GOLDEN DAYS Interview 1: Elgin Baylor, Uncelebrated Pioneer

GOLDEN DAYS Interview 1: Elgin Baylor, Uncelebrated Pioneer

When I interviewed Elgin Baylor last year I was not yet sure what I was writing. Would it turn out to be a long article about the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers? A book-length treatment about that team? Or was it possible that nothing would come together? The answer to the last question is: Entirely possible. The Golden State Warriors part of the book hadn’t even come into the picture yet, and I wasn’t sure what material I could wring out of the old Lakers. (Turns out a lot.)

[[First in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]

The only interview I had done to that point was with Jerry West, who, not surprisingly, was a fascinating source of information about that 71-72 team and Baylor in particular. But Baylor was reluctant to talk, or, more specifically, his wife, Elaine, was reluctant for him to talk. What was he going to get out of it? In some quarters—not all but some—Baylor’s playing career is all but forgotten. Then, after working 22 years for one of the sports world’s worst owners, Donald Sterling, he lost an employment discrimination lawsuit he had filed against Sterling that alleged age and racial discrimination. The owner was later booted out of the league for racist comments, but it didn’t help Baylor.

Still, Baylor rarely comes across as embittered, and finally he agreed to meet for an interview, even inviting me to his home in the Hollywood Hills. And after our long conversation was finished, I knew he would have to be a major part of any story covering the 1971-72 Lakers, even though Baylor was not part of that championship run. The fact that he wasn’t around, in fact, is the essence of the story.

I arrived at Baylor’s home carrying a tape recorder and some amount of guilt. For years I have been the self-proclaimed president of the Elgin Baylor Is Underrated Fan Club, a position I shared with former Sports Illustrated editor Dick Friedman. At least once a year Friedman and I would talk about how criminally unrecognized Baylor is and how he should be routinely included in the pantheon of great players. Before the ascension of LeBron James, I consistently put Baylor at forward on my all-time starting five.

Yet when I was on the NBA beat I rarely wrote about Baylor for Sports Illustrated. When I went to Los Angeles it was almost always to do a Lakers story, and, when I did write about the Clippers, the story was usually filled with snark, and I doubt that I ever wrote much positive about the GM capabilities of Baylor, who was trapped in that Clippers hellhole for 22 years. I always wished I had been covering the NBA when Baylor was in his playing prime.

As I write in GOLDEN DAYS, Baylor (shown above with West) answered the door of his home wearing a sweater. Over the years he became known for his, um, eclectic choice of sweaters. It was almost as if he were saying, Hey, I know I wear bad sweaters. So what? I’m Elgin Freakin’ Baylor. Elaine asked if she could sit in. This is normally not a good idea, but I knew that she had been responsible for setting up the interview, so the three of us sat down together, a view of downtown L.A. off in the distance.

I’m not pretending to be the first journalist to plumb Baylor’s past. Shortly after I did the interview I found an excellent biography written by Bijan Bayne called, appropriately, Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball. Other journalists, such as Bill Simmons, have taken on the theme of how much Baylor has been forgotten. But his story is still largely unknown, and, further, I wanted to get at his feelings about his seeming exclusion from the Lakers, the team to which he lent so much legitimacy when it moved from Minneapolis to L.A. in 1960, and continued to co-carry, with West, throughout the decade. In front of Staples Center are statues of West, Magic Johnson, broadcaster Chick Hearn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal with Kobe Bryant to come soon. But no George Mikan, the franchise’s first hero, and no Baylor, the franchise’s first superstar.

Here was one of Baylor’s answers when we talked about it:

“Why do I want a statue out there and have the birds messing with it?”

I include that because it gets to the essence of Baylor, both then and now. He always had a kind of jokey aspect to him. One of his Laker legacies, along with his revolutionary greatness as a player, was his reputation for being the team’s dispenser of nicknames. “Zeke From Cabin Creek” is one of the monikers he came up with for West, which the West Virginian hated, partly because he was not actually from Cabin Creek. When I asked Baylor about his seeming ability to hang in the air when he went to the basket—it was Elgin, not Dr. J or Jordan, who invented hang time—he whispered, faux confidentially: “I snuck some helium in my sneakers.”

You combine Baylor’s seemingly easygoing personality with his 22-year stint with the Clippers and his unceremonious dismissal in 2008, and, well, you have the profile of someone who is not taken as seriously as he should be. Considering what he did on and off the court, and where he came from, he deserves to be taken very seriously.

Baylor was born in 1934, a year that should be imprinted onto the brain of every sports fan—it also produced Bill Russell, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. (It also gave us Carl Sagan, Frankie Valli, Jane Goodall, Gloria Steinem, Jackie “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher” Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Sophia Loren, Roger Maris, and, sad to say, Charles Manson.)

