The difference is the rings, the only thing that separates Baylor from Jordan. Baylor never received even one. But it was not his fault. He played under an eclipse: Wilt Chamberlain overshadowed everything Elgin did, and the Boston Celtics (Boston lost eight Finals to the Celtics dynasty) eclipsed every team accolade that would have been placed on Baylor’s throne.
In Terry Pluto’s Tall Tales, Elgin remembers: “Logically, I understand why we lost the titles to Boston. The Celtics were better. I know the difference was [Bill] Russell. We had no one who could play with him, but still…”
We have no idea whether not having a title bothers Elgin. This is one of the questions I had on a slate to ask him. To talk to hum about: how he retired nine games into ’71-72, the season when the Lakers finally won the whole damn thing. How it felt to be part of a franchise that you build, helped move to Los Angeles, helped get Wilt Chamberlain, only to be left out in the end when the glory strikes. These are the questions I wanted to ask Mr. Baylor. To let him know that I feel it’s unfair to place such emphasis on winning a title when no one man do it alone – especially against a team with eight Hall-of-Famers. Judging Elgin Baylor’s career on the fact that he didn’t get a ring is flat-out wrong.
At 6-5, weighing in somewhere between 225-230, Baylor was more like Barkley than anyone, except he played defense. He was pound-for-pound the best rebounder that will ever play the game. Few can argue that. He has the third-highest scoring average in NBA history: 27.4 points per game. Like Barkley, he was at time unstoppable, did whatever he wanted to do to anybody on the court. An ex-Knicks forward Richie Guerin once put it: “Elgin’s either got three hands or two balls. It’s like guarding a flood.” And Barkley’s missing a ring, too, but we won’t go there.
Elgin “had that wonderful, magical instinct for making plays and doing things that had you just stop and watch,” Jerry West would say in Roland Lazenby’s, The Lakers: A Basketball Journey. West continued defining Elgin for the NBA last year. “He was without a doubt, for many years, the most unique player I’d ever seen…He was one of the first modern players. He was one of the first players that had that incredible ability and incredible knack to not only do the right thing, but the most spectacular thing. He had a unique magic.”
A magic that my father constantly told me about as I rode Doc’s jock. Story after story. And it’s not until you get older and hear the same stories from people that don’t know your father that you realize what you really missed. Julius Erving solidified everything my Pops told me in a conversation we had over a year ago. His eyes got bright when the subject came up, as if I was talking to, dare I say it, my father. “You should’ve seen Elgin,” Erving said. “He was special. He did things years before I was doing it. I think a lot of us patterned our styles, our games, after what he was able to do with the basketball. The funny thing is, he didn’t have anyone to pattern his game after. Now how great does that make him?”
Elgin explains in Tall Tales, “I don’t know why I played like I did. I had never seen anyone else do my moves. It starts with the talent. You have to be able to jump. But more than that, things I did were spontaneous. I had the ball, I reacted to the defense. The important thing to me was making the shot. I saw a lot of guys make great moves to the basket, but they missed the lay-up. So what good was it? Making the move, then making the shot. That’s what made me feel good – seeing those two points go up on the board.”
I met Mr. Baylor in February ’97, at the NBA at 50 reception in Cleveland. He had previously refused about half-a-million interview requests and NOYZ pleas from SLAM. The whole LA Clipper VP-thing had finally gotten to him. He seemed smaller than Barkley-built brotha he was credited as being during his days in the league, but his stature had grown larger. I rolled the dice and went for the introduction. We shook hands. I told him who I was, what I did and what I stood for. He seemed detached. I told him that I wanted to do a story on him. He looked me in the eyes, black man to black man, and said, “Okay, call me next week.”
Next week has been going on for over 60 weeks. What started out as a once-a-week phone call tuned into once-a-month attempts at anything. 213-745-0400. The math don’t lie. Not one returned phone call. Never one. Since then, Julius has given us minutes, even Jordan has given us minutes. Twice. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Cap (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Dave Bing, Bob McAdoo, David Thompson – good or bad, they all found minutes to tell us something. Elgin hasn’t, and he probably never will. A small magazine that stays true to the culture of basketball is not on his agenda, I totally understand that. Not wanting any press or attention. I can understand that too. But for a black man to look another black man in the eye and lie is something I will never understand. Especially from a black man who went through some shit himself.
Elgin Baylor stands for something. Well, he used to. Back in the early ’60’s, Elgin went through it. The same as most other professional black athletes at the time, he endured his share of hatred (we won’t simplify it as racism). It came to a head when he was refused accommodations at a hotel in Charleston, WV. The Lakers were in town for an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Royals (pre-Oscar Robertson), but the clerk refused to let them check in. Elgin discussed this situation with Terry Pluto in Tall Tales.
Elgin said: “The clerk told [Vern] Mikkelsen, ‘You guys can stay here, but the colored guys have to go stay somewhere else.’ I went back to the clerk and said, ‘Did I hear you right? Did you say that we can’t stay here?’ The clerk acted as if I wasn’t there.”
A phone call was made to Short. There was a loud verbal exchange, but the clerk still refused to “bend” the policy. The Lakers wound up staying in a black-owned hotel.
“Elgin: “I could tell that some of the white guys weren’t thrilled about switching hotels, but no one said anything. At this point, I still planned to play in the game because the team backed me. Then Boo Ellis, Ed Fleming and I went out to get a sandwich before the game, but no one would serve us. We went to several places and were embarrassed each time. Finally, the Greyhound bus station was the only place that would sell us food. I told [coach John] Kundla what happened and said, ‘Coach, I just can’t play in this town.’ “
Principles. Pride. Later on, teammate Hot Rod Hundley, who was from Charleston, pleaded with Baylor to play. Elgin replied, “I’m a human being, Rod. All I want is to be treated like a human being.”
Elgin: “A few days later, I got a call from the mayor of Charleston, and he apologized. Two years later, I was invited to an All-Star game there, and out of courtesy, I went. We stayed at the same hotel that had refused us service. We were able to eat anywhere we wanted. Some black leaders told me that they were able to use what happened to me to bring pressure on the city to make changes. That made me feel good. But the indignity of a hotel clerk, acting as if you aren’t there, of people who won’t sell you a sandwich because you’re black…those are things you never forget.”
Neither is the word of a legend who looks you in the eye and sells you a dream. That is something you never forget, either. Indignity. See, the protest behind this story is not about Elgin Baylor the basketball player. It’s not even about Elgin Baylor the person.
This protest is about the fact, the true fact, that black athletes do not see very many black journalists, especially young ones, during their careers. But every one of them complains: “Some white writer from SI did me wrong!” From Sweetwater Clifton to Grant Hill, shit is real. So don’t forget, Mr. Baylor, don’t forget about when you had nowhere to stay and no one would feed you. I ain’t the hotel clerk. I’m a young brotha just like you used to be. That’s all. A black man who wants to see you sine, who wants to use the little bit of juice I go to tell people what you mean to me and what you should mean to them. The skin we’re in makes me obligated.
In my heart, I want to know that my father idolized the right man. But maybe Elgin forgot. Forgot what it’s like to be young, convicted and black. Shaq is the only other athlete to look me in the eye and play me like this, and he apologized for it. I respect that. But then again, maybe I’m the one trippin’, taking this entire episode too personal. Like I said at the top, “Elgin Baylor doesn’t talk much.” That is a damn shame. Now my only problem is, how I’m going to break this Elgin Baylor story to my father.