The Washington Bullets, long in the tooth these days, short on team offense, and overrated defensively, still have a gate attraction in 6ft. 10in. forward Elvin Hayes, whose scoring figures each year suggest the work of a much younger man.
Milwaukee's Marques Johnson may be quicker, Philadelphia's Julius Erving more spectacular, and Boston's Larry Bird able to teach Hayes a ton about the passing game. But either late this season or early in the next one "The Big E" will become one of only six National Basketball Association players to have scored more than 25,000 points.
At an age (36) when most players are either out of the league entirely or starting to slow up, Hayes still logs 40 minutes or more a game. While he is not a runner in the John Havlicek tradition, Elvin is always moving, always creating openings for himself, always within scoring range of the basket.
"Hayes learned years ago how to cope with the defense," explained Bullets' Coach Gene Shue. "He's been dumped, held, pushed, and double-teamed all through this career, yet he still gets the kind of position inside that leads to baskets. He's got a very durable body, and the control he is able to maintain on the ball with just one hand is remarkable. A good defensive forward will make him work, of course, but when the game is over he's usually got his 20 points."
Hayes has never been overly popular with newspapermen because of what they consider low-yield interviews. He has never been Mr. Congeniality with his teammates, either, reportedly because some fell he doesn't always hustle and because he has never been much of a mixer off the court.
But at the same time, friends say, his work over the years with crippled children has gone largely unnoticed.
Many players claim they don't read what is written about them in the papers, but Elvin may be one of the few who means it.
"It's important to be yourself, to know what you can do, and then go out and do it," Hayes once told me. "You read the papers too much and you get hooked into believing what people say about you. Well, nobody knows you like you know yourself."
What Hayes was trying to get across, I think, is that shooters should shoot, playmakers should concentrate on hitting the open man, centers shouldn't worry about their lack of assists, and coaches should keep hands off once a veteran has proven himself.
Aside from his scoring and what a lot of people call man uneven effort on defense, Hayes has for years been known as one of the best rebounding forwards in the league. In fact, twice he led the NBA in rebounds (1969-70 and 1973-74), the only time over a 16-year period that the honor didn't go to either Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain.
Of course at 6-10 and 235 pounds, Elvin is built to last. But there have been plenty of other players over the years just as big physically who haven't done nearly as well under the boards.
Basically Hayes is a position-type rebounder with great anticipation, exceptional body control, long arms that seem to go in every direction, and the ability to hang in the air for what seems like an hour. The fact that he is only an average passer shouldn't count that much against him, since the primary interest of most NBA forwards is how often they can put the ball in the basket.
One thing that may have provided Elvin with extra motivation this season was the return of Shue, after five years in Philadelphia and two more in San Diego, to the Bullets as head coach. Both seem to understand the needs of the other, particularly the mental need Hayes has for 40 minutes of playing time a game.
So far Shue, with a team that desperately needs to be rebuilt, has succeeded only in slowing up the Bullets' offense, plus that of the opposition, so that Washington has been giving up the fewest points of any team in the league.
But that figure obviously means nothing if you lose more than you win, 12 -year veteran Wes Unseld can't more because of injuries, Bob Dandridge is out for the year, and Austin Carr has been reduced to 15 minutes of playing time a game.
What you do in that situation is the best you can, hope you get several outstanding players in next May's college draft, and be grateful that Elvin Hayes still purrs like a vintage Rolls-Royce on offense.