“My high school, Spingarn, was all-black and the leagues were segregated, so I didn’t play against white players at all in high school,” remembers Baylor. “But they had a tournament one summer and they let us play. [He smiles as he says They let us play.] I don’t remember why. I had never seen any of the white players so I thought, ‘Man, they must be terrific.’”

Now, you’re messing with me, his visitor says.

“No,” he demurs with a smile. “What did I know? I used to look at pictures in basketball magazines and all the players were white. But in that tournament we just killed everybody and that made me think, ‘Okay, maybe I’m pretty good, too.’”

Baylor was playing for the Stonewalls A.C., which was actually a semipro team. (Small wonder that the NCAA never figured out a way to storm in and retroactively punish Baylor.) That tournament lives on in D.C. hoop lore, fully deconstructed by Bayne in his Baylor bio. Interestingly, Baylor’s principal rival in the tournament was Gene Shue, a white Baltimore playground legend who would go on to star at Maryland and become a five-time NBA all-star. Later, Baylor played a few playground games against a visiting basketball king named Wilt Chamberlain, which was memorably chronicled in the late, great Grantland by Dave McKenna. HERE

Baylor’s basketball journey after high school carries with it a whiff of myth, a picaresque tale that took him to junior college in Idaho and then the University of Seattle. But, then, a lot about Baylor’s past carries the whiff of myth, including his first name. “There were a lot of stories about how I got it,” Baylor says, “but the one that seems to be true was that my father had an Elgin pocket watch. So they named me Elgin.”

It’s been widely written that white colleges weren’t interested in Baylor, but, as Bayne points out, any number of schools (Villanova, St. John’s, Indiana, Duquesne and Niagara among them) knew about Baylor and several pursued him. Some said his poor grades were a factor, though Baylor says his academic standing wasn’t all that bad. Others say some big-time schools just didn’t want to come through with an offer for a kid from a black school, no matter how prodigious his talents.

It’s not a reach to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: Baylor didn’t exactly knock himself out academically but he also wasn’t given a fair recruiting shake, given his talent.

One thing he did know: “I wanted to get far, far away from Washington, D.C.” The short version of that, which is explored in my book and certainly in Bayne’s biography: Washington was a racist town.

Baylor’s first college stop turned out to be Caldwell, Idaho, a town near the Snake River, hard by the Oregon border, home to the College of Idaho. He ended up there on a football scholarship—he had played that sport but only on the sandlots—partly because a buddy named Warren Williams was headed to Caldwell to play basketball. Baylor described his decision to go to like this:

“W.W. says, ‘Why don’t you come with me to Idaho?’

And I say: ‘Where the hell is Idaho?’

Another not-fully-complete Baylor tale. He was pursued relentlessly by a College of Idaho coach named Sam Vokes, who had recruited W.W. out of a better-known high school, Baltimore’s Dunbar.

If Baylor was looking for something different in Idaho, he surely found it. There were only a few other black athletes there, including R.C. Owens, who would later make a name for himself as a San Francisco 49ers wide receiver. But mostly what he saw was pale.

“There were a couple of black girls there and one who was passing for black,” says Baylor. “The rest of the girls were white. I didn’t know if I was supposed to date them. But I did.”

(During our interview, Elaine offered a small smile as Elgin rambled on about this subject. She had heard all this before.)

Baylor never did play football—he was talked out of it by Owens, for which we should be thankful—but he, W.W. and R.C. tore it up in basketball in their freshman year. Then, according to Baylor, “I wanted to see more of the world.”

Again, not the complete story. Baylor was recruited hard by a man named Sam Malone, who was not a bartender at Cheers but, rather, a car dealer and Seattle University booster. He convinced Baylor to climb on a Piper cub and come take a look at the campus. Baylor hated the ride, loved the college. Then again, he had an idea he might find a home in Seattle, something that came about through his apparently endless magazine reading.

“I remembered reading this story about the O’Brien twins,” Baylor said. “It talked about them being five-foot-nine and being able to dunk. I had to see that for myself.”

Johnny and Ed O’Brien—who were indeed five-foot-nine-inch identicals and such great athletes that they also played major league baseball—were gone by the time Baylor arrived on campus in 1955, again wondering, or so he claims now, “Would I be good enough to play at that level?” Uh, yes. Two decades later, Larry Bird would be celebrated for leading himself and four Indiana State no-names into the NCAA final where they lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State; Baylor had done it first when his Seattle team lost to Kentucky in the 1958 final. Well, maybe no-names isn’t quite fair. The other starters, Charlie Brown, Jerry Frizzle, Don Ogorek and Jim Harney, were fine players, just not remotely in Baylor’s class.

