They pay Elvin Hayes tall piles of money to shoot the basketball into the hole. As surely as Cheryl Tiegs breaks into a smile at sight of a camera, Hayes acts on a conditioned response when the leather hits his hands: Shoot it up. So his behavior with about four minutes to play the other night was extraordinary. He passed the ball to Wes Unseld, who was, as always, in the right place.
Reasonable men now expect the Bullets to win the NBA's championship in six games. Their first game calamity inflicted no permanent damage. The Seattle resurrection that day was a fluke, an improbable product of the Sonics' good fortune and Washington's sloth. Which is to say the Bullets blew a big lead by getting lazy at the moment the Sonics grew hot.
Instead of accepting the defeat as an unlikely happening, a lot of people felt compelled to explain it. So Hayes said the coach should have called more time outs. Hayes also said he didn't get the ball enough, thereby adding the guards to his list of villians. Then Hayes and Bobby Dandridge were quoted saying it was Wes Unseld's fault for not being a good outside shooter. If Wes could shoot, they were quoted, Seattle couldn't afford to leave him unguarded and assign two men to stop them.
Anyway, with about four minutes to play the other night, two men were guarding Elvin Hayes, who had the ball. He would, of course, shoot it. They pay him tall piles of money to score points. And what did Hayes do?
Because Paul Silas and Marvin Webster were both on Hayes, Unseld was left alone in the free-throw lane. So Hayes passed the ball to Unseld, who immediately put in a layup. The Bullets hadn't scored in four trips down the floor, but Unseld's layup of Hayes' perfect pass stopped that foolishness.
From there, the Bullets scored eight points in 2 1/2 minutes to assure victory.
A small thing, the Hayes pass, yet Unseld's only basket of the night was important, as much for its symbolism as the two points. Without Wes Unseld, this is not the champonship team. It may be argued that a trade of centers, the old and short Unseld for the young giant Webster, would make Seattle the winner of this series.
Hayes knows that. He is not Unseld's buddy. They were rivals for national attention in college a decade ago. They are different personalities, Unseld self-effacing and Hayes defiantly prideful, but on the court they are good together, Unseld doing the invisible work of picks and defense and below-the-rim rebounding while Hayes shoots it in the hole to earn the patron's applause.
Hayes knows Unseld's value. So he went to Unseld before game two and said Unseld shouldn't pay say attention to the quotes saying he was at fault in game one. "Elvin said he didn't say it," Unseld said. "So there's no reason for me to say anything about it."
Hayes knows he needs Unseld. "The big fella has helped me out a lot out there," Hayes said an hour after game two. Hayes had 25 points, Dandridge 34. In 14 playoff games with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Seattle the Bullets have lost five - one when Dandridge didn't play because of an injury, the other four when neither Dandridge nor Hayes could score 10 field goals. Almost anytime one of the stars gets as many as 10 buckets, the Bullets win.
And they win because Unseld helps them get the buckets. "Paul Silas was trying to guard me, but he couldn't keep up with me at the end," Hayes said. "That's why it's good to be playing with a guy like Wes. I began to use Wes. I'd make Silas run into him. That takes a toll."
Unseld is maybe 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Adefender who crashes into an Unseld pick comes to a sudden halt.
"Silas just got tired from hitting Wes and trying to get around him," Hayes said. "Then he had to concede me the jump shot because he wasn't quick enough to get up on me. I don't think any man can take the kind of bumping Wes hands out. Nobody can take that punishment all night without wearing out."
Marvin Webster is a third-year pro who will be a free agent this summer. He is 7-1 and can jump. Because he's been vital to Seattle's breathtaking success this season, there is reason to believe an owner lusting for glory will soon make Webster a millionaire. You look at Webster, a giant and agile, and you see championships.
Look at Unseld. He is seven inches shorter than Webster, 30 pounds heavier, can't jump and can't shoot from 12 feet. He's been in the league 10 seasons, and X-rays of his knees say he ought to be in another line of work, something that calls for a lot of sitting down. But in 10 seasons Unseld has been in the NBA championship round three times, and Hayes, for one, knows why.
"Think of what he's done on basically no knees," Hayes said. "Such desire the big fella has. Who knows how much pain he's in? That's why, when I get injuries, I try to keep playing. I look at him. I literally have gone to him on the floor and said: 'Wes, will you please go out?' He won't. He wants to win. And he does the right things."
The day after the game-one defeat, Dick Motta, the Bullets' coach, spoke of a turning point no one noticed. The coach didn't blame Hayes for getting only two shots in the last quarter, nor did he say Dandridge dogged it in a 3-for-12 shooting performance. The coach said nothing of the guards' inability to move the ball inside.
"What happened," Motta said, "is that I took Wes out late in the third quarter. Seattle was making a run and we needed Wes in there. He's our stabilizer."