There never has been anyone quite like Elvin Hayes in basketball, no one who seemed so obviously suited for his position and yet seemed so insecure in it, no one who could be more relentless, so close to a scoring and rebounding machine, or more careless about those parts of the game that would not bring him glory.
He is the Big E, adored by Washingtonians, and also the Big Enigma, a certain Hall of Famer whose trade value, despite several more productive seasons likely, probably was not enough to make the Bullets any better.
When his career ends where he apparently wants it to, in Houston, Hayes will have more points, more rebounds and more minutes than any noncenter in the history of pro basketball.And more people harping about how, with the game on the line, they would want almost anyone else with the ball.
Trading Hayes for two second-round draft picks appers ridiculous on the surface. Players chosen that low rarely survive the final cut. But the man sometimes capable of carrying entire teams for games now carries three enormous NBA burdens: his ages, his salary and his reputation.
"Elvin takes you to the playoffs," General Manager Bob Ferry said the year before the Bullets won an NBA title, choosing not to wade into what that implied.
"Now the (can't-win-the-big-one) monkey's off my back," Hayes screamed after they finally became champions, three years ago, choosing to forget he had fouled out very early that historic night in Seattle.
His is one of the great athletic bodies, more mechanical than graceful, as though some basketball-dizzy wizard decided the world should get one long look at the perfect power forward and then began attaching bionic legs and tight end's chest to hands that somehow produce points by the thousands off one of the lowest percentage shots in basketball.
The turnaround jumper down low to the left of the basket is Elvin's signature. Hardly anyone else even tries it, so strong must the player be to get it off and so delicate with the release. Coaches despise it, because the shooter has no chance for a rebound.
Hayes has earned a handsome living off it.
Teammates and his public often have been mystified while he has been doing it.
"A different kind of person," Mitch Kupchak said yesterday. "My first year (with the Bullets) I'd been used to a disciplined kind of system -- and relatively young people. The way Elvin was bothered me, shocked me almost. He was very sensitive, his attitude so different it affected the way I played.
"I'd never experienced anyone like that. Somewhere early in his life, Elvin's performance was equated to numbers and not much more, not to things like hustle or leadership or (basketball) intelligence.
"after my second year, I realized Elvin was Elvin. He wasn't perfect, but then I wasn't anywhere near perfect, either. So I learned to live with Elvin, to accept him. And, believe it or not, I like him. We've fostered a relationship. Anyone very set in his ways, who is not willing to adjust, Elvin can get to. He's not gonna change. He's very predictable."
But not totally so.
"After the dozens of times where he'd say: 'Your man' (after somebody scored) or 'What are you doing?'" Kupchak said, "every now and then he'd come up and say: 'My mistake.' And I'd be useless the next 15 minutes. It's rare, but you can tell he wants to do it, that he's trying."
Because Hayes looks so heroic, because he has been so durable for so long, his human, vulnerable moments tend to stand out. We recall the playoff night he slipped in Cleveland, when a last-second out-of-bounds pass was headed his way and the Bullets lost, as clearly as the playoff afternoon in Philadelphia when he almost single-handedly destroyed the 76ers.
Some pathetic free throws are as vivid as some 20-foot turnarounds. Or his blocking George Gervin's shot with the playoffs on the line against San Antonio or taking Lloyd Free's charge at a similarly tense time against the Sixers.
The media glare always was focused most heavily on Hayes, sometimes unfairly. Because his game, scoring and rebounding, was so central to the sport, the bad-night numbers were impossible to ignore. By contrast, Wes Unseld was underpraised and also undercriticized for the same reason: nobody was exactly sure what made him special, there being no statistics for "intangibles" in basketball.
Whenever anyone with a deep interest in the Bullets, fan or executive, wondered over the years whether Hayes' attitude might be detrimental, another thought quickly followed: if he leaves, who will fill his scoring and rebounding void? Who can get us 20 points and 13 rebounds, night after night, month after month, year after year?
Kupchak asked that yesterday.
The answer seems to be him.
"It looks that way now," he said. "I guess that's my spot. Over my five years (with the Bullets) I've never known. I've gone from small forward to center. Funny, I always thought Wes would be the first to go and I'd be the center."
Technically, Wes was first.
"I can go either way," Kupchak said, "but with Ricky (Mahorn) at center I'd be the forward with the Bullets. I never saw Elvin as going. I thought he'd be here another five years. Wes is the one I thought I'd get."
Kupchak assumes the Bullets will offer him enough to stay.
"With the way my career has gone," he said, laughing, "I'll still come off the bench next year. They'll bring somebody else in and I'll be sitting again. If that happened, I'd just die."
Kupchak can live in peace a while longer; the newest Bullet, Frank Johnson, is everything but big. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Elvin Hayes still is sky high after dunking one for the Bullets. By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post