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A tiger who could beat anything

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Posted: Tuesday March 28, 2000 01:28 PM

By Frank Deford

Issue date: October 24, 1966

Sports Illustrated Flashback Elgin Baylor is back, his knees restyled and his magnetic quality reconstituted, so that he is again a player of basketball legend, of his own elegant moves, all smoothness, all power. He is one of a kind; were Elgin Baylor an animal, he would be a satin tiger.

On and off the court, he glides with a regal mien, carrying himself with such elan that it often has been said of him that he must surely descend from the giant black royalty of some Nubian empire. He dresses, always richly and impeccably, in the soft tame shades, for he is one of those few who are able to accept simple quality as sufficiently ostentatious by itself. He is aware of his own great talent and thus is immune to flattery. For he is, above all, a proud man, and one who is determined to secure the dignity of Elgin Baylor as he respects that of others.

Here he is in a game. No matter how the action swirls, his demeanor does not change. There is no apparent emotion and never a word. And afterwards he sits, silent among the strangers in the locker room, unmoved by the commotion and the acclaim pressing in on him. Then a shower, and next -- with tailor's hands -- buttoning a fresh shirt, sliding into custom-made pants and coat. A measured spicing with a brisk new aroma, a fastidious brush at one arrant strand of hair, and the leavetaking, again with regal air. Finally, to the Jaguar and the drive with his wife Ruby to their new home in Beverly Hills -- Los Angeles spread out below the smog, and Catalina Island 23 miles beyond the telescope in the upstairs front window.

That is the public Elgin Baylor. Now meet Elg - as in those often-heard expressions, "Not again, Elg!" "I give up, Elg!" and "Shut up, Elg!" With his Laker teammates Baylor is cackling mother hen, an impossible bore, a show-off, a know-it-all, a needler, a wise guy, a con man, a put-on, a gamesman, a big-mouth, an unstoppable mouth and a general all-around self proclaimed authority on everything that walks, crawls, flies or just exists.

And he is positively charming. The Lakers love him. It is unlikely that any athlete has ever been held in such personal and professional awe as Baylor is by his teammates.

There are a few outsiders who are aware of the Baylor phenomenon. Bill Russell is one. Last fall, at the San Diego airport before an exhibition game against the Celtics, the Lakers were discussing their new team blazers. Among those who cared, the vote was seven for the light blue, Elg for the dark blue. This is a pretty even matchup for a Laker argument. "Mighty democratic of you Mr. Baylor," Russell said, "to let these gentlemen discuss the situation with you." The Lakers were all fitted for their dark blue blazers the next week.

But Elg does not require issues that arise naturally. He is the best at manufacturing his own. At any time, out of the blue, he may inquire: "In a race, bear beat or leopard?" or "How many seats in a Boeing 707?" These are not rhetorical questions. He wants an argument, but he has his own answers ready, and they are guaranteed to be outrageous and arbitrary.

Here he is, in the privacy of the Lakers, coming through the locker room and talking as usual. He has a new nickname for someone, criticism for the alleged tackiness of someone's wardrobe. ("That's a nice checked coat; I didn't know Purina was making clothes"), at least one outrageous new theory, suggestions on the relative abilities of various animals, an updated critique on airplane safety and assorted comments - all opinionated - on those discussions already in progress ("That broad? Why, she's older than baseball," has ended many movie conversation).

Momentarily, he will switch from his usual, well-mannered speech into an obvious "he do" dialect. It is as if he even puts himself on. At practice, which he still loves, he cavorts throughout,. "Hey, I got a turkey!" he laughs as soon as he gets a little man guarding him. One move, rock, back, fake, rock, up, zoom to the basket. And badger, roar, scream, fat-mouth, annoy until back in the locker room. He will still be talking when he leaves. "One time," says Walt Hazzard, his friend and teammate, "he ran his mouth without stopping, five and a half hours, nonstop, mouth and plane, Boston to L.A."

"I've roomed with Elg a lot of times," Rudy La Russo says, "and he literally talks you to sleep. You know, he may even talk all night, because he is going as soon as you wake up. He talks in Technicolor. He's just one of the world's great conversationalists." Lou Mohs, the Lakers' general manager , is on record that were he stranded on a desert island and he had a choice he would select Baylor for company. It just seems that however much the incentive, however repetitive the rhetoric or however aggravating its tenor, Baylor never really irritates the Lakers. It is a phenomenon at least equal to his court achievements.

Most of last year, of course, it was different and not much fun. He played when he could but it was not Elgin Baylor. His tight knee was aflame with calcium deposits, but still it was forced to cover for the left, which was split in two and held together by tendons reattached through bone holes. Through almost all of the season he was tattered mediocrity, struggling to shoot, shamed by opponents who scrambled to end up opposite him. Baylor was scared to move, afraid that the next time he cut, a knee would go and it would all end there in a pitiful, writhing heap.

