Elgin Baylor: The Irreplaceable Laker, 1973

[In November 1971, Elgin Baylor called his NBA career quits. But Baylor, known to be a man of many opinions, didn’t hang up his loud quotes. When Wilt Chamberlain signed on the next summer to coach and possibly play for the ABA San Diego Conquistadors, Baylor’s tongue was as forceful as his broad shoulders once were moving bodies out of the way en route to the hoop.  

“I don’t think he can coach,” Baylor said emphatically. “What could he possibly help a player with?” 

Baylor was just getting started. “He doesn’t have the temperament to be a coach. He never had any discipline. He hardly ever came to practice and, when he did, he didn’t work hard because he didn’t think he had to practice.”

“When he was on the Lakers, there was one set of rules for Wilt and one set of rules for the rest of the team. He ate in different places, slept in different hotels, and he didn’t travel with the team. I don’t think he can possibly change his attitude now.”

In this article from the magazine Black Sports, published several months earlier in April 1973, Baylor spares the Big Fella from another blunt assessment and verbal shot through the heart. But he’s particular candid about his Hall-of-Famer career and his views of the world with writer Ken Bentley.

One semi-quick note. The article resurrects Baylor’s rotten experience in Charleston, West Virginia during the late 1950s. He and two other Black players were turned away from the city’s top hotel because of the color of their skin. Angry over the inhospitable treatment, Baylor refused to play in the game that night, and his stand briefly pulsed through the nation’s consciousness and registered at NBA headquarters in New York. 

Baylor perspective on the Charleston mishap, offered in this article, is right on the money. What’s off is his understanding of the situation. What went wrong is Laker coach John Kundla botched the hotel reservations. He was, after all, a busy guy and didn’t respond to repeated requests from the hotel to confirm where his Black players would stay. 

Let me offer a story from a few years earlier to add some needed perspective. West Virginia then had its own small-college athletic conference, and it held an annual men’s basketball tournament in the small city of Buckhannon. There weren’t many hotels in Buckhannon, and the conference’s roster of teams was hard-pressed to find suitable lodgings. 

That included Coach Neil Baisi and his West Virginia Tech Golden Bears. Baisi, a real innovator who was nationally known for his high-scoring college teams, had some Black players on his roster. When he contacted a popular hotel in town that still with a few vacancies, Baisi told me that the owner was agreeable—until he mentioned his Black players. Baisi, a smooth-talker, kept his cool and vouched for the high character of ALL his players. 

At issue here wasn’t a rabid racism. West Virginia wasn’t the Deep South. As many a white West Virginia coal miner has told me through the years, “We’re all the same color down in the mines.” At issue was another tradition, a way of doing business that was imposed on the working man (and basketball coaches) by all of the out-of-state corporate interests that opened the mines and factories that made the state’s economy go. They preferred that the races not live together (coal camps were segregated, company policy) or attend the same schools. And so it was. 

Baisi, the son of a coal miner, thought the color line was stupid. The owner of the hotel thought more or less the same. But she didn’t want to buck tradition and start people to talking about the “low” standards at her hotel. Baisi persisted and gave her his word that everything would be okay if “his boys”—all of them!—stayed at the hotel. The owner acquiesced, and, according to Baisi, he and “his boys” stayed at the hotel every year thereafter. No questions asked. 

Kundla could have easily done the same with the Lakers in Charleston. But he wasn’t a West Virginian who could talk his way past the Jim Crow policies. What ensued was as predictable as it was wrong. Baylor’s royal treatment on his return to the city reflects an inclusive spirt that was always there. Don’t believe me? In 1955, West Virginia’s small-college conference admitted two new members: West Virginia State and Bluefield State. They were the state’s most-prominent Black colleges, formerly members of the CIAA. There wasn’t a single problem. Blacks and whites already knew each other and worked together, shoulder to shoulder, in the mines.]

Baylor, then 37 years old, with his son Alan.

Elgin Baylor, former Los Angeles Laker superstar sat in his lawyer’s plush Beverly Hills office and contemplated 13 years of professional basketball. Those 13 years came to a close last season when Baylor retired. 

