Up with the Texas sun, Elvin Hayes and Charles Johnson bummed a ride to the airport yesterday with two newspapermen for whom the morning came too, too early. But as long as a guy had to be awake, he might as well ask a dumb question. So a scribbler said, "Elvin, aren't you playing great in this playoff?"
Hayes is a wonderful player for the Bullets. Everyone knows that, including Hayes, whose baggage does not include excess modesty. Maybe never has he more deserved applause than in the current playoffs with San Antonio, for he has at last become that most precious of jewels, a star who fits in. Hayes still has his act, as Dr. J yet has his, but now he shares center stage and the Bullets are the better for it.
Anyway, it was daybreak in San Antonio and the newspaperman was asking Elvin Hayes if he was playing great and Hayes was about to answer the question when here came this laugh out of the back seat and Johnson said wildly, "Don't jump to any conclusions."
Hayes turned a mock glare on Johnson, who then said, "I don't know that I'd want to say how Elvin is playing." Pause. "He's bigger than me."
Another pause, then conspiratorially, "Wait until we're out of the car and then ask me if he's playing great."
Hayes was still glaring at Johnson, trying hard to put on a mean face, and he was loving the whole thing. These are good times for Hayes and he can laugh at the impishness of Johnson. Not many Bullets are close to Hayes, but Johnson is. A six-year pro who joined the team only three months ago, Johnson preaches a litany of teamwork by professionals. Coincidental or not, Hayes now practices what Johnson preaches.
Tomorrow night at Capital Centre, the Bullets can eliminate San Antonio in their Eastern Division semifinal playoffs. Only 10 days ago, such a development would have seemed the stuff of lunacy. A lot of people, including some with access to typewriters (blush), believed the Spurs would run the Bullets silly and get it over with quickly.
Wrong, wrong. Johnson has been an inspiration from 20 feet, Bobby Dandridge a joy at both ends of the floor, Wes Unseld a pillar who never aways - and Elvin Hayes has been, surprise, Elvin Hayes.
In previous playoffs, Hayes has been seen as, oh, Helen Hayes. He mounts a passionate defense of his playoff work, even comparing his career statistics to Kareen Abdul-Jabbar's, and a former teammate turned TV commentator, Mike Riordan, said yesterday, "Elvin has been criticized unfairly, but when the home team loses, the buck has to stop somewhere and it usually stops at the superstar. He's being paid big money to make the big plays, so he takes the heat even if he doesn't deserve it."
Whether fair or not, the public comprehension is that Hayes lets the Bullets down when they need him most. Fans remember a big playoff game against the Knicks when Hayes, shooting poorly, asked to be taken out. Riordan said, "It was an unselfish thing to do. Elvin was trying to help the team, and his sub did score 19 or 20 points. As a teammate, I respected Elvin for what he did."
Still, critics of Hayes say the big guy quit that night and they say his career playoff statistics showing a 24-point scoring average reflect work done mainly when it mattered least.
That cannot be said of Hayes this April. He has been majestic in these playoffs. "Elvin man, he be shooting it in the hole this way, that way, every way," said Mike Green, a San Antonio forward. Hayes is 54 for 95 in the five games, shooting 56.9 percent. He's averaging 24 points and 13 rebounds a game.
The guy is a marvel. He is 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, has shoulders wider than the Lincoln Memorial and yet outruns 90 percent of basketball's big men, and outshoots most of the monsters. In game three with the Spurs, Hayes was 12 for 15 shooting and made eight in a row.
But forget the numbers. We know they can lie. Listen, instead, to Mike Riordan who, like Johnson, believes a true team, not one star, no matter how brilliant, wins championships. Riordan talked about Hayes, past and present . . .
"The Bullets always had counted heavily on two or three guys to carry the scoring load and opposing teams would scout that well for a seven-game series. To stop the Bullets, people would say, all you do is double-team Elvin and keep the ball way from Phil Chenier. So they'd use special defenses to counteract Elvin's tremendous scoring ability.
"In '75, Golden State had our number (in the NBA championship playoffs). They'd games were close, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty, evertytime we needed a basket they had their defenses stacked against Elvin.
"Now the Bullets are more balanced. They can go to more guys, not just two to carry the load. Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak, Charlie Johnson, Kevin Grevey - they all can score. With the scoring spread out, Elvin can be more comfortable. Now he doesn't feel it would be a tragic destruction of the team if he didn't score."
Riordan especially likes a little pass - a pass of all things - that Hayes made when the Bullets stopped a San Antonio rally and won game two on the Spurs' floor.
"The Bullets needed a basket late and I was looking to see who wanted the ball," Riordan said. "Elvin wanted it. I saw him call for it. They double-teamed him and he didn't put the ball on the floor. He just picked his spot and passed to Kupchak slashing down the lane for a wide-open layup. It was a clutch play. That's the kind of play that wins playoffs."