His knees have bothered him for several seasons now. "I wake up and the way they feel I can tell if it is a rainy day," he says. After the '64 season, Dr. Robert Kerlan, the renowned orthopedic, Koufaxedic surgeon, took charge of Baylor to strengthen the worn-out knees. "Baylor missed one day that whole summer," Frank O'Neill, the therapist and Laker trainer, says. "And just like Elg all he wanted that day was to take his little boy to the zoo."

His conscientiousness was rewarded, and Baylor's knees endured the entire '65 season until the first playoff game against Baltimore. Baylor came down for a jump shot. "Something pulled," he remembers. "I didn't know what it was. I forgot about the ball as soon as I felt it. But I could run. I went up and down the court a few times, but it hurt so much and I didn't know what it was, so I decided I better get out."

How he ran a single step, no one knows. It seemed impossible, because somehow the top third of the left patella had broken completely off the rest of the kneecap. Kerlan operated the very next day, put the knee back together, sewed Baylor up and told him they all hoped that he would play again some day.

This time, the summer of '65, it was not to strengthen a knee; it was, almost, to have one or not. The problem, O'Neill emphasizes, was as much mental rehabilitation as physical. "I'd never broken anything before," Baylor says, "so at first I just didn't know what to think, whether to be scared or what. Dr. Kerlan kept assuring me, but as soon as I'd get some confidence something would go wrong again. Finally, I just accepted the fact that I would never play again. I just worried about being a normal person -- could I fish or play golf, just move around ever again? I though that way. And then, just about then, it all got better." He was in the starting lineup when the season began last October.

It was, however, a sad false promise. Baylor was so unsure and so bad that he overcompensated for the left knee. The right one -- still full of calcium -- could not accept the stress. Late in November, Kerlan had to put a cast on the right leg. Baylor was out for a month, and when he came back he was out of shape, unimproved and more timid.

Finally Kerlan called Baylor to his office one day. "It was about a month before the season ended," the doctor says. "I sat him down and told him it was now -- he had to find out right now. I told him that he either had to go out and test it and find out, or otherwise he might as well come over and rest with me."

Baylor took the gamble, and for the balance of the regular season and the playoffs he averaged almost double what he had before -- more than 25 points and 14 rebounds a game. "It was an amazing recovery, certainly," Dr. Kerlan says, "but only if you consider it simply overcoming an injury. The man is often the most important thing, and in view of the sort of man Elgin is, then, maybe, we should have even expected it." Baylor has maintained his brilliant spring performance in exhibitions this fall. "I would have to guess," Dr. Kerlan says, grinning, "that Elgin is just not ready to come over and rest with me."

And as Elgin Baylor came back, so did Elg. By the playoffs he was his gracious old abrasive self again. He rounded up his teammates for a tour of the St. Louis zoo and also thoughtfully provided them with a complete, if rather, captious, commentary on all zoo faculties and every animal -- bird, mammal and reptile -- therein. Another day, as he led the Lakers through dinner conversation at their motel, he suddenly turned to La Russo and, as if it were the most appropriate thing in the world to ask, loudly demanded: "Who'd win a fight, a lion or a tiger."

La Russo, taken aback, answered haltingly: "A lion, I guess, Elg."

Baylor, aghast, frowned at La Russo for such abject stupidity. He moved to his dialect for effect. "A tiger beat anything," was all he said, though with such finality that it hushed the room and sent napkins crashing to the floor. Presently, as Baylor looked on with satisfaction, the entire Laker quarter was filled with earnest speculation on the combat ability of lions, tigers, panthers, elephants and those other creatures that Baylor would interject in lulls in the debate. He also made the final decisions.

On the Lakers his word is, in fact, law -- though it is often more than ex post facto nature. The other Lakers shrug a lot; Baylor is resident arbiter and verbal rulebook. Darrall Imhoff introduced cribbage to the Lakers last year. Within 24 hours Baylor was not only adjudicating disputes but was also informing Imhoff how cribbage was traditionally played on the Lakers.

On a plane trip last year forward Bob Boozer was playing a contemplative game called Categories (or Guggenheim) with Mer Harris, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner basketball writer. In Categories, players must list the names of countries, authors, etc. That begin with certain letters. La Russo asked to join. Baylor put down the Wall Street Journal and announced that he would join. He lost the first game despite having demanded an extension. Beginners get more time - new rule. In the next game, under the category of rivers starting with the letter T, Baylor wrote:

"Tanganyika River."

"Tanganyika River!" Boozer screamed in anguish. "Where's that?"

"What do you mean, where's that?" Baylor answered coyly. "Buffalo, Noo York." The answer was accepted. He won that game and those that followed.

"We call him the King of Gamesmanship," Hazzard says. Baylor can be so competitive in these games that his famous head twitch -- which will occur so often on the court -- will show itself in the heat of card playing. And because of his running dialogue, all Laker games are more spirited than classic; loser must suffer the most interesting abuse. "So you see," Baylor says, "that's the idea - - don't lose."