It wasn’t a tough new forward or front office pressure that forced Baylor out of the game, but a series of injuries that finally put a stop to his 20-footers. A knee injury in the opening game of the 1965 playoffs was his first serious injury. After a tough rehabilitation program, he recovered from that. But an injured Achilles tendon five years later ended his career. “During the 1969-70 season,” Baylor said, “I slightly injured my Achilles tendon, but I thought if I rested over the summer, I would be at full strength the next season. 

“Well, during the rugged preseason drills, I reinjured it and missed all but two games of the 1970-71 season. At first, I wasn’t really concerned about playing again. I just wanted to be able to walk normal.”

 After hours of weights and running on the beach, Baylor returned to the Lakers the following season. But the old moves were gone. As he says, “When I tried to come back, I found my performance wasn’t up to the standards I had set for myself in my previous seasons in the NBA. Also, I was only playing a little over 20 minutes a game, and I didn’t feel I could regain my form playing such a short time. 

“Besides, I had really lost my desire to play basketball. Thirteen years is a long time.”

Before he called it quits, Elgin became the greatest forward in NBA history. In a game of giants, he grabbed over 10,000 rebounds (the first man under 6-foot-8 to do so). In his career, he amassed over 20,000 points—only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson have scored more. As the saying goes, “he became a legend in his own time.”

Little kids across the country dribble and shoot the Elgin Baylor way. On playgrounds, future basketball stars don homemade jerseys bearing the famous number 22.

No Laker will ever wear that number again. No aspiring rookie or aging veteran will be so honored. In a special ceremony last season, the Lakers retired Baylor’s number 22. “When I first retired, I went to a Laker game to see my reaction to being a spectator,” Baylor says. “It was like I had never played the game. I didn’t miss it at all.”

Of all the years in the NBA, Baylor cherishes his rookie season the most. “The Lakers won only 18 games and finished near the cellar the year before I came,” Baylor said. “During my rookie season, we finished second in the Western Division, beat the St. Louis Hawks in the playoffs, and played in the world championship. It was quite a thrill for a rookie.”

Memories of the 1958-59 season aren’t all as pleasant as the world championship series. While the Lakers were in Charleston, West Virginia for an exhibition game, Baylor experienced racism for the first time since he was a schoolboy in Washington, D. C. 

Baylor recalled the incident as if it happened only yesterday. “That year, we had three black players on the team—Boo Ellis, Ed Fleming, and myself. Realizing the team might encounter racial discrimination in finding housing, Bob Short, who was then the Laker owner, made reservations months in advance. But when we arrived at the hotel, the clerk refused to admit us, or as he told our coach John Kundla, ‘you guys can stay, but the Negroes can’t.’

“The coach and Short decided we would all stay together. So we spent the whole afternoon looking for someplace to eat and sleep. The only place we could find was this rundown black motel. To say the least, the accommodations there were miserable. 

“The white players were unhappy, and I was unhappy. Just before we were to leave for the game, I told the coach I couldn’t play under those conditions and I was going to call the airport and catch the first plane home. 

“Well, I couldn’t get a plane out, so I just sat on the bench in street clothes the entire game. The sportswriters and townspeople were outraged. They demanded that I be fined or suspended. Even the mayor of Charleston demanded a public apology. 

“The bad thing about the whole incident was that nobody even bothered to ask me why I didn’t play. To this day, I don’t believe the newspapers have ever printed my side of the story.”

Later on that same season, Baylor returned rather cautiously to Charleston. The city was sponsoring a pro-college all-star tournament, and Baylor was invited to play. The first time he went to the city, he couldn’t even buy a hamburger—the second time the city had steak dinners in his honor. Even the hotel that refused him a place to sleep, held a banquet in his honor—but Baylor refused to attend. 

“You know,” Baylor said, “some good came out of that. Many things changed in Charleston after that year. From phone calls and letters that I received later from people who lived there, many doors were opened to Black people as a result of what happened.”

In 13 seasons, Baylor was the Rookie of the Year, the NBA Most Valuable Player, and an All-Pro nine times. Yet, there was something incomplete about his career. The honor he most desired eluded him year after year: the honor of being on a world championship team.

