For the Bullets, the season might have been much worse were it not for Elvin Hayes, who has done an extraordinary job of filling the void left by Unseld. He has played more minutes (45 per game) than any man in the NBA, his rebounding average of 18.6 is far ahead of anyone else's and, despite a wretched .413 shooting percentage, he is clearly having his most brilliant season.
Hayes had some fine years—at least statistically—with the Rockets before joining the Bullets last season. He is the only man whose name is not Russell or Chamberlain who has led the NBA in rebounding for even so much as a singgle season between 1958 and 1973. And he is one of five players in the league's history ever to win titles in both scoring and rebounding.
Yet during his four years with the Rockets, Hayes was variously considered a ball hog, a rotten apple, a dumbbell and a guaranteed loser. Each season Hayes would try to explain that he was the victim of circumstance—as the lone big-name player on a poor team he was being assessed an unfair portion of the blame. And he would promise to sweeten his often sullen demeanor. By the time he left Houston, the NBA had come to expect an annual "New Big E" to go along with the yearly "New Wilt."
As it turned out, all Hayes needed was a new team. He fit in easily with the Bullets, played excellently last season and has been even better this year, particularly in those areas only other players are likely to notice. Forward Mike Riordan points to Hayes' improvement at picking and passing, additions to his game that have helped replace Unseld's considerable expertise. Hayes also has been a human Electrolux under both backboards. In 27 games this season he has ended up with more rebounds than points, a remarkable feat for a player who regularly scores more than 20.
Along with all that, Hayes' on-court personality has improved, too, a change he credits to his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. He was mowing the lawn at his Houston house one day last summer when, he says, "I received a prophecy. The voice of God reached me and led me to the Church of Holiness."
The genuinely "New Big E" will need all the inspiration he can get in the playoffs if the Bullets hope to defeat New York, their likely first-round opponent. Against the Knicks at the Centre last Friday, Capital won half the game—the first and third periods—but obviously felt Unseld's absence in losing the other two quarters and the game 112-103. Often firing from behind Hayes' picks, Guard Phil Chenier gave the Bullets 20 points in the opening period. And for once Porter's defense fouled up opponents, not himself, as Capital broke to its early lead. He stole the ball and drew an offensive personal from Earl Monroe and harassed The Pearl and Walt Frazier into traveling violations.
That Porter also pulled in one of his team's total of two offensive rebounds in the period was an indication of things to come. With Jerry Lucas' long bombs drawing Hayes outside to guard him, the Bullets were outrebounded 18-4 in the second quarter. New York fast-broke at will and led by nine at the half.
Hayes dominated the rebounding in the third quarter—he had 11 overall in the second half—and the Bullets briefly regained the lead. But in the fourth period Dave DeBusschere hit for 10 points, first victimizing Unseld's two subs, rookies Nick Weatherspoon and Tom Kozelko, and then Hayes, who stayed too close to the basket to stop DeBusschere's outside shots. The Knicks surged to the win.
If Unseld is unable to play effectively, the dilemma of guarding New York outside while trying to rebound inside could be one that will stymie the Bullets over and over again in the playoffs. And the result is apt to be an unpretty picture that not even the most avid Telscreen watchers are going to want to see instantly replayed very many times.