beat reporter, declared Hayes “as good as advertised,” and the Detroit Free Press’ veteran sportswriter Joe Falls offered these words of approval:

“So far Hayes has been worth every penny of his pay. He is making 46 percent of his shots and averaging 29.2 points per game, and people are starting to wander into the San Diego Arena to see what all the noise is about . . . Red Auerbach, the major domo of the Boston Celtics, thinks Hayes has a chance to be one of the great players in the game because ‘he has that beautiful body and is just as strong at the end of the game as he is at the beginning.’”

Falls also reiterated a point raised in our previous post on Hayes that the NBA pulled out all the stops to get him. That included colluding to sign the Big E before the ABA could get its hooks into him:

“The word around the basketball beat is that when it came time for Hayes to turn professional, the owners in the NBA decided this was one boy they couldn’t let get away. So they dug into their pockets and anteed up some of the dough to get Hayes’ signature on a three-year contract calling for $400,000 with the San Diego Rockets.  

“You won’t get anyone to admit this because (1) it smacks of collusion and (2) who wants to admit they’re paying some other guy to bash their own team’s brains in . . . which is just what Hayes did to our beloved Pistons on the West Coast Wednesday night.” (Falls J, ‘Big E’ Shows He’s Worth It, Detroit Free Press, November 15, 1968)

But before Hayes went on his rookie tear, he came face to face for the first time in the regular season with Wilt Chamberlain. Writer Arnold Hano captured this fateful moment, which he describes as Hayes “became a man that night.” Hano’s excellent piece, originally published in Sport Magazine, can be found in the 1970 Pro Basketball Almanac.]

Elvin Hayes goes from silence to loquaciousness. This is the key to understanding him. In his youth, he suffered a speech impediment and could barely speak. He was intelligent, but the words were blocked off. So he was considered stupid, hazed cruelly, even beaten, because he could not speak. Now, when he can, he speaks in streams. But it still isn’t easy and sometimes he goes for days, literally, without saying a single word to anybody—to his wife, his son, his friends. Not a word.

On this afternoon in October—Saturday, October 26, 1968—Elvin Hayes was able to speak, although the topic was not of his choosing, or even to his liking. I asked him to talk about Wilt Chamberlain, the giant who would test Elvin Hayes’ basketball manhood the next night. It would be Los Angeles vs. San Diego in rough NBA basketball, and it would be Wilt vs. Hayes, head to head. 

It would be unfair to say that Chamberlain had become—for Elvin Hayes—a legend, a gigantic monkey on his back. But it would not be far wrong. Hayes, at 6-feet-9 ½ , would give away four inches. Hayes, at 235 pounds, would give away 50 pounds. Hayes, with four pro games behind him, would give away 700 pro games in experience.

Hayes had once faced Chamberlain in an exhibition in Seattle. Nothing much had occurred, but Hayes felt he had learned a few things—among them, he found he could talk to Chamberlain. Once during the game, he said to the giant, “Take it easy on a little rookie. I’m just a bunny in the league.”

Wilt smiled and spread his hands and explained what has always been inside his skull. He said, “I’m the nicest guy in the league. Everybody pushes me around.”

They hit it off and had a nice game, Chamberlain scoring a few more points than the bunny, both men rebounding well. But nobody tried to belt anybody out of the arena, which made it an unreal game. Once Hayes went up for a shot, Chamberlain waved at him and Hayes scored. Then Wilt said quietly, “I gave you that one. You shouldn’t have shot. You won’t get away with that later on. Okay?” Hayes nodded and thanked Chamberlain.

Now, it would be for real.

So Elvin Hayes prodded, spoke of getting ready for the real Wilt Chamberlain. But something kept getting in the way.

“I will try to use the same strategy as Bill Russell uses,” Hayes explained, sitting in the San Diego Sports Arena on a Saturday afternoon, 14,000 empty seats lending an unreal quality to the moment. “Russell always was my idol. I believe as Russell does. I’ll try to defense Wilt, like Russell.”

It was a speech of avoidance, rather than commitment. Elvin Hayes was not his own man. He was Bill Russell’s shadow, a carbon copy of a man.

