Elvin Hayes: The Meaning of the Letter E, 1982

[Several years ago, I interviewed the great Gene Shue, and we talked about his years coaching the Baltimore Bullets. That took us to the Bullets’ 1974 swap of forward Jack Marin for Elvin Hayes, a trade that Shue called “a no-brainer.” Then Shue offered the following: 

“Elvin, in my opinion, was probably the best power forward that we’ve ever had [in the NBA]. I know most people want to say Karl Malone. But Elvin Hayes . . . there really wasn’t anything that he couldn’t do. He had great speed, great quickness. He was a great post-up player. He could shoot from the outside. He was an outstanding rebounder and ran the floor. He was a terrific shot blocker. I mean, he was really, really athletic.”

One man’s informed opinion, but an informed opinion that’s generally not shared by Shue’s basketball contemporaries. In some case, quite the opposite. For example, take the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan. He called the Big E “his least-favorite NBA player” and offered the following synopsis in his 2014 autobiography, Scribe: My Life in Sports: 

“Hayes was a limited player, completely mechanical with no Plan B. It was turnaround jumper, turnaround jumper, turnaround jumper, and maybe an occasional dunk. He was very unfulfilling artistically.”

So, which is it? All-time great? Or Mr. Unfulfilling? Let’s take a closer look. Here’s an article from late in Hayes’ career that makes the strong case that the Big E’s critics are mistaken. It’s from the Denver Post’s Irv Moss, and the story ran in the March 1982 issue of Basketball Digest. Take a look.]

Followers of the National Basketball Association for years have used the nickname The Big E as a shortcut when talking about Elvin Ernest Hayes. But now, as his long-and-illustrious career in the pros is drawing to a close, the meaning of the letter E in his nickname should be changed from Elvin to Everything, because that’s what he’s done in the NBA.

Hayes agrees. The best way to understand the reason for the change is to list all the recognized legends of the game—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, and others—and then see how Hayes ranks in relationship. Soon it becomes apparent that the main difference is that Hayes is still playing. 

“I couldn’t rank third on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list behind Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and not be among the top players,” Hayes pointed out. He wasn’t trying to sound overly impressed with himself, but was just pointing to the evidence. 

“Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit are both behind me on the all-time scoring list,” Hayes continued. Hayes had the numbers to prove his case. 

“I’ve achieved,” Hayes explained. “I would be backtracking to compare myself with the younger players in the league today. They’re still trying to prove what I already have achieved.”

He played in 12 straight NBA All-Star Games, missing for the first time just last season. He’s led the league in scoring twice and rebounding twice. He’s only one of a few players who can point to more than 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds on their career totals.

Entering this season, Hayes was sixth on the NBA all-time scoring list, ranking behind Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry West, with a chance to possibly move ahead of Robertson, Havlicek, and West if he can maintain a 20-point average and play two more seasons. 

“I’d like to play at least 15 years,” Hayes explained. “That would be one more after this year.”

For Hayes, 36, going from Washington to Houston was like going home again. “Houston was where everything began for me,” Hayes explained. For one thing, he was a star at the University of Houston. Then he returned to the city as a pro for one year in 1971, when the Rockets franchise moved from San Diego to Houston. 

“I’ve always lived there,” Hayes pointed out. “I never really moved to Washington.” Hayes played in the Washington area for nine years. Now, in Houston again, Hayes is hopeful the Rockets can recreate one of his previous experiences.

“I hope to get another shot at being on an NBA champion,” Hayes explained. “Last year, this team went right to the finals, and it has the most-dominant, active big man in the league in Moses Malone.”

Hayes was on his only NBA championship team in the 1977-78 season with the Bullets. “I know the quality of team it takes to win the championship,” Hayes continued. “Moses is the prime big man in the league. Wes Unseld was a great player at Washington, but Moses is more mobile at 6-feet-11. Fans get their money’s worth when they watch him play.

Hayes has moved into a starting position at forward for the Rockets and, after a month of action, he was the team’s No. 2 scorer and rebounder. If Hayes is in the twilight of his career, he doesn’t want incorrect figures to make it too dark.

“I don’t know where they got that birthdate,” Hayes commented about the November 17, 1945, listing in the NBA Register. “That’s been wrong since I’ve been in the league. Everyone keeps trying to add on the years. They were saying I was too old when we won the championship in 1978.

“I came into the league just one year before Kareem,” Hayes explained, using the Los Angeles center as a reference point. 

“I do my job, and that’s all I’m worried about right now,” Hayes acknowledged. “I’ve been the most-consistent player in the league over the last 14 years. One important key has been no major injuries. I’ve gone past guys [in career statistics] who people say were the greatest players ever to play the game.”

[Hayes finished out the 1981-82 season averaging 16 points per game. From there, he played two more seasons, averaging 13 and 5 points per game. Not quite the 20 points per game that Hayes needed, but he came close.]

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