From the West Virginia Division of History and Culture
January 16, 1959: Elgin Baylor boycotts basketball game in Charleston
Most of the 2,300 West Virginians who braved icy Charleston streets and near zero weather on January 16, 1959, to see the Minneapolis Lakers play a professional basketball game against the Cincinnati Royals thought Lakers rookie star Elgin Baylor was ill or injured. Baylor, dressed in street clothes, sat on the bench during the game at the city’s brand new civic center. After the game, it was revealed that Baylor had refused to play in protest.
The Charleston hotel where the Lakers had reservations wouldn’t allow Baylor and two other black players, Boo Ellis and Ed Fleming, to stay with the rest of the team. The whole team moved to a hotel that accepted African Americans, but Baylor refused to play that evening’s game to protest the incident. Ellis and Fleming, who did play, attempted to change Baylor’s mind. Charleston native Rod Hundley, who played for the Lakers at the time, also pleaded with Baylor to no avail.
The Lakers lost the game to Cincinnati 95 to 91. Baylor later said he wouldn’t have played even if it cost him his entire year’s salary. The protest made national news although local reaction was mixed. Charleston sportswriter A. L. “Shorty” Hardman denounced the city’s segregation ordinances, but called Baylor’s actions “inexcusable.”
Charleston’s American Business Club, which sponsored the game and lost money because of poor attendance, filed a protest with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Lakers. Both the NBA and the Lakers refused to discipline Baylor.
Public attention often focuses on athletic events. Over the last fifty years, athletes and government officials have used sporting events to make political statements.
- The Olympic games have been used for political purposes on several occasions. Can you name these instances? What was being protested?
- Should politicians use recreational events as a means of influence?
Elgin Baylor has always been a tremendous legend of this game. Of course his playing days were fully completed before my time. I looked at his career numbers – and like Oscar Robertson’s, they’re mind-boggling. 27 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists – every night for an entire career…Baylor had a playoff season (13 games) where he averaged more than 38 points and 17 boards. His first few years in the league he averaged 15, 16, 20 and 19 rebounds per game. I can’t imagine any player doing that today while being productive on the offensive end. Baylor averaged 25, 30, 35 and then 38 points in his fourth year. Baylor was ahead of his time in more ways than one – and he still is.
In the NBA, he has been many things, but he’s never been the logo. That honor, if it can be called that, went to a teammate who ironically, hailed from the state that occasioned Mr. Baylor’s principled response. “The logo,” of course, refers to Los Angeles Lakers star guard and former general manager Jerry West, a native West Virginian. Baylor, by contrast, has toiled in Clipper Land for quite some time as the head of basketball operations. The Clippers are routinely reviled as a laughingstock. After all, they have been either atrocious or snake bitten ever since I can remember.
There is, however, a deeply false pretense to laughing at the extended misery of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers define the hard core of the American media’s blind spot in addressing the intersection of “sports as competition” and “sports as investment.” Most sportswriters, with their limited vocabularies and vacant knowledge bases on history, finance, wealth, and race are simply inept at highlighting the long-term implications of this franchise’s intentional mediocrity. The Clippers give pause to the notion that “you play to win the game.” Sometimes, you play to reduce taxable income (for owners). This notion isn’t as sexy as a fired up coach in a post-game press conference, but it is reality. Winning isn’t for everyone.
The media carries this charade to the last degree. They conduct interviews or solicit comments from “Mr. Sterling” or “Mr. Steinbrenner.” This is easy to contrast with the familiarity of speaking to athletes on a first name basis. And, there is a subtext here which is not in need of full explication here. Nonetheless, familiarity does breed contempt. Always has, always will.
When I think of Elgin Baylor’s legacy, I am intrigued by a couple of things…his distance from and proximity to the Los Angeles Lakers. In the years when Jerry Buss was committed to winning, it would have been as impossible for Elgin Baylor to lead their front office as it would have been for someone like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Kermit Washington to get a gig as a coach. It’s sadly ironic that Rudy Tomjanovich was given an opportunity to lead his own Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers before these other men were ever greeted at the front door. Kareem, though, did get a shot at coaching – with Elgin Baylor and the Clippers. Dennis Johnson did as well. So did Alvin Gentry.
In the midst of the chaos that is Sterling’s Clipperland, Elgin Baylor has put together a quiet, dignified legacy of enduring basketball excellence. His feats on the court have never been equaled. They never will be. There have been great players in subsequent generations, but not a single one of them could compile the type of numbers that Elgin Baylor did…in fact, the only other comparable player was Wilt Chamberlain – and he was just a bit taller. Baylor has put together a similar legacy in the front office.
Sterling has never wanted the Clippers to be a winner. In spite of the owner, Baylor was able to put together a talented team in the early 1990’s featuring the mercurial Danny Manning, a reconstructed and hungry Ron Harper, James “Buddha” Edwards, forwards Charles Smith and Ken Norman, guards Doc Rivers, David Rivers and Gary Grant. That’s a nice team to build on the cheap. If Danny Manning’s knees had held up, this version of the Clippers might have forced Sterling to loosen his death grip.
It would be another 10 years before Baylor could get another compelling team on the floor with the capacity to win games. Baylor was competing in an environment where everyone wanted to be a Laker. Players wanted to cash in – but the Clippers weren’t the place for that. In 2001, the West was rugged. The Lakers, Spurs, Kings, Mavericks and Timberwolves all won 50 games or more. The Blazers won 49 with Rasheed Wallace. The Jazz won 44 and their sun began to set. The Clippers won 39 games with another bargain basement squad that featured Elton Brand (Pure Steal from the Bulls), Corey Magette, Lamar Odom, The “Other” Candy Man – Michael Olowokandi, head knockers Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, and a resurgent Jeff McInniss. These Clippers were fun to watch. There were Billy Crystal sitings. Still, Shaq and Kobe were up the street, and Sterling was as tight as ever. Two years later, the Clippers won only 28 games. Only 1 starter played in more than 68 games that season.
Like Lazarus, Elgin Baylor’s Clippers rose from the dead. In 2005-2006, the Clippers won 47 games. Elton Brand was the clear leader of the team, and they appeared to be on the brink of breaking through. Brand had more help this time. He had Corey Magette, Sam Cassell, and Cuttino Mobley. Once again, the Clippers played an exciting brand of basketball. They drew fans and well wishers from across the league. They also had a young Shaun Livingston on the roster who was poised for future success. Baylor was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2006. Since that time, Cassell has aged, the Clippers’ big men have declined and Livingston has suffered a devastating injury. And still, Elgin Baylor presses on.
Baylor’s candle will always burn a bit dimmer in the national media, but after digging in the crates, I know better.