“Like Russell, I’ll talk to Wilt.”

But what will you do? How will you play against the guy? Talking wasn’t the whole arsenal, was it?

“I’m a rookie,” Hayes said. “Wilt will not let me run him, the way I’ve run other men.”

And you realized that Elvin Hayes carried a bag of awe. Not fear. But he sounded like a man burdened by intimidation. 

“I feel no fear,” Hayes insisted. Protested. “He is just another player. He’s human.”

Hayes words kept slipping away, to other opponents. “I saw Russell for nearly a week in Los Angeles this winter, and he told me, ‘I won’t try to block every shot. I’ll block five shots in a game. But you’ll never know which shots they’ll be.’ With Russell, you never know where he is. You think you’re in for an easy shot, Russell across the floor, and then he takes two steps and knocks the ball away. He can corrupt your mind. He can run you out of the league, if you have a weak constitution.”

Still, Hayes had not played Russell in a game for real. He had been in the league four games. He’d twice faced Seattle and Bob Rule; once San Francisco and Nate Thurmond; and once Baltimore and LeRoy Ellis. Nothing he’d seen had intimidated him so far.

So how would he go against Chamberlain? What did he think?

Hayes remembered back to that Seattle exhibition against the Lakers. “Once Wilt went up for a dunk shot, his arm extended. I went up with him. I looked up and saw his arm.”

Hayes shook his head. “I never saw an arm like that. Unreal. I wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ I got out of his way. One thing I know: I won’t go up and agitate him.”

Defense would be a problem, but Hayes would sometimes have the ball, up in the post, and Chamberlain would be the defender. “If he follows me outside, I’ll go around him,” said Elvin. “I am faster than he is.”

But the Rocket game does not totally permit Hayes such liberties as strolling from the backboards. He is needed there. “If I am outside, I clog our offense. So I come close, and we’ll make the Lakers shift defenders. We’ll shoot a guard in, and make Wilt shift to the guard, leaving me against a smaller man.”

The talk shifted to Hayes defending. “All you do is take those assists away from him, those passes up the middle,” said Elvin. “I’ll sag off, to intercept. The way Chamberlain overpowers you is with that assist game. If you don’t take away his assist game, then he will kill you.”

So we stood, in the Rocket office, and Elvin Hayes demonstrated how he would take away Chamberlain’s assist game. I became Chamberlain, my back to an invisible basket, waiting for an invisible [Jerry] West to barrel through, so I could feed him my patented Chamberlain pass. Elvin Hayes leaned close, his right forearm hard against my back.

“Like this,” he said, excitement racing his words. “Keep my arm against him. Then when he’s ready to pass off, I step back. Like this.” The arm pressure suddenly vanished, as Hayes stepped back. “I’ll intercept. If I sag too quickly, he has time to whirl and throw the ball in. If I don’t sag fast enough, he feeds the guard, for a three-point play.”

Thus, Elvin Hayes got ready for his match with Chamberlain, practicing in an office in the arena, against a man a foot shorter than himself. It seemed to me, and very likely to him, an improbable way to go into that game. Neither of us knew, at the time, how improbable it was. 

Chamberlain and the Lakers had a game plan, too. The assist game, for the night, would be scrapped and Chamberlain would be moving toward the basket the whole game.

That night Elvin Hayes’ basketball manhood would be fully tested. It would not be a terribly new experience for him because he has had to face these tests before, off the basketball court. And he is still facing them, off the basketball court. It has been a monumental problem, bigger than any court battle. Elvin Hayes, the boy, is becoming Elvin Hayes, the man, and though problems linger on, he is licking them.  

Elvin Hayes was born 23 years ago, in Rayville, Louisiana, a town of 4,500 in the northeast corner of the state. Hayes’ father, Chris, was a boiler supervisor, a solid citizen. He and Savannah Hayes and there are six kids, of whom Elvin was the baby, lived comfortably. Materially, it was not a bad life. 

For Elvin Hayes, it was ghastly. 

“As a kid , people would say to me, ‘You’ll never be anything.’ Pretty soon I stopped caring about being anything. I stayed close to myself. People thought I was real stupid. I didn’t run around with the other kids. I didn’t talk to them. I was real quiet.”