Just as years later West would win MVP honors in a losing role in the 1969 NBA Finals, so was Baylor named MVP for a runnerup team in the ’58 tournament. A year earlier, another losing player, Kansas’s Wilt Chamberlain, won the award. The year after Baylor, another loser, West Virginia’s West, took it home. A decade later, they would be playing together in Los Angeles … and would again come home in second place. That’s covered in detail in GOLDEN DAYS.

I spent a few pages in GOLDEN DAYS going over one of the seminal moments in the struggle for equality for black players—Baylor’s refusal, in January of 1959, to play a game for the Minneapolis Lakers in a town, Charlestown, West Va., where he and two black teammates, Boo Ellis and Ed Fleming, were barred from staying at a hotel because of segregation. (The team moved en masse to another hotel.) Baylor was on his way to becoming a star—less secure in their positions, Ellis and Fleming elected to play—but, still, Baylor was only a rookie at the time, so believe this: His refusal to play in 1959 took balls. A couple months after the incident, Baylor had led a mediocre Lakers team that had gone 19-53 the year before without him, and was only 33-39 with him, into the Finals. They lost in four games, to the Celtics, initiating what became an agonizing pattern in Baylor’s, and West’s, playing career.

Five years later, Baylor and West were a part of one of the overlooked incidents in sports labor history—the threatened boycott of the 1964 NBA all-star game. Hours before the game was to begin (the first all-star game, not incidentally, that was to be televised), the owners were refusing to buckle to a player demand that they, the owners, begin funding a pension plan. As tipoff neared, the players didn’t blink, and the owners finally had to. (The leaders of that planned boycott were Oscar Robertson and Tommy Heinsohn, two of the crustiest souls ever to grace a basketball court. Sometimes crusty is the only thing that gets it done.)

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe Baylor’s greatness as a player. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer in per-game average is not West or Shaq (both 27.3 points per game) or Kobe (24.9). It’s Baylor at 27.36. More surprisingly, Baylor is by far L.A.’s all-time rebounding leader, his career season average of 13.55) trailing only the incomparable Chamberlain, who had a 19.24 average in his five Laker seasons. During the 1960-61 season, Baylor averaged 19.8 rebounds per game to go with 34.8 points. The next season he averaged 38.3 and 18.6. And, oh yes, he did that as a part-time player because he was an Army reservist at the time. “That was a really fun season,” Baylor told me during our interview. Those are serious numbers and remember that Baylor, at 6’5’’ was not big, even back then. He was routinely outsized but rarely outplayed.

Baylor was also rather the Roger Bannister of NBA scoring. In his second season (1960-61), which was the Lakers’ first in L.A. and West’s rookie year, Baylor scored an eye-popping 71 points against the Knicks, which stood as the single-game record until Chamberlain scored 78 a year later. (A few months after that, the Dipper put up his immortal 100 points, also against New York, the account of which is in GOLDEN DAYS.) Not only that, on April 14, 1962 Baylor turned in what could be the most incredible single-game performance in Finals history: 61 points against the Celtics in Boston Garden, with an in-his-prime Bill Russell protecting the basket. That single-game postseason record was not broken until Jordan went for 63, also against the Celtics, also in the Garden, in 1986, though that wasn’t in the Finals.

Baylor also played through incredible pain, which made his career, after 1965, the year that he first suffered a bad knee injury, a testament to his ability and his grit. There is much in the book about Baylor and West as a tandem, one of the greatest in NBA history, and the source of a terrific quote I collected from Phil Jackson. Sayeth the Be-Ringed One:

“The Lakers back then had a pretty good thing going. One night Elgin Baylor would kick the shit out of your team, and the next night Jerry West would kick the shit out of your team.” Love the simple elegance of that truth.

Alas, as much as West and Baylor achieved together, they were known more for their shared frustration, failing to win a championship throughout the 60s despite seven trips to the Finals between 1961-62 and 1969-70.  And during the 1971-72 season, which is the focal point of the Lakers’ side of GOLDEN DAYS, Baylor wasn’t around. Injuries, age and circumstance conspired against him and produced one of the cruelest acts of timing in sports history. That’s a big part of GOLDEN DAYS.

But so is a celebration of Baylor’s greatness. I’m glad I was able to make it up to him a little bit because he deserves it.

 

 

1 Comment

  • Michael O’Daniel Posted September 11, 2017 5:39 am

    With all due respect, I would advocate for Oscar Robertson as the leader of the “Elgin Baylor is underrated” movement. Whenever people would bring up Oscar’s name in discussions of the greatest ever, he would say, “Elgin Baylor was the best basketball player I ever saw.”

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