‘That’s How Segregated Things Were Back Then Living in Washington’ 

[Years ago, I interviewed Dave Brown, who was Elgin Baylor’s basketball coach at Washington, D. C.’s segregated, all-Black Spingarn High School in the early 1950s. Brown was well into his retirement years, but still sharp as a tack and full of life. Though I was mainly interested in learning more about basketball in the District of Columbia during the !930s and 1940s, our conversation eventually landed on Baylor. What follows is a condensed version of Brown’s memories of his star pupil and a little bit more about coaching in Washington, D.C. during segregation. Quick editorial note. Brown would sometimes punctuate his sentences with the phrase, “Old Boy say,” referring to himself. You’ll see it a few times here.]

Brown: . . . When Elgin Baylor came along from 1952 to 1954, basketball had changed. I don’t know whether or not you remember it, but Stanford University had a basketball player named Hank Luisetti. Stanford came East to play Clair Bee’s LIU team, and Luisetti brought the one-hand shot to Madison Square Garden. That was December of 1936. After that game, all the kids from the East started shooting one-handers. Until then, everything was two-handed, and the foul shots were two-handed underhand, later exemplified by Wilt Chamberlain. Then, kids out Chicago way went one-handed, and then the jump shot came in. We’ve had it ever since. 

–As a coach, how did you handle the transition to the one-handed shot?

Brown: I’ve always been this way. Whatever you can do—and do well—I don’t change it. If a boy can stand on his head and make it, that’s two points. I never thought that I was such a fine coach that I could change somebody’s style and get better results. 

I always felt this way. I came here [Washington, D.C.] from a small coal-mining town in West Virginia. Where I’m from, there’s coal mining and raising a garden behind your house. When I came to Washington, I was coming out of the darkness to the bright lights. I was surprised to find this kind of outstanding athletic material here. 

Imagine coming into a place and finding talent like [names his first high school starting five]. You’re ready made. All you have to do is keep them from fighting each other. Old Boy say: “If they didn’t know their way around the court, take them by the hand and lead them around the court.” That’s all. I must be a nut, because I never thought that I was great. I always thought I was lucky. Old Boy say: “I hit gold.” As luck would have it, the kids believed in what we were doing, and they fell in. I didn’t have any problems. 

My message to all of them was, “Get yourself an education.” When the air goes out of the basketball, you’ll be up a creek. Of course, I see these youngsters now coming in and getting all that NBA money. Old Boy say: “Times have changed.” In other words, it’s real entertainment. But I’d like to tell you something here. Looking at the NBA playoffs [1994], it’s terribly disappointing to me. It looks like I’m watching the New York Rens pushing and shoving in Turner’s Arena [a popular Washington venue, formerly a car garage, where a revised version of the Rens played in the 1940s]. It looks more like football than it does basketball. Either the referees’ whistles are stuck, or they want it to be pushing and shoving. 

See, I remember when the final score of a basketball game was 22-21. When you got to 40 points, you’d done something big. Looking at this stuff now in the NBA, it just disgusts me. Basketball is a SKILL game. It’s skill based on fundamentals. It doesn’t require any skill to push and shove, swing elbows, pull clothing, trip, tackle. 

–But in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Rens played, the games were physical. 

Brown: But you know why? Part of it was the facilities. I remember in my early basketball day going down to a tobacco town in North Carolina, where you cleared the floor of the tobacco leaves and shot the ball between the rafters. In Virginia, it was the same thing. You didn’t have any long set shots unless you were on an angle. You had to get the ball under the basket. This was back in the day when you had a center jump after every made basket. I remember West Virginia State had a big center. He’d get the tip, and that big boy would break right down the floor to the basket. Anybody in his way, he sent them bowling. Of course, it was a foul. But the next time they tipped the ball, he moved down the floor and had free sailing. Basketball has come a long way since then.  

–And in the early 1950s, you coached Elgin Baylor, who helped bring it along.

Brown: That’s right. I coached him at Phelps Vocational and then at Spingarn High School. He was a tremendous player who had some record-setting outings. I recall one game where he had 60 points by the third quarter. He told his teammates to quit passing him the ball. He didn’t want to score anymore.

