Elvin Hayes versus Wes Unseld
An unfortunate part about being a Wizards/Bullets blogger and only 29 years old (and only having moved to DC in 1990), is that timing has deprived my memory and knowledgeable grasp of franchise history. But we all depend on people before us to tell the stories we don’t know. The more accounts there are, the better depiction we get of what actually transpired. This is what’s so great about team blogs, or “sites” maintained by sources which not apart of main stream media. They provide a more in depth view from wider angles, making the lore that much better for the future.
For my last birthday, a friend gave me ‘The Great Book of Washington, D.C. Sports Lists‘, written by Andy Pollin and Leonard Shapiro and published in 2008. These two guys have an insanely close relationship with sports in the city I love, and they turned to even more brilliant minds for assistance when composing their lists. While the book doesn’t exactly satisfy my desire for Bullets history tid-bits (to be expected in a Redskins town), it comes highly recommended for its Washington sporting facts, which are considered mostly minutia by ‘official’ historical accounts, but extremely savory to serious fans.
In reading, which I still continue to do, some lists twice, I came across some eyebrow raising commentary regarding the relationship between Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I previously had little knowledge of Hayes outside of him being a great player, and a member of the ’78-79 championship team. I simply haven’t taken the time to dive into research about him as I’ve done for more contemporary figures during my fandom period (such as Kevin Duckworth, Robert Pack, Larry Stewart, Scott Skiles, and Haywoode Workman).
Hayes and Unseld appear on three lists together:
- List: IT TAKES TWO (Odd Couples)
#2, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes: “Off the court, they plain didn’t like each other, but put them on a hardwood floor and they made sweet hoops music.”
- List: TOP 100 DC ATHLETES OF ALL-TIME
#14, Elvin Hayes: “Not the best loved by his teammates off the floor, but a tireless worker on it.”
- List: GAMES FOR THE AGES
#2, The Fat Lady Sings: “Ironically, the two men (Hayes and Unseld) despised each other off the court, but put their differences aside to help secure the title.”
Interesting that all three mentions tell of tumultuous relations between Hayes and Unseld. Could it be that the two greatest players in franchise history, the duo who together brought D.C. its only NBA title, just plain didn’t like each other?
It seems that Hayes didn’t exactly endear himself to owner Abe Pollin either. With the Wizards returning to China this year, we were reminded of a story the Washington Post’s Michael Lee wrote two years ago:
When Abe Pollin led the NBA’s first venture into China in the summer of 1979, not every member of the Washington Bullets shared the team owner’s enthusiasm. As players and their wives poured off a bus to take in the splendor of the Great Wall, Elvin Hayes and Dave Corzine refused to budge.
Pollin peered back and asked Hayes if he was coming. “I’ve seen a big wall before, Mr. Pollin,” Hayes told him. Wes Unseld tried to persuade Hayes by telling him the wall was the only man-made structure that can be seen from outer space. To which Hayes responded, “I’m never going into outer space.”
Pollin was so infuriated afterward he swore that he’d never take his team on another trip. “One of the wonders of the world,” Pollin said recently in a telephone interview, “and they didn’t get out of the bus.”
I mean, what kind of jerk refuses to get off the bus when already there? A pretty big one as indicated by Hayes’ personality through more research. Hayes often spent time boasting about himself, at times criticizing teammates, including Unseld, and his stats reflected a ‘me first, shoot first’ attitude.
Hayes once told Tex Winter, “I’m an all-star. Don’t expect me to pass. It’s like asking Babe Ruth to bunt.” Poor Tex, he’s not in the Hall of Fame, and has had to deal with some of the best players/prima donnas in NBA history.
It’s worth noting that Winter only coached Hayes for one season, in ’71-72 with the Houston Rockets. In that season, Hayes put up career high assist numbers (3.3 apg, 2.8 ast/36 min, and 11.7 ast%) but more on Hayes’ passing, or lack thereof, later. It’s also worth noting that the Rockets only won 34 games that year. Winter would later admit that in his first season as an NBA head coach, trying to turn a great scoring center like Hayes into a passer, and treating his players like they were in college, were bad ideas. He concluded, “It was as much my fault as it was [Hayes'].” Winter’s days as an NBA head coach were limited, but went on to be one of the greatest NBA assistants of all time.
Other indications of Hayes’ personality come via his NBA.com/history profile:
Hayes was immensely popular with fans, who appreciated his dominating style of play as well as his persona off the court. But he was less endearing to coaches and teammates. Critics felt he had an attitude problem that sometimes short-circuited the teams he played for and gave him a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.
