"One of our first games that year was up in Waco, against Chicago," Hayes recalls. "I'm messing around with the ball in the high post and all my teammates are on the other side. Now the clock's running down and I have to shoot. But I'm not supposed to. Well, I must have had four or five shots in a row blocked. And I never have my shots blocked. Guards were blocking my shots."
Hayes' masquerade as a passer was never satisfactorily explained to the Houston fans, and even they got down on him for not shooting. Soon Hayes decided that the experiment was over, and one night he came out shooting and scored 37 points. Afterward Winter told him, "You're fighting me." The season was disastrous. The San Diego stories were retold, and Hayes wanted out. "Elvin carried quite a burden and I felt sorry for him," says Winter. "The Houston people bought the Rockets solely because of him. They thought he'd fill the Astrodome like he did one time in college. Instead we played some games there in front of 500 people. He was crushed. On top of that, I found him so lacking in fundamentals. It's true that I tried to mold him into my concept of what a post man should be, but I could not get any response from him and that caused all sorts of problems on the club. He knew he was more valuable than I was and there was just no way I could build a young club around him."
In 1972, Hayes got his trade to the Bullets, and 47 games into the following season Tex Winter was gone, too. Bullet Coach Gene Shue recognized that Hayes' strength lay in scoring and rebounding—and even better, Shue had the luxury of returning Hayes to his natural forward position, because Unseld was there to play the pivot. Shue also knew how to communicate with the modern superstar. "Nobody is going to blame you if we lose," he told Hayes. "Nobody is going to say anything if you miss a shot or commit a turnover. Just play ball, Elvin. Forget all that stuff you got in San Diego and Houston. All that is over."
Hayes saw in Shue another Guy Lewis. In Hayes' eyes, Shue was clean, Catholic, crew-cut and compassionate. His was the kind of life Hayes craved. So Hayes, raised a Methodist, converted to Catholicism. That season the Bullets won the Central Division title, only to lose in the playoffs to the New York Knicks. Shue left the Bullets for Philadelphia, but his impression on Hayes was lasting.
At home that summer in Houston, Hayes was attending Mass regularly but was becoming disenchanted with the Catholic ritual. In general, he felt uneasy about his future. "All the things I had done in my life made it seem like I had succeeded," he says, "and yet I knew I had failed. I was not the person I really wanted to be. If I was successful, where was the joy?"
One Sunday while mowing his lawn, Hayes felt moved to join Erna at her Pentecostal church. During the service he was called to the pulpit by the Rev. J. L. Parker. "He whispered in my ear, 'God showed me your life,' " Hayes says. "And he told me about some things I had done in San Diego, New York and back in Louisiana. He didn't have any way of knowing these things, and yet he did. He said, 'Christ had told us to enter into a closet and pray secretly to the Father. He will answer you in the open.' "
Hayes took Parker's words almost literally. He took his Bible into a tiny room and remained for days, reading Revelation and Matthew. When he came out, he says, "I was infused with the spirit of Jesus." News of Hayes' rebirth was met with skepticism. Stories of his problems in Houston and San Diego were recycled, as if they would somehow invalidate Hayes' religious experience.
In 1973, K.C. Jones took over as the Bullets' coach. That year they again won their division, and again lost in the playoffs to the Knicks. The following season, with Unseld, Mike Riordan, Truck Robinson and Nick Weatherspoon up front, and Phil Chenier, Kevin Porter and Jimmy Jones in the backcourt, the Bullets were a powerhouse. They won 60 games and tied Boston for the best record in the league. In the playoffs they took out Buffalo, the league's third-best team, and then the Celtics in six games to reach the finals. Their opponent was Golden State, an underdog that had somehow beaten Chicago. The Warriors were given no chance against the Bullets, but swept the series 4-0.
Hannum's explanation was, "Hayes quit colder than a mackerel." Others noted that the bench support that powered the Bullets to the finals had disappeared. Weatherspoon, who had come off the bench to rattle Buffalo and Boston with 12.2 points a game, had a total of 16 against the Warriors. Jones, the steady third guard, was lost with a knee injury in the Boston series. With him gone, the Warriors' strategy was to harass Porter, the Bullets' volatile point guard. They succeeded in keeping him in constant foul trouble. Because Unseld is not a scorer, and Riordan was being eaten alive by Rick Barry, it was clear that Hayes would have to be the Bullets' show. So Golden State threw waves of big forwards at him, just as Seattle did last year. Hayes averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, but that was not enough. The Bullets' starters out-scored the Warriors' starters 321-251, but Golden State got 147 points from its bench while Washington had just 61.
The next year the Bullets were even stronger on paper. With Dave Bing replacing Porter, they had four All-Stars in the starting lineup. But they were upset by Cleveland in the playoffs. Hayes got most of the blame again, and when K. C. Jones was fired, some blamed Hayes for that as well. In 1977, after Houston knocked the Bullets out, Dick Motta, Washington's new coach, beat most reporters to the question: "It seems that whenever the Bullets lose in the playoffs Elvin gets blamed." And so he did.