–If Baylor was such a major basketball talent, how did he end up the next school year at the College of Idaho as a football player?

Brown: Well, let me tell you a story. In Baylor’s last year at Spingarn, I knew we would have an excellent basketball team. So I wrote a letter to Buddy Jeannette, who was then the varsity coach at Georgetown University. I suggested in the letter that if he would talk to his freshman coach, we’d like to scrimmage them. Back then, high schools could book college freshman teams. He wrote back informing me that the schedule was full. I paid it no mind. That would have been in October or November, 1953. 

Then in February, 1954, right before our season was over, I got a call from Buddy Jeannette. He said, “Coach, I was talking to [former national star and a black player at LIU] Dolly King while I was in New York. He said to me, ‘What are you doing up here?’ I said that I was looking for some talent, and Dolly answered, ‘Well, you’ve got the best talent in Washington.’ Buddy asked him, ‘Who’s that?” and Dolly answered, ‘Elgin Baylor.’ Buddy said he’d never heard of him. That’s how segregated things were back then living in Washington. 

So, Buddy returns to Washington and immediately called me. I guess the schedule wasn’t so full, after all. He wanted to know if I’d bring my team over to play his freshman team. I said, “Sure,” and so we went on over to Georgetown. The gym had portable goals, and I remember Buddy Jeannette stood right down near the stage watching the game. The nurses had just cleared the floor after playing a game, and they stood up in the balcony and watched us. We got the ball inside to Elgin to start the game, and he dunked it. I looked over at Buddy, and he was standing there  with his mouth agape.

I think we beat Georgetown that day by 10 or 15 points. When it was over, Buddy said, “What can I do to get Baylor here?” I said, “Just ask him to come.” Of course, I also told him that Elgin’s grades weren’t Georgetown grades. So, they wouldn’t be able take him in, and Buddy just shook his head. He was out of luck. 

–But was Baylor heavily recruited out of high school?

Brown: Oh yeah, but it came a little later in the spring of 1954. Gene Shue was the big star that winter at the University of Maryland, which was still segregated. After the season, around April or May, Shue played in a local tournament as a member of a college all-star team. In that tournament, the college all-stars played Elgin’s sandlot team called the Stonewalls [roughly equivalent to an AAU team today]. Elgin more than held his own against Shue, and the Stonewalls beat those college stars. That’s when and where all eyes were opened to Elgin. Pretty soon there was a coach from Seton Hall who made himself a second home at Spingarn. 

–How then does the College of Idaho win the prize?

Brown: It was the grades. Elgin didn’t have them. He’d attended two vocational high schools and wasn’t on an academic track to get into a major university. At the College of Idaho, the academic requirements weren’t so rigorous. The coach there was an Easterner, and he happened to be friends with Buddy Jeannette. Buddy put the Idaho coach in touch with me. That’s how Elgin went to the College of Idaho, and he stayed there for a year.   

–What did you think coaching a talent like Elgin Baylor?

Brown: It’s like anything. He was just another player to me. I was just glad to have him. It would be like you walking across the street and finding a 50-cent gold piece. You’d put it in your pocket. You don’t make any noise about it. You just go along with the flow. You say, “Well, luck’s with me.” Old Boy say: I saw his size, how he could handle the ball and shoot. I’d have been a fool to change anything that he was doing. 

You see, Elgin lived next to the Virginia Avenue playground. Most people don’t know this. In the winter time, before he left for school, he’d clear the snow off the Virginia Avenue playground and shoot baskets. He played his first two years with me at Phelps High School. Then, when Spingarn High School opened, he wanted to transfer because I left Phelps to teach at Spingarn. I told Elgin that he’d have to sit out a year if he transferred. And, that’s what he did. During the year that he sat out, Elgin played sandlot ball with the Stonewalls and toured the city. That’s how he built up his game. 

But Elgin was surrounded by tremendous players. We used to have a warm-up drill before games, where we’d have three columns. They’d run a weave and set it up to get to the basket. The first eight guys would dunk the ball. The last guy was the shortest. He must have been about five-feet tall, and everybody in the crowd would be sitting there breathless wondering if he was going to dunk it, too. But he just dropped the ball into the hole. 

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