“For some players and coaches, being around Elvin every day is like a Chinese water torture,” John Lally, a trainer with the Washington Bullets when Hayes was with the team, told the Washington Post. “It’s just a drop at a time, nothing big, but in the end, he’s driven you crazy.”
More tales come from the Sport Illustrated Vault and, ‘Whatever Happens, It’ll Be Washington,’ by Curry Kirkpatrick (June 5, 1978). Kirkpatrick wrote after game three of the ’78 NBA Finals against the Sonics, which followed the rare 1-2-2-1-1 format with the opening and final games taking place in Seattle:
Hayes, who reinforced his reputation as basketball’s quintessential choker in Game 1 by hiding in the fourth quarter while being terrorized by Silas, accepted media criticism with E-quanimity. “I ain’t talkin’ to no press,” he said. “All that stuff is history. You want history, you can go to the library.”
None of the reference books, however, explained why [Bobby] Dandridge scored only six points in the opener when, as he likes to tell his coach, Dick Motta, while skipping practice, “I’m an artist, not a house painter.”
Kirkpatrick continued …
Hayes’ and Dandridge’s response was to blast Unseld. “It’s the same old story,” said Dandridge. “The other team just leaves Wes alone and double-teams us inside. If Wes were capable of making those 15-footers, we’d be O.K.”
And Hayes said, “Our guards get criticized for not playing defense, our forwards for not scoring, but I never hear a word about our center. Mitch Kupchak can shoot. He ought to play more.”
Though Unseld referred to these remarks as the work of “a prostitute sports-writer,” the quotes were accurate. So, as it turned out, were Hayes’ and Dandridge’s shots in Game 2.
Of course, the Bullets went on to win the most unlikely of championships, seemingly curing all ills, especially when looking back on history today. But there were some indications that the Bullets won the championship despite Hayes. A passage from another SI Vault article, ‘The Big E Wants An MVP’, written by John Papanek in October 1978:
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.”
Much of Unseld’s high road goes to show what type of person he is, and why Pollin has remained so loyal to Big Wes as a valuable part of the franchise. Because we all know that Unseld’s coaching record (202-345, 2-3 in the playoffs), or GM history, aren’t exactly reasons to keep him on the payroll.
I’ve recently grown even more respect for Unseld’s character via J. Freedom du Lac’s piece in the Washington Post called, ‘30 Years Later, Visit to China Still Resonates‘. Quotes from Unseld:
They just told us not to do anything stupid — which as members of a professional team we were apt to do sometimes. I learned some Chinese, too: hello, goodbye, I’m sorry — things like that.
At the hotel in Peking, they had American food on one side, and the other side was Chinese food. My wife and I, we had Chinese everything. Why go to China and eat bacon and eggs?
I was a history major in college and wanted to see everything I could. We took a bus to the Great Wall, and a couple of my teammates didn’t get off the bus. I don’t know if they were tired or what, but I was embarrassed.
One, for people who know me, I get somewhat annoyed by ultra picky eaters, or at least those who are unwilling to try something new. It’s like that episode of The Office when Michael Scott is in New York City, looking for an ‘authentic’ slice of pizza, and proceeds to go into Sbarro (ok, not exactly an example of ‘picky’, but easily a similar display of absurdity).
Plus, if you are going to travel to another country, especially on a ‘diplomatic’ mission of sorts, you should display a willingness to be open and respect the culture, unlike slugs like Hayes and Corzine, the latter saying, “I was thrilled to get to Hong Kong. Most of us headed straight to McDonald’s.” At the time, Corzine was in his early 20s, so he gets a bit of a pass. Hayes, on the other hand, was in his early 30s. Unseld was right to be embarrassed, gently suggesting Hayes and Corzine might have been tired, while the previous account of Pollin depicts Hayes as being downright belligerent.
Shoot First, Shoot Second, Shoot Third
While a great player and a hard worker who rarely missed a game, Hayes was a malcontent locker room presence, difficult to deal with, and not the best teammate, especially in terms of sharing the ball. To further expand upon Hayes’ passing ineptitude, I turned to the Basketball-Reference.com database.
Since 1964-65, when assist percentage (an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on on the floor) begins its availability (Hayes was a rookie in ’68-69), there have only been a handful seasons where players have had:
- An 6.5 assist % or below,
- An average of 37 or more minutes per game,
- An average of 20 or more points per 36 minutes, and
- A PER of 17 or greater.
Here, I’m trying to highlight how great of player and scorer Hayes was (via PER and PP/36), along with how many minutes he was on the court, in comparison to his mediocre contributions to overall team passing with assist percentage.
An expanded comparison would be to find all seasons where a player:
- Averaged 17 or more field-goal attempts per 36 minutes,
- Averaged 1.8 or less assists per 36 minutes,
- Had an assist % 6.3 or below, and
- Appeared in more than 75 games.
