Fans of the Houston Rockets know names like Hakeem Olajuwon and James Harden, but they had Hall of Fame talent since the earliest days with Elvin Hayes.
Elvin Hayes is the first player the Houston Rockets had that eventually made the Hall of Fame as a player. Funny enough, Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley started his playing career on the first Rockets team ever assembled in 1967, but obviously, his induction was as a coach, not a player.
Perhaps one of the reasons Hayes is overlooked as a Rockets great is that three out of his initial four years as a Rocket saw him playing for San Diego instead of Houston, as the team did not move to H-Town until 1971. Thus, maybe some fans view those years in a different light since they were not Houston’s team yet.
Another reason he may be overlooked is that the majority of his career was not spent playing for the Rockets, and his only championship was not won with the team. Not only that, but his prime stint with the Rockets came in the franchise’s baby years despite a three-year reunion in 1981.
So what did he accomplish with the team that earns him the label of “overlooked,” and why should Rockets fans hold him with more reverence? Well, there are a few reasons, starting with his college days.
Elvin Hayes is an alumnus of the University of Houston
Though the team’s inception came in the city of San Diego, Elvin Hayes himself had ties in Houston, where he attended UH. The team drafted him in 1968 following UH’s victory over UCLA in what has been coined the “Game of the Century” by basketball historians since.
This particular game saw the Cougars, featuring Elvin Hayes, matched up against the UCLA Bruins, led by future Hall of Fame center Lew Alcindor. If you don’t recognize the name Lew Alcindor, perhaps you will recognize the name he legally transitioned to later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Game of the Century was instrumental in paving the road for college basketball coverage and popularity as we know it today. Elvin Hayes was a featured name in this game, representing the city of Houston before it ever had a professional basketball team.
When Texas Sports Investments decided to purchase the team and move it to Houston in 1971, Hayes’ connection to the city through his college years played a role in that decision.
That is not necessarily to say that Houston’s acquisition of the team would not happen without the presence of Hayes, as such a strong claim cannot be made in good truth. But it is hard to imagine his presence did not have some bearing on the move.
The big picture here is that Elvin Hayes was representing the city of Houston on the basketball court before it even had a professional team, and his ties to the city made a move from San Diego to Houston all the more appropriate back in 1971.
Elvin Hayes led the Houston Rockets to their first successes
The Rockets have seen many playoff series in their time as a franchise, but the first of these came about with the drafting of Hayes. His signing saw a few immediate improvements for the team from the previous year.
In the 1967-68 season, the first in team history, the Rockets won just 15 games and did not make the playoffs. Not only that, but they had the worst offense in the league and the third-worst defense as well.
When they acquired Hayes for the following season, they won 22 more games and improved to the third-best defense in the league. At the age of 23 in his rookie season, The Big E led the league in scoring with 28.4 points per game while also grabbing 17.1 rebounds and anchoring the team defensively. He was instantly an All-Star.
Two seasons later, the Rockets would come as close to a .500 record as they would until the 1974-1975 season with a record of 40-42 while steadily improving offensively.
When the team was moved to Houston in 1971, it avoided being a disaster of a team and gave Houstonians their first sense of identity in the realm of NBA basketball. While it was too fresh to be making true strides in the league yet, Houston received a respectable team with a star player to be proud of in Elvin Hayes.
The Big E is one of the All-Time Greats
Hayes has not only been somewhat forgotten by Rockets fans but NBA fans at large. This is not uncommon for players whose primes were in the 1970s, which is often considered one of the weaker eras in NBA history.
However, if you have ever looked at the various lists of All-Time totals across statistical categories, Hayes appears rather prominently.
Elvin Hayes is 10th in total points, fourth in total rebounds, and 24th in total blocks in NBA history. Those are three categories in which he ranks in the top 25 all-time and two in which he ranks top 10, and he will not be surpassed in any of these categories any time soon.
Other accomplishments Hayes achieved in his career include 12 All-Star selections, six All-NBA selections, two seasons of leading the league in rebounding, two All-Defensive selections, and a championship. Needless to say, Hayes is one of the greatest big men the league has ever seen.
One might ask why his career accomplishments are relevant to Rockets fans when most of his career was spent on other teams. Well, if you look at his first four seasons as a Rocket, you will see that a good chunk of his statistical feats can be attributed to that window of time.
Most of his highest averages in points and rebounding came when he was a Rocket. That is not to discredit everything he accomplished as a Bullet, but when an all-time great like Hayes gets his career start as a Rocket and puts up the numbers he did while with the franchise, it is something that fans of the franchise should hold in reverence.
Hayes also holds Houston close to his heart, as in 1981, he decided that he wanted to finish his career in Houston, where his college career began everything for him. Even at the age of 36, Hayes played all 82 games and averaged 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. That’s quite the level of production for a player in such a late stage of his career.
But really, his statistical feats with the newborn Rockets and the role he played in the team’s history is what earns him the title as one of the greatest players to ever play for the Rockets.
It has been decades since Elvin Hayes was last on an NBA court, and if you weren’t born in the 1960s (which most of us weren’t), it could be very easy to forget a legacy established so long ago. Rockets fans have also experienced greater successes and seen greater players since his time with the franchise.
But while he may not have spent as much time nor accomplished as much as other franchise greats with the team, Elvin Hayes’s place in the team’s history is undeniable, and Rockets fans would do well not to forget him when discussing the best players ever to don a Rockets jersey.