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Throwback Thursday: Remembering Elvin Hayes

Rafael Suanes/USA TODAY Sports

This week we look at one of the greatest offensive players in the history of the league, and hands down one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game, Elvin Hayes. Ninth all-time in points scored, fourth in minutes played and 14th in games played, Hayes was really good for a really long time.

In Hayes’s 16 year career, he only ever missed nine games. A true iron man, his drive and dedication stemmed from Rayville, Louisiana, his place of birth. In a small town where poverty and racism ran rampant, Hayes saw basketball as an opportunity for a better future for him and his family.

The funny thing was, Hayes didn’t even play basketball until the eighth grade. Hayes’s height caught the eye of a teacher at his school, and the teacher thought that basketball could have a two-way relationship with the troubled teen — the sport would provide the teen with discipline and structure, and the teen would provide the team with some size.

Standing at 6-foot-5 in ninth grade, Hayes was a behemoth. Unfortunately for the first-year player, he was quite clumsy and had no skill or knowledge about the game. Fortunately, the teen didn’t take kindly to the pokes at his ineptitude and used the jabs to fuel his fire.

Over the course of the next summer, Hayes worked diligently on developing his skills. Playing into the night, the benchwarmer almost became a star overnight. Gone was the kid who slapped the ball to dribble; now there was a confident young man who saw how gifted he was and how blessed he was with his size and athleticism.

By Hayes’s senior year, he put up 35 points a game and led his team to the state championships for African-American high schools (Hayes played during a time of segregation).

Hayes’s high school career opened a lot of eyes, and he jumped at the opportunity to play at the University of Houston, becoming the first African-American to play basketball there. During his stellar four-year college career, Hayes averaged 31.0 points and 17.2 rebounds. His senior year was one for the books, as he averaged 36.8 points and 18.9 rebounds in 38.5 minutes per game.

It should be no surprise that when Hayes declared for the NBA Draft, he was selected first overall; the numbers speak for themselves! Almost immediately following his contract and newfound wealth, Hayes gave a portion of his money to help build new recreational facilities at his old high school, hoping to help improve life around Rayville.

Hayes made an immediate impact with the San Diego Rockets, leading not only the team but the league in scoring at 28.4 points per game. Adding an average of 17.1 rebounds a game, the league saw fit for him to start at center for the Western Conference All-Stars in the annual All-Star game.

Unbelievably, Hayes didn’t win Rookie of the Year with those numbers. That honor went to Wes Unseld, who actually went on to win NBA MVP that year as well (with averages of 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds). One of the biggest reasons Wes took the honors was even with Hayes’s great numbers, the Rockets only had a 37-45 record — good for fourth in the Western Division — while Wes’s Bullets posted a 57-25 record, best in the league.

In the end, Hayes became good friends with his rookie rival. Four years later, Hayes was traded to the Bullets where he and Wes teamed up to lead the team to three straight NBA Finals. Hayes saw NBA immortality during the 1977-78 season when the Bullets won the NBA championship, in large part due to Hayes leading the team in points (21.8) and rebounds (13.3) in the playoffs.

The championship helped liberate Elvin Hayes in the league, to an extent, as he was infamous for butting heads with his coaches and his tendency to not be on the same page. Headstrong and determined, it was tough on coaches and Hayes to see eye-to-eye on some issues, causing friction between them and between Hayes and the team, especially during a down season.

Despite his reputation around the league, Hayes was widely regarded as one of the best players of his generation, and it’s undeniable the type of production he put in. In 16 seasons, Hayes finished as a 12-time All Star, one-time NBA scoring champion, a two-time NBA rebounding leader, an NBA champion and an NBA Hall of Famer.

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