Another interesting item of note is that Wayman Tisdale’s ’89-90 season is the only one that among both stat sets that touches the 1990s and beyond. Modern players simply are not allowed to dominate shot attempts while refusing to share the ball. This could be an indication that there are more egos (or guys with the ability to score) in today’s game, and less players solely willing to perform dirty work. But such a hypothesis would obviously need more concrete theories and a much deeper statistical analysis of NBA trends over the years.
“Take Me Out Coach”
The famed title run wasn’t the first time Hayes was accused of being a choker. In the late 60s, but mostly early 70s, the New York Knicks and the Bullets had a heated rivalry. A particular first round series in April of 1974 that went seven games stands out to many.
The stats will say that Hayes averaged 25.9 points, 15.9 rebounds and three assists on .531 from the field against the Knicks. But the stats won’t tell you is that some guy named John Gianelli held one of the greatest players in NBA history in check during the deciding game of a hotly contested series. In the seventh game, Hayes only scored 12 points on 5-15 from the field. Gianelli, only 23 years-old at the time, was allowed to score 12 points and snag 15 rebounds, 11 of them offensive. The Knicks took game seven 91-81.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to throw around the word ‘choke’, there wouldn’t have been a seventh game without Hayes. Then again, when your best player simply does not show up in such an important game, and elects to retract into a shell instead of using his talents in other ways, something is clearly amiss.
Gianelli thought Hayes was injured because he kept asking out of the game. Afterward, Hayes told reporters that he wanted to go to the bench because he wasn’t playing well. Giving up on your teammates, your coach, and the fans like that is unacceptable.
It’s tough to paint Hayes as such a bad character without ever knowing him, but written words speak volumes. That being said, I clearly can’t imagine what it was like being in Hayes’ shoes. Growing up in a typical small, segregated, and racist Southern town in Louisiana, the chip he developed on his shoulder likely caused him to both succeed, and acted to his detriment. Throughout his career, Hayes had many struggles within himself, such as trying to find the right coach, or attempting to find himself religiously.
He once took criticism to heart so much that he thought about suicide. “One day I read one of those stories about me and I said to myself, ‘Wow, where does it all end? The best thing to do is kill myself.’ I lived up in the hills of La Jolla and I’d be driving home late at night—I had this fast car—and the thought of just running it off the road was always with me,” said Hayes in Papanek’s SI article.
Hayes’ career, good and bad, is in the past. And the most important part is that Washington, D.C. managed to get a champion in the process. Boy, that Dick Motta must have been a helluva coach. Having a humbled and hobbled big man like Unseld willing to do the dirty work, along with the contributions of Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak, Phil Chenier, Kevin Grevey, and Tom Henderson, didn’t hurt either.
Since, Hayes had made somewhat of an amends with his life path. As far back as the late 80s, he was calling Unseld to congratulate him on the Bullets head coaching gig, while playing a bit of a joke on him.
“I saw Wes go night after night on those bad knees,” Elvin Hayes said from Houston. “He played with all heart.”
When Unseld became the Bullets’ head coach on Jan. 4, Hayes called and pretended he was a Texas sportscaster hot for an exclusive.
“He fell for it for about five minutes,” Hayes said.
Relaying that to Unseld caused his face to break into a familiar smile-scowl.
“How’s Elvin gonna pretend?” he said. “I knew who it was right away.”
(‘Wes Unseld’s Route to the Hall of Fame’ – By Ken Denlinger, The Washington Post – May 07, 1988)
When being honored as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1997, Hayes even had the audacity to criticize Allen Iverson for playing like a “runaway train” (via a blurb in Sports Illustrated by Seth Davis). Hayes continued, “The bottom line is what your team does, and his team is not doing anything. If he doesn’t show respect for the top players, then maybe he should read up on them. His head is in the wrong place.”
Hayes concluded, “When I left basketball, I was much more humble than when I first came.” If only we all could learn the lessons of tomorrow in the present.
Today, Hayes has virtually no connection with the world of basketball. In 2007 he became an officer of the law, and continues to be involved in the automobile sales industry in Houston. He now talks more trash about government takeovers than about coaching instruction.
A 2004 New York Times article, ‘Diamond Is Forever in the Big E’s Heart‘, exemplifies how a man with so much talent just didn’t have a love for the game of basketball. Pretty ironic considering that Hayes is one of the greatest players in franchise history, and one of only four players to have their number retired. Meanwhile, Unseld continues to serve the team and the basketball community as a whole. Two different guys, two different paths, one ring … I suppose fans of Les Boulez wouldn’t have it any other way.