Elvin Hayes couldn’t make certain sounds. Today he says he still can’t make a few sounds. “I can’t say the word—” and he wrestles with the word individual; it comes out a little thickly. “Back then, I couldn’t say any words. 

The speech impediment became a target. One day an older boy invited Hayes to his house. Hayes wandered over. Two other bigger, older boys were waiting. They picked up Hayes and turned him upside down. They bounced his head against the floor. They dropped him on his back. Then they took turns slapping Hayes on the head. 

“They hurt me,” he says today, and you don’t ask whether it hurt more inside than out. 

“Nobody wanted to associate with me,” he says. “Only my Dad understood me. He really loved me.”

Which would have been all right. One person is sometimes enough. Then Elvin’s father had a heart attack, when the boy was in the ninth grade, and died. 

Elvin Hayes turned inward. Thankfully, he’d earlier found a physical escape. He’d tacked up a tin can in the backyard, and begun to throw a rubber ball through. When organized basketball came along in the eighth grade, Elvin found he could do something better than most kids. Basketball helped instill confidence. 

But basketball did not wipe out problems. Hayes still says, “I don’t know myself. I am acquainted with myself, but not friendly.”

I suggested we try that game where you ask somebody to answer in three different ways, “Who are you?”

He said, “I’m Elvin.” Then he paused, and he had trouble speaking. “I—I—I don’t understand myself.” Then: “I’m a nice guy.”

As a junior in high school, he scored 928 points, with 500 rebounds, and then 1,132 points and 600-plus rebounds in his senior year. Scholarships began to dangle. He heard from Wisconsin, Miami, Illinois, all the teams of the Southwest Conference, a flock of Black schools, 40 colleges in all. 

He chose relatively unknown Houston. Inferiority played a part. “If I don’t succeed,” Hayes thought, “nobody will know.”

He succeeded, made the All-America teams, turned into a scoring and rebounding machine. More significantly, Elvin Hayes began to attack his other real problems. At Houston, his majored in Speech.

Try that for size. A deaf man, majoring in Music. A blind man, in Art. 

In his free time, Hayes began to work in a clinic in Houston, helping kids with speech problems. He taught them phonetic speech; he taught himself at the same time. Today, Hayes’ speech is almost devoid of regional character—pure, clean, accent-less. 

He enjoyed Houston immensely, the school, the city, the people. But when he tried to go home, he was lost. 

At Houston, Elvin Hayes met a girl, a year behind him. In his junior year, he courted her. In his senior year, they married. Elvin and Erna Hayes today have a son, Elvin, Jr. They live in the San Diego suburb, La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya), a lovely coastal town. When I spoke with Hayes, he was living in a rented house, but within weeks he would move into an $82,000 [today, $630,000], five-bedroom home in the hills of La Jolla. He has arrived. He is somebody.

Elvin Hayes, basketball player, got up on Sunday, October 27, at 8 a.m. He ate a light breakfast. He left for the San Diego airport to board a 10 a.m. PSA flight for Los Angeles. He and his teammates drove immediately to the Holiday Inn, near the LA airport, where Hayes promptly went to bed. He napped, watched TV, and tried not to think of the game. “If you think about the game, you get real worried. In 82 games, you’ll be a nervous wreck.”

He sat in the locker room, getting ready to meet Wilt Chamberlain. These were Elvin Hayes’ thoughts prior to that game:

“I don’t like to touch other centers. Don’t let them know where I am. You never know where Russell is. Against Wilt, I have to touch. Otherwise, he comes right in and scores. You need strength against Wilt. I weigh 235 pounds. I haven’t used weights since high school, but if I am going to be strong all season, I’ll have to start using weights. I tend to lose 10 pounds in a season. At 225, I’ll be too light. But Wilt is nice. He won’t turn around, charge into me. He doesn’t like offensive fouls.  

“I’ll psych him. I’ll talk to him. He will say, ‘Oh, oh, here comes Sad Mouth.’ But he’ll psych me back. With his strength. He’ll just lean into me, give me a little flick, and bounce me off, just to show me how strong he is.”

