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Last season, Hayes' regular-schedule scoring average fell off to 19.7 and he missed the top 20 for the first time, but that was entirely because of the substantial scoring help the Bullets received from free agent Bob Dandridge and Coach Dick Motta's philosophy of team play. When the Bullets finally broke their nine-year playoff losing streak last June, Hayes was virtually ignored in the Most Valuable Player balloting, though without him the Bullets would never have made it to the finals. He led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots in the championship series, as well as in the playoffs as a whole. Most people noted that Hayes scored just 12 points and fouled out with a little more than eight minutes left in the seventh game against Seattle. "Not too many people noticed that I was fronted and double-teamed the whole game," he says, "that Seattle's whole strategy was geared toward stopping me in that game, and that I was bumped and banged by Paul Silas and Jack Sikma all night. Really, there was not a forward in history who had a playoff like I had."
Unseld was voted the MVP largely because of his heroics in the final game. "Wes didn't even play in three of the games against Philadelphia," Hayes says. "Take away my points and where would we have been?"
Be it crutch, cop-out or genuine faith, his religion does make up for what Hayes has missed in basketball. "Finally winning the championship completes the picture," he says, "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."
Fear of failure began driving Hayes when he was growing up gangly in Rayville, La., a little cotton town 24 miles from Monroe, the hometown of Hayes' boyhood hero Bill Russell. Hayes' parents ran a cotton compress, and the six Hayes children were directed toward academic excellence. By the time Elvin was in the eighth grade, his three older brothers and his older sister had gone through or were in college, and his sister Bunnatine, one year Elvin's senior, was headed for a full scholarship at Southern University. "All my brothers and sisters were valedictorians or salutatorians," says Hayes. "I just said to myself, 'Well, I'm not going to do it.' It's not that I didn't have the ability; I just wanted to do things my own way."
When Elvin was in ninth grade his father died. His grades were below the family norm and he retreated into an impenetrable shell. "I never talked to anybody," he says. "My mother used to always be on me just to make me say one word. I never really had a friend, just my sister Bunny. When I started playing basketball I would sometimes talk to one or two of the guys, but after that I would go home to my room."
Blacks were not allowed to play on the outdoor courts at the then all-white Rayville High School; they mostly remained on the east side of the railroad tracks that divided the town. The area where Hayes grew up was called Niggertown by blacks and whites alike. The one outdoor court at Eula Britton High—the black school—had one wooden backboard with a rickety rim nailed to a light pole, and the floor was plain old Louisiana dirt. Hayes would practice 11 hours a day during the steamy summer days and nights. The gym in which Britton played its games had a cement-tile floor and brick walls flush behind each basket. "They didn't bother us so much," says Hayes. "We were a fast-break team and every one of us was on close terms with those walls."
In 1964, Hayes' senior year, Britton won 54 consecutive games. Having already developed his trademark turnaround jump shot, Hayes averaged 35 points per 32-minute game. At Baton Rouge in the state AA championship game for black schools, he scored 45 points, had more than 20 rebounds and was voted the tournament MVP. The next day he saw his name in the Baton Rouge paper. It was the first time it had ever been in print. "Back home in Rayville," he says, "no blacks ever got their name in the paper. Never."
The next fall, he, Don Chaney, who later played for the Celtics, and football player Warren McVea (Kansas City Chiefs) became the first blacks ever to play sports at the University of Houston. Hayes' immersion into the 99%-white student body constituted more than culture shock. "All I had known about white people was the way they treated blacks in Rayville, and I totally disliked them," he says. "I never had a white coach or teacher, and I never played any kind of game with or against a white person. About the only time I was ever near them was in the movie theater. The blacks sat upstairs and the whites downstairs and they had separate doors."
When not playing basketball or attending classes as a speech major, Hayes was rarely seen. In the summer he would go back to Rayville and play with the poor blacks on the dirt court. Houston Coach Guy Lewis and assistant Harvey Pate became surrogate fathers to Hayes, and because of the racial situation, he was often pampered. "Sometimes Lewis would really get on me in practice," says Hayes, "and I'd give him a real hurt kind of look and say, 'You just don't like black players.' He would get all upset and fall all over himself denying it and apologizing, and I'd stand there laughing, unable to convince him that I was only joking."
By 1967, Hayes' junior year, Houston had become a national power, beaten in the NCAA semifinals by UCLA and Hayes' bitter rival Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. That game set up one of the greatest matches in college basketball history. On Jan. 20, 1968, a national television audience and 52,693 fans at Houston's Astrodome watched Alcindor's Bruins, winners of 47 straight games and ranked No. 1, play Hayes' Cougars, 16-0, ranked No. 2. Hayes can re-create that game minute by minute because, to this day, it is his single biggest thrill in basketball. And when he decides to answer those who say he chokes, he recalls how he won the game.