Many of his greatest moments came trying to achieve that goal. He had a 61-point performance against the Celtics and a lifetime playoff average of 28 points per game—second only to Jerry West. Yet Los Angeles didn’t get a world championship until last year when Baylor retired. 

“It was very frustrating,” Baylor admits, “losing to the Celtics year after year. At first, I felt they had the better team. But when we got Wilt, I think the situation reversed. But if you look at the records, you will see that no team has won a championship with a major injury. We had injuries every season. 

“I was really happy for the guys when they won the title last year. The newspapers made a big deal about me not receiving a share of the playoff money. Considering the way the guys on the team regard the all-mighty dollar, I didn’t really expect anything. I really didn’t need the money, but it would have been a nice gesture.”

Elg’s playing days are over. He rarely participates in pickup games anymore. Choosing instead to get his exercise playing tennis and golf. Recently, he teamed with the Buffalo Bills All-Pro running back O.J. Simpson to be co-chairmen of the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade Celebrity Tennis Tournament and Exhibition.

Dressed in mod attire, Elgin appeared as relaxed and confident as he did in the closing seconds of a tight game. As he looked down Wilshire Blvd., his thoughts shifted from the past to the present. Currently, he is under a three-year contract with the Lakers, as he says, “in a public relations capacity.”

Since retiring, business for Baylor has flourished. He now has three Los Angeles take-out outlets for his Pioneer Chicken firm, and, along with Laker guard Gail Goodrich, sponsors a successful basketball camp for boys during the summer. The camp runs the entire summer with the first three sessions at the University of Redlands, and the final three at the University of California at Santa Barbara. 

Several pro basketball teams have contacted the former Laker captain about a possible coaching job. “Coaching,” Baylor says, “is something I’ve thought a lot about. I would really enjoy the challenge of trying to build a winner. 

“My lawyer has talked to five or six pro teams about my coaching them next season. I would live outside Los Angeles, and I’ve eliminated a few teams on that basis. What I’d really like to do,” he continued, “is to get a group of guys together and buy a franchise and coach that franchise. I already have several people who are interested.”

Since November, Baylor has been spending most of his time researching and developing material for his radio program called “Rap on Sports.” The Chrysler-sponsored program is aired on 40 Black radio stations through the country.

“The radio show has been doing very well,” Baylor says. “The Chrysler people were talking about doing a TV show similar to the radio program. 

“What we do on the radio show is talk about the Black athlete. In many cases, the Black athlete is not given his due. Many Black athletes are not as glorified as the white athletes are.”

There are only a handful of Black sportswriters on major newspapers across the country, and Baylor sees this fact as the basis for the Black athlete’s woes. “It’s a shame,” he says, “we don’t have more Black people covering major sporting events. What we read in newspapers and magazines is what the white thinks about the Black athlete. It may be the Black superstar gets the credit he deserves and maybe he doesn’t. But Black people don’t have a choice as to who their superstars are. 

“I think it’s about time we hear how Blacks feel about their own. This is where Black publications like BLACK SPORTS are important because they can give the true picture of the Black athlete 

“Usually a white writer will talk about a Black athlete’s attitude or his political beliefs, instead of his athletic ability. Take a guy like [NFL star] Dwayne Thomas, they don’t even know him, yet they attempt to write about him. It appears they are doing him a great injustice. 

“The thing that bothered me most about the press was when I played a bad game, they said I was washed up or over the hill. When Jerry West played a bad game, all they said was he was tired and overworked. This is a problem all Black athletes must encounter. 

“More important than the press coverage is the fact that Black athletes don’t receive the endorsements that whites get. You rarely see Blacks doing radio and TV commercials. Only recently have Blacks been getting paid on the same scale as whites. When I first came into the league, white guys who were sitting on the bench made twice as much money as Black players who were starting. Things are getting better, but they have a long way to go. 

“As I see it, the press has treated me pretty well, and I’ve always been paid well and got my share of endorsements.”

Then Baylor paused and said, “But I’m an exception.”

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