Elgin Baylor’s gotta be the most underappreciated superstar of all time, in basketball or any major sport. The guy was NCAA Final Four MVP and NBA Rookie of the Year. He was First-Team All-NBA 10 times and an NBA All-Star 11 times. Baylor led his team, the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, in the trifecta of big stats—points, rebounds and assists—in four different seasons, an NBA record broken only this week by LeBron James. He’s still got the record for points in an NBA Finals game (61). His career scoring average (27.4 points per game) is third-best in NBA history, behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Plus, he put that resume together while showcasing an original style and flair that indeed changed the game—nobody played above the rim before Baylor, the inventor of “hang time.”
Yet for all his certifiable greatnesses and transcendence, Baylor is nowhere near a household name. Don’t believe me? Ask the person next to you if they know Elgin Baylor. Berate them if they don’t. Part of Baylor’s renown deficiency is his own fault: He never seemed to give a damn about his legacy.
Until now, anyway. At 83 years old, Baylor has released a memoir, Hang Time, that makes his case. And he’s pushing it: Baylor stopped by Deadspin’s New York offices to sit for an interview as part of a national book tour.
I’ve been a Baylor obsessive for decades, and agreed with glee to sit with him for an on-camera interview despite having a face and physique better suited for typing. My Baylor obsession has a lot to do with him being the greatest athlete ever produced by Washington, D.C., where I live. There’s a new statue of him in Los Angeles, but no sign of Baylor back in D.C.—no park or playground or even a basketball court in his name as far as I know. But there was a time...
“Let me try to put this modestly: Elgin was a god around here,” said Lloyd Murphy, who grew up with Baylor in D.C. and was later a teammate on the University of Seattle’s Final Four team. (One sign of his back-in-the-day status back home: The real name of R&B crooner Ginuwine, another D.C. native, is Elgin Baylor Lumpkin.)
But Baylor’s life story will fascinate anybody from anywhere. Nobody’s bio tops Baylor’s for a mix of race and sports. The book explains how early in his life he got used to not getting the attention he deserved.
He grew up when his hometown was as segregated as any major city in the country. His nutshell description of the D.C. of his youth? “A hard place. A racist place.” The good playgrounds and recreational facilities in his Southeast D.C. neighborhood were for whites only into the 1950s; the public pools only got desegregated because black kids started drowning sneaking in after hours to swim with no lifeguards. Baylor’s boyhood home was across from Garfield Park, about which he told me, “The police even put chain locks on the gates around the basketball court so we couldn’t get in when the park was closed.” So he didn’t even play basketball until was into his teens.
And every public school in the city was either all-black or all-white by statute. Baylor’s coming out as a basketball star on the black side of town came just as Brown v. Board of Education was being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court; one of the cases that made up Brown v. Board was Bolling v. Sharpe, which challenged segregation in D.C. public schools. The high court’s ruling that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal, handed down in May 1954, immediately changed his hometown and then changed the world. But Baylor never faced a white player while playing for Spingarn High School. The institutional racism was evident in the media, too. Baylor writes about how his “fame” was restricted to black D.C. and was all due to word-of-mouth, since The Washington Post, the biggest paper in the city, gave white kids oodles of coverage but devoted next to no ink to scholastic sports at black schools.
One example: When Jim Wexler, an all-around sports star from white Western High School, had a 52-point game to break the city’s single-game scoring record in 1953, he got a banner headline across a whole page in the Post’s sports section. When Baylor obliterated Wexler’s city scoring mark with a 63-point night, he got a one-sentence mention at the end of the fourth paragraph of a Post story about the team from Washington-Lee, a white school in neighboring Arlington, Va. Wexler told me years later he was embarrassed when he read the story Baylor’s feat got. “My headlines,” Wexler said, “were bigger than that whole article.”
Here’s a letter to the editor of the Post (analogous to today’s comments sections, sort of) that ran on Feb. 18, 1954, during Baylor’s senior season:
All the athletes named before Baylor in the letter were white and had spent their schoolboy careers showered with Post coverage. The “unwritten rule” referenced was the one that said “ignore the black schools.” While the newspaper ran the letter, its editors didn’t take the writer’s advice: Baylor was not on the All-High, All-Prep game roster.
The mainstream media’s snub of Baylor inspired one of the greatest (and, yes, under-reported) chapters in Washington schoolboy sports history. The Afro-American, the newspaper of record for black D.C., set up a match between the black star and the white one, Wexler. They billed the contest as a “mixed basketball battle.” While Wexler quickly agreed to show up, organizers had a tough rounding up other white players for the race game because white grownups didn’t want to let them participate. Bill McCaffrey, a senior at white Anacostia High, was tasked with getting white players. But when word got out about his recruiting efforts, principals from the white schools called his parents threatening suspensions, expulsions and pulling the letters from anybody who played, just a few months before graduation. McCaffrey got enough guys who would risk it just for the right to face the great Elgin Baylor, though he had to put himself in the lineup.
