It was a natural, no matter which way the dice fell. Elvin Hayes, the super-rookie from Houston, fresh from a 54-point outburst against Detroit and ready to take on the world, was taking on Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell within a 24-hour period. Pro basketball fans could hardly wait. But someone forgot to tell Jack McMahon, the thick-necked Irishman who coaches the Big E at San Diego.
Darn that McMahon, anyway—no sense of the dramatic. What he did on Friday night in Los Angeles was to start Hayes at forward for the first time this year. And the closest Hayes got to Wilt all night was in the fourth quarter when he stole a rebound out of the big fellow's hands, dribbled the length of the court and slammed home as pretty a layup as you'll ever want to see. Poor Wilt. He just stood there at the other end of the court, arms outstretched and wondering what you have to do to put down a young upstart like that.
Of course, you've got to give Chamberlain credit. When Hayes came bounding back up the court, Wilt slid over and said, "Hey, E, you're hitting pretty good tonight." Pretty good? That's like telling Orphan Annie she's looking younger every comic strip. All Hayes did as a forward, in his first experience at that position as a pro, was score 38 points. Not bad for a kid who, because he idolizes Bill Russell, thinks the name of the game is defense.
"I remember when I used to watch NBA games on television," Hayes was saying last Friday afternoon. "I figured all they did was run up and down the court. Run and shoot. Nothing but offense. I figured I'd have a field day against the pros. Shoot, I thought, if those guys don't zone me or put three guys on me, I'll score a million points a game." Then he grinned and shook his head. "Boy, did I find out the hard way just how wrong I was. This league is nothing but defense—hard-nosed, take-it-to-them, bang-them-around defense. This is a rugged game, and if you don't have a strong constitution you had better keep your bags packed, because you're not going to be around very long."
If Hayes discovered he was wrong about the way the pros play the game, he also discovered he had the constitution. Going into his back-to-back appointments with Chamberlain and Russell, he had grabbed 249 rebounds and averaged 29.9 points a game during 617 minutes of combat in the Rockets' first 14 games. Usually he plays the full 48 minutes. Until Friday night he played nowhere but at center, although he was an All-America forward his last two seasons at Houston.
"Look at it this way," a club official was saying after Friday night's game, which Los Angeles won 127-119, "basketball is a game of confidence, and after scoring 54 points against Detroit Elvin is at a point where he figures he can take on anybody. Now, don't you think it would be silly of McMahon to bring him along to that point and then ask him to go up against Chamberlain and Russell on successive nights? Nobody goes up against those two guys and comes out feeling good. A thing like that could set Hayes back half a season."
The last to argue that point probably would be Elvin Hayes. He's confident, certainly; but he's also intelligent and just a shade in awe of the two towering veterans. Awed but unafraid.
"Last summer, while Russell was in Los Angeles making a TV film," Hayes said, "he spent three days coaching me. One thing he told me was that Wilt was going to get his 20, 30 points a game, and he was going to get his rebounds, and nobody in the world was going to stop him. If Wilt wants to score, well, he's just going to score. Where you have to stop him is on his assists, his assists up the middle. Bill said if you don't stop him there he'll destroy you."
Hayes began to laugh. "That dunk shot of Wilt's, it's inhuman. Not a man in the world can stop that, and I'd sure hate to be the one that had to try. One time I was under the basket when he dunked a shot. The force was unbelievable, unreal. I remember Nate Thurmond telling me—he said, 'Elvin, don't go in there and get yourself hurt.' "
Chamberlain also met with Hayes before the season began. That was in New York when they both played in the Dr. Martin Luther King benefit game. Wilt had this bit of advice for the 6'9", 230-pound rookie: "Elvin, there are certain things you can't do when you play against me. Now, you can go outside and make the shot. But if you come inside on me, I'll take the ball away from you. O.K.?"
"O.K.," said Elvin Hayes.
Saturday night, when Russell moved in with his front-running Celtics, McMahon was right back with his confidence game. Hayes was at forward; poor Henry Finkel was the center. With Russell, the master defender, usually a safe distance away, Hayes poured in 26 points and had 17 rebounds. (Boston won, of course, 120-112.)
"With Russell," said Hayes "you never know what to expect. He has such great lateral movement. He's always got an angle on you. He told me that he can take just two steps and block a shot from any position on the court. I remember the first time I was matched up against him. I was out in the corner and he was under the basket. I figured it was safe to shoot. But as I went up, there he was, tipping the shot. I said to him, 'Big Bill, why do you have to hustle so against a poor little rookie like me?' He said, 'Elvin, I've got a reputation to protect.' "
Later Saturday night Russell sat in the visitors' dressing room, tired but more than a little pleased with Hayes's performance. "That Elvin—saying I'm his idol," said Russell gruffly, but grinning. "It's darn embarrassing. But he's a good kid. And he's going to be a great player. He's outstanding right now, but, of course, he's got a lot to learn."
"Like what?" someone asked.
Russell's laughter, deep and rich, boomed out. "I can't hardly tell him that. At least not while we're still playing." Then he added, softly, "But if he was to ask me himself, I'd tell him."
Russell shook his head. "There's just one thing—when he gets out on the court and tries talking to me. Now that's my game. But I don't listen to him. The only time I listen to anybody out there is when I'm the one doing the talking."
As Wilt can do nothing but watch, Elvin dunks one against the Lakers on Friday. The next night, with a big E on his back, he gets the tip from Russell on a jump ball.