To Elvin Hayes, it all represented an acme, playing in the NBA. “I never once thought of playing in the ABA, no matter how much they’d offered.” It helped that the Houston Mavericks offered $300,000, and San Diego went straight to $440,000, bonus and salary, over a few years. Hayes signed quickly. 

At a few minutes past 7 p.m., Elvin Hayes shook hands with Chamberlain, asked Wilt to take it easy once more, and then the referee tossed up the ball, and Hayes leaped as high as he could. Chamberlain easily controlled that tap. 

Los Angeles led by 11 at the first quarter, increasing the margin the rest of the way. The Lakers did much of the damage underneath, right in Elvin Hayes’ turf. Fred Crawford drove in, brushed past Hayes, and laid it in. Hayes fouled him. A minute later, Wilt rebounded for another score. A minute and a half later, Chamberlain rebounded for another. Baylor tallied on a layup, Crawford on a rebound , and Wilt again, on a rebound. 

Still, Hayes hung in. It was not totally one-sided. Hayes put in a 13-foot jumper, and three minutes later went over Chamberlain to tap in a rebound. Forty seconds later, he tossed in a line drive from the foul line. But then he went seven minutes before putting in another short jumper. He found himself pushed away from the nets, shooting (and missing) and falling back. On defense, he did not keep that sharp forearm in Chamberlain’s back. He lightly touched Wilt’s arm, and Wilt, disdainful, turned in. 

It ended, 152-116. Hayes had played but 32 minutes of the 48-minute rout. 

Yet something else had happened out there. Yes, Wilt had turned to the bucket, and thrown in his destroying short shots, dunking, laying it in, tapping in rebounds. Yes, Hayes had been uncertain on the court, overpowered, far off his shooting game. 

The stats suggest another story. Chamberlain, playing five more minutes than Hayes, scored 28 points, just five more than Hayes. Chamberlain, unimpeded all night, had gotten off 18 shots. Hayes, uncertain, dogged by the big guy and by the legend, got off 30 shots. Only underneath the boards was it ghastly. Chamberlain had snatched off 23 rebounds. Hayes had nine.  

He’d lived through it. And he sat in the dressing room, alive and well, thank you.

“Intimidated?” he said to me. “Intimidated?” His voice had a hard edge. The smile was gone. “You’re not intimidated when you score 23 points.”

Jack McMahon called it Hayes’ worst game. It was. But it was also his best. He had seen the real Chamberlain, not the ersatz charmer of Seattle. He had seen Wilt give up his assist game and go the old route, grabbing for balls off the boards. 

Hayes had mixed with the big guy. His problem, as Jack McMahon sees it, is not size, or lack of. “Sure I’d like him to be as big as a Wilt. But he’s not. His problem is learning the league. Watch him when he comes back.”

It had been a learning night, a great and terrible lesson, in humility, in basketball, in power, in craft. 

Hayes got back out on the court, going around the league. On successive nights, he scored 40 points against Chicago and 54 against Detroit. Then he went back against Los Angeles. This time he scored 38, and everybody was impressed—even awed—by the youngster. He’d become decisive; he changed from a fallback jumper to an inside jumper, moving in with his shot. And a week after the Laker game, Hayes scored 45 against Seattle, to take over the NBA league lead. 

And he went on to become only the second rookie ever to win an NBA scoring title. The first? Wilt Chamberlain. 

This is the company Elvin Hayes is in. He is burying the myth of tenacious defender (his defense is good, but not great); he is burying his own notion that he is too small for the league and must therefore become not a scorer but another Russell. Russell may still be his idol, but Chamberlain’s points are his goal. He is a scorer, a fine scorer, and he will get better. He learned it the night he met Wilt, the real Wilt Chamberlain, and came away neither disgraced nor intimidated. 

He’d carried too much weight that night—awe weighs more than fat—and he let it burden him unduly. But when he came out, alive and well, with 23 points, with 30 shots thrown up against that giant with those cannon-barrel arms, Elvin Hayes left behind awe and intimidation. 

He became a man that night. 

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