One minute and six seconds into it, Elvin Hayes put up a 15-foot straightaway jumper that clanged off the rim. Nothing new except the jersey. But get Elvin in traffic. Give him the ball with his back to the hoop. Let him shoot that wonderful turnaround jumper. Nobody ever did it better.
He looked a touch heavier around the waist. The thighs looked bigger. At 36, he is the NBA's oldest player. Maybe gravity is changing that remarkable body. But Hayes says he still weighs 235, so maybe the difference is in the red Houston uniform instead of Washington whites and blues. He has cut his hair shorter, with a part on the right, and looks younger.
Heavier or prettier, Elvin Hayes came back to Capital Centre last night, the first time as the enemy. He missed another 15-footer two minutes later before slipping in a little running hook. Then with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter, the Rockets found Hayes in the lane, in heavy traffic, with his back to the hoop.
Two points, E, 12-foot turnaround jumper.
The old man can still do it. By game's end, he had 23 points, a season high for him, along with 10 rebounds, the most important coming with 32 seconds to play. As Rick Mahorn missed a layup that would have put the Bullets ahead, 92-91, Hayes ripped the rebound out of a crowd of hands and gave Houston the game's vital possession.
Twenty-one seconds later, Moses Malone made a 15-footer to give Houston a 93-90 lead. It was over, and on the postgame radio show Mel Proctor told Hayes, "We hope you're playing when you're 60."
Hayes laughed. "I don't know about that, but we're looking forward to this year." And he told Bullets fans not to worry. "The Bullets are going to win some games," Hayes said.
They introduced Hayes first among the Houston starters last night, the first time as the enemy in a building where for eight years he laughed and whined, pouted and boasted, gloated and moaned. The old man is now the NBA's sixth-highest scorer ever, behind Wilt and Oscar, Havlicek, Kareem and Jerry West. Only four men ever played more games -- Havlicek, Paul Silas, Hal Greer and Lenny Wilkens. You'll notice that only two of those men are bigger than Hayes, who at his age and size ought to be hanging up in a hammock instead of hanging out in his underwear playing pro ball.
Maybe 6,000 customers were in the seats when they introduced Hayes, and at first the reception was subdued. Kevin Grevey, alone among the Bullets, stood at his bench and applauded. Soon pockets of people popped up around Capital Centre, now giving Hayes the standing ovation he so richly earned here.
Hayes had slouched to the free throw line at his introduction. He ducked his head, as if shy. As the sound rose to its highest levels, with shouts of "Eeeee" coming down on him, Hayes put on a little boy's smile and rocked back and forth on his feet, as if to say aw-shucks.
Well, Elvin Hayes ain't never said aw-shucks in his life and he isn't about to start now. He was loving this. Pro basketball players are babies, really, he once told an interviewer. We are babies who need love, this giant said. So last night the customers at Capital Centre gave Elvin what he needs most.
The customers treated Abe Pollin, the Bullets' owner, more kindly than when last they met. Last month they booed unmercifully when Pollin walked to midcourt for a ceremony retiring Wes Unseld's jersey. Yet the owner did the classy thing last night, walking out there for Hayes as he had for Unseld, and the customers recognized it. There were boos born of the idea Pollin has allowed a championship team to fall too far too fast; and cheers thanked the owner for creating the champions in the first place.
Pollin correctly had praised Unseld as the foundation of his successful team. Until it ended last season, the Bullets' 12-year playoff streak was the longest in the league. On this night he correctly praised Hayes as the gifted pure talent who made it happen.
"It's a great honor," Pollin said, "to honor one of the greatest basketball players of all time . . . one of the guys who helped to bring the championship to this town."
Hayes' wife, Erna, carrying a bouquet of roses, said thanks to the fans "for all the memories that will always be a part of us."
For Hayes, it was a wonderful moment. In buildings with 19,000 people chanting his name, he could hear the single boo-bird. Always a magnificent athlete, perhaps so good he raised expectations to unreachable levels, Hayes played a decade with a loser's reputation. First thing he said when the Bullets won the NBA championship in 1978 was, "Now nobody can say I'm a loser." Nor could they say it last night.
And Hayes stood there at midcourt, a towel around his neck, luxuriating in the applause. Someone stood in the first row holding up a big poster with the single letter "E." Hayes acknowledged the applause with a wave of his right hand, then the left. He was loving all this love, and he spoke only when the last "Eeeee" had faded away.
"We had a lot of great times here and a lot of great, great teams," Hayes said. He looked toward the roof of the building. "All those banners up there," he said, looking at the division, conference and league championship banners hanging from the rafters. "We did it together . . . It's really good to see all you fans again. I thank you, and I love you."
And in the darkness over the Bullets' bench, right there next to the Bullets' league championship banner, there now hangs two jerseys, Unseld's 41 setting a pick for Hayes' 11.
There were giants in those days.