On March 12, 1954, a day before the All-High All-Prep game that Baylor wasn’t invited to, the monumental race matchup was held at Terrell Junior High School. McCaffrey told me some years ago that 2,000 people, almost all of them black, bought tickets and jammed in a 1,200 seat gym, with 500 people turned away at the door. Baylor hit his first eight shots and scored 44 points on the way 25-point romp over the white team, who were given a tragically comic name: “The Scholastic All-Stars.”
Wexler, who would go on to play minor league baseball in the Dodgers organization, told me in a 1999 interview that Baylor made him feel like a hoops fraud from tipoff to finish. “Here I am guarding Elgin Baylor one on one,” Wexler said. “And he showed me basketball at a totally different level—another world, heads and shoulders above anything I’d ever seen. He could do everything. He was a scorer. He could jump out of the gym. He reverse-dunked on me! You have to remember: Nobody did that before Elgin Baylor. That’s not how basketball was played before him.”
While Baylor was the best schoolboy player in the entire country in 1954, he told me nobody near D.C. even recruited him. So he ended up at College of Idaho, a school in Caldwell, Idaho that no basketball fan had ever heard of before he got there. He told me that the Idaho coach originally wanted him to play football, but Baylor had other ideas. He brought along some buddies from D.C. black schools—Gary Mays, the one-armed super athlete, and Warren Williams, a Dunbar football player. Together, this interracial team in maybe the whitest part of the whole country went undefeated in the league for the first time ever, and got a write-up in Sports Illustrated. The Idaho program got blown up after that one glorious year for reasons that Baylor says he “was never told.”
Baylor went on to Seattle University, bringing more D.C. guys—former Spingarn teammates Murphy and Francis Saunders—out West. Baylor almost singlehandedly carried Seattle to the 1958 Final Four and the NCAA championship game, where despite his MVP-worthy heroics, they fell to Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky squad. Suddenly, the black players from D.C. who’d been ignored became sought after by schools everywhere. Nobody had a bigger role in getting them recognized as Baylor did, and through the years, no city has produced as much talent per capita as his hometown.
Baylor has spent almost no time in D.C. since the Minneapolis Lakers made him the top pick in the 1958 NBA Draft. In the book, Baylor admits for the first time that the racism he endured there as a kid kept him from going back as a grownup. The racist experiences from childhood informed his decision to sit out a game in his rookie season, too.
In January 1959, the Lakers were scheduled to play the Cincinnati Royals in Charleston, W.V. That wasn’t necessarily a neutral site, because West Virginia’s capital city was also the hometown of Lakers captain Hot Rod Hundley. When the local hotel where the Lakers were booked refused to let Baylor and two black teammates stay, the whole team checked out and found other accommodations.
Baylor says in the book that activism didn’t come naturally to him. “I never wanted to fight,” he writes. But playing the game as if nothing had happened was not an option. Baylor said he wasn’t going to play in any city that wouldn’t give him a room. He’s never been recognized for the bravery of the stand he took that night, one that could have derailed his Hall of Fame career before it really began were it not for a supportive owner and teammates, and his once-in-a-generation talent. As he told the story of what went down in Charleston, I was surprised to hear Baylor admit that he knew the truth: He was better than the rest.
Our interview also had far lighter moments. I thought I knew about everything there was to know about Baylor. But I was surprised to hear him gush so much about Bill Russell. After all, Russell and the Boston Celtics beat Baylor and the Lakers every time they faced each other in the NBA Finals, an amazing seven times. But Baylor confessed that he became a Bill Russell groupie back when they were both in college, even stalking him at a hotel during the NCAA tournament, and to this day he’s got nothing but love for the guy who vanquished him over and over in the pros.
Baylor fared somewhat better on the court against another giant of his era: Wilt Chamberlain. To my mind, one of the most under-told sports stories of all time is the showdown of these two legends on playgrounds all over D.C. in the summer of 1957. At the time, Chamberlain was at Kansas, coming off a loss in the NCAA finals. He got in his new, gaudy, booster-purchased Oldsmobile and headed cross-country to the nation’s capital, just so he could face Baylor, a guy he’d heard was the greatest player around. I told Baylor that all these years later, this matchup of legends sounds like the hoops equivalent of a young Joe Frazier showing up at Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home and wanting to duke it out in the backyard. Chamberlain was supposed to stay just a few days, but ended up sticking around and spending most of his break on D.C. blacktops.
Baylor, who would soon take his Seattle squad to the NCAA championship, enjoyed recalling how he weaponized his familiarity with the local talent pool to make sure Wilt, a future teammate on the Lakers, would leave town a loser.
What a story! What a life! And it made me happy to hear he had at least one happy memory of his boyhood hometown. Come back, Elgin.