The sprawling white house sits back off the road behind a wrought-iron fence and dozens of lush pines. It could be the home of another high-powered executive on Piney Point, in an exclusive Houston suburb, where black people can usually be found only behind lawn mowers and hedge trimmers.
A Jeep Cherokee pulls into the circular drive and stops next to a Cadillac and a pair of Mercedes. The man unfolding from the Jeep is 6'9½" and dressed in a pair of worn blue jeans, a loose white cotton shirt, mud-crusted cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed straw hat. Sweat glistens on his arms and large stony face. With one huge hand he pulls a shovel, a spade and a pickax out of the Jeep and hoists them over a shoulder. But he is not here to do any gardening. He is Elvin Hayes of the NBA champion Washington Bullets, the master—at this moment—of all he surveys.
In his cozy den, which is furnished with plush antiques and thick rugs, two walls covered with photographs and trophies—the newest being an autographed basketball commemorating the Bullets' NBA championship of last spring—Hayes is as relaxed as a 32-year-old compulsive heavy laborer can be while wasting time in the middle of a late summer day. He has driven the Jeep in from his 89-acre cattle ranch 70 miles away in Brenham, where he spent the morning mending fences. There was so little time left before training camp, and so much work to be done. But in his den, with his family nearby, the man reputed to be a petulant brooder, cold, selfish, childish and—the worst name an athlete can be called—a choker, sits with his long legs outstretched, the hard face softened by a smile. On the glass-topped coffee table before him are two books, a Bible and They Call Me the Big E.
The E stands for Enigma as well as Elvin. To many basketball fans, Hayes is known as one of the original bad actors of sports' big-money era, a troublemaker who has doomed to certain failure every professional team he ever played for. As far as Hayes is concerned, the two books on the coffee table tell the real story. The autobiography traces Hayes' life from his hard days as a cotton picker in a segregated Louisiana town, to his sudden glory as an All-America at the University of Houston, to hard days as the professional basketball player who would succeed Wilt Chamberlain as the man people love to hate. The Bible, Hayes says, helped save him when, as a 24-year-old, internal thunderstorms caused him to contemplate suicide.
Even the winning of the championship after nine futile seasons failed to erase Hayes' reputation as a choker. The collapse of the Philadelphia 76ers, and injuries to Bill Walton and other Portland Trail Blazers, tainted the Bullets' win over the Seattle SuperSonics. Because Hayes fouled out of two of the final seven games—including the seventh—some fans felt that the Bullets won despite Hayes rather than because of him.
One does not have to go far to find people who dislike Hayes intensely. Alex Hannum, who coached him in San Diego during Hayes' most turbulent years, calls him to this day "the most despicable person I've ever met in sports." Reporters have been damning him for 10 years, the result of having had to chase him for low-yield interviews, and having been dealt with brusquely or stood up. Many opponents consider him a crybaby, some teammates feel he is selfish. Five years ago he stopped answering criticism and trying to correct misquotes and half-truths about himself. Last season his wife Erna and their three children, Elvin Jr., Erna Elisse and Erica, remained in Houston while Hayes lived alone in a rented house in Columbia, Md. On Thanksgiving he cooked a turkey and ate it alone. He did not spend a single social evening around Washington with a teammate, nor did he do more than eat a few meals with any of them on the road.
His prickly personality does not endear him to most of his teammates, some of whom consider him a finger pointer. For instance, after the Bullets blew a 19-point lead and lost to Seattle in the opening game of the championship series, Hayes criticized Center Wes Unseld in the newspapers for his lack of offense. Hayes insists his quotes were a year old and out of context. Nevertheless, Unseld was upset. He and Hayes have never been close. Says Unseld, "I always hear Elvin say, 'They're blaming Elvin.' I never hear anybody blaming Elvin. Not coaches or players, anyway, just the papers, and that happens to everybody when they lose. It's just that Elvin keeps calling attention to himself.
"I do my talking to other players face-to-face, not through the press. I don't dwell within Elvin. I don't know what he's thinking and I don't care. The person I know is the basketball player, and right now he is one of the best in the league. What he's done verifies that. We've had more than our share of run-ins off the court. But when he's on the court he's a professional and that's all that matters."
Since the Sunday in July 1973 when, Hayes says, "I accepted Jesus into my life," many skeptics have felt that Hayes chose religion as a ready-made excuse for smugness, a shroud behind which he can hide his gigantic ego. Nonetheless, religion has been the glue that has kept Hayes' life together. His convictions are reflected in his home and his well-behaved children. The two men he considers his idols are George Allen and Gerald Ford. He is tireless in his unpublicized service to crippled children, hospitals, Special Olympics and religious groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When he discusses religion, his voice, normally soft and hesitant, approximates the mellifluous tones of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. During the summer, he preaches regularly at various churches in the Houston area, and speaks from pulpits all over the country during the season. And when he finishes playing in two or three years, he expects to become the Rev. Elvin Hayes and pastor of his very own church.
Facts, however, do not always speak for themselves, especially in Hayes' case. In the face of the common rap that Hayes often gives less than 100% on the court is the fact that he is one of the game's iron men. In his 10 pro seasons he has missed a total of five games out of a possible 892. Four times he led the NBA in minutes played and he has averaged 42.3 minutes over his career. He led the league in scoring as a rookie in 1968-69 and twice led it in rebounding (1969-70 and 1973-74), the only man to intrude on the domain that for 16 years was exclusively held by Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He is the 10th highest scorer of all time and stands seventh in rebounding. The claim that Hayes may be great in the regular season but always folds in the playoffs will not make it up the flagpole, either. His average of 23.4 points in seven playoffs is the 10th-best mark of all time and just a half point below his regular-season average of 23.9. And his shooting percentage of .481 in the playoffs is 28 points better than what he shot in the regular seasons. He also has played in the All-Star Game in each of his 10 seasons.