Neither Baylor's wit nor his inherent qualities of leadership were obvious when he joined the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958. But there was not even passing doubt about his basketball ability. He had led a mediocre Seattle University team to runner-up in the NCAA the year before, and he had promptly become the Lakers star. For much of the season, though, he remained quiet and indifferent, was genuinely terrified of flying and often complained of feeling sick.

Then in January the Lakers went to Charleston, W.Va. for a game with Cincinnati. The hotel clerk, a mousy chap, looked at Baylor, immaculate as always, and at the two other black players on the team. "We can't take those three. We run a respectable hotel," is what the little man said. Baylor stiffened. He decided simply that he would not play.

But he made no fuss. The papers did not even know. Some of his teammates called him selfish. As the team walked out of the locker room, one Laker spoke over his shoulder: "Nine of us go out to play, nine of us split the playoff money." Baylor heard, as he was supposed to. He made no reply, and he did not move.

Hot Rod Hundley, a teammate who was from Charleston, came back to implore Baylor. He went through the litany: We Need You; For the Team; Please; This Won't Accomplish Anything. Baylor listened, and only at the end did he speak. "Rod," he said, "I'm a human being. I'm not an animal put in a cage and let out for show. They won't treat me like an animal."

For the first time Hundley, the white kid from Charleston, understood the great pride that lives in Elgin Baylor. "Baby," he said, "don't play."

The Lakers lost that night but made the playoffs, and Baylor even carried them to the finals before Boston beat them. "By the end of the year," Hundley said, "we couldn't shut Elg up." They split the playoff money 10 ways.

Baylor is from Washington, D.C., so he was hardly introduced to discrimination in Charleston, W.Va. In fact, he never even played basketball until he was 14 because until that time the city playgrounds were not open to blacks. He was the third son -- his brothers are 6 feet 9 and 6 feet 6 -- of John and Uzziel Baylor. When he was told that he had a new son, John Baylor glanced at his watch to mark the time. Luckily for Elgin it was not a Timex. Soon everybody called him "Rabbit" anyway.

As a senior at Spingarn High, an all-back school, Baylor was honored as the first of his race to ever make the All-Metropolitan team. There were objections at the time that he was 19, a year overage. This has led to some extraordinary estimates of his age, but unless he attend Randall Junior High at the age of 20, he is now only 32.

"He never shot much unless we needed points," his coach, Dave Brown, says. "And even back then he was never excitable. In one big game, they got four quick fouls on him. I moved him outside and he made 44 points."

Baylor was even less excitable in the classroom. Several colleges were prepared to abrogate their racial policies to accept him, but he could not qualify and finally choose a football scholarship at the tiny College of Idaho. Seattle spirited him out of Idaho the next year, and when his eligibility ran out Minneapolis owner Bob Short signed him for $20,000. The same day Short refused to sell the franchise, because the bidding fell short of the $250,000 that he was asking. Seven years and 17,000 Baylor points later, Short sold the Lakers for $5,175,000.

Since he came into the NBA, Baylor has been outscored by only Wilt Chamberlain, and Wilt leads everybody in history. Baylor has a career average of 29 points and 14.7 rebounds a game and, while he is naturally famous for his scoring feats, the rebounds seem to please him more. At 6 feet 5 he is the smallest man among 18 players in NBA history to average 10 or more rebounds a game.

Baylor has seen a number of changes take place in the league, in styles and attitudes, since he started playing. On the light side he says, "There's too many country boys in their bully-woolly suits and Buster Browns in the NBA now. Their idea of a real good time is a James Bond movie and then 16 hours of sleep."

Some things, perhaps, have not yet changed sufficiently. Last January he was in a hotel room in Boston, running the Lakers because coach Fred Schaus was in St. Louis at the All-Star Game. It was the first one to which Baylor had not been invited. All the great years did not make up for one season as a cripple. In St. Louis, Schaus and Mohs were discussing this. Finally Schaus called Baylor to say it had been arranged for him to sit on the bench as an honorary All-Star. However late a gesture, it was a rare tribute. Baylor told Schaus he would call him back.

He did not think about it long, though, for Dick Barnett, Baylor's old teammate was not in St. Louis either. At that time, Barnett was the third leading scoring the NBA. A white player had been picked instead because, some said, there were not enough white faces on the All-Stars. Baby, don't play. Baylor called Schaus back and said he would stay in Boston.

When the Lakers returned to Los Angeles, Ruby Baylor was there to meet her husband and together they went over and thanked Fred Schaus. Schaus watched the Baylors walk away, and he remember the feeling he had, because he says he has never been so touched or so proud of a man.

The Baylors went home. They have two children -- Alan, six, and Alison, two -- and two very big German shepherds, Brutus and Caesar. Their home on the hill is beautiful. "When you are a black man lucky enough to be in my position," Baylor says, 'how you show yourself is important to all blacks. I think that every day I serve by showing that I can conduct myself as well as anyone.

"We all work had to get into this league, because it is the one chance we have. And besides, we have to be that much better to beat the white player. And then everyone asks where the white players are. I've seems so many of them come into this league, and they've had great talent. But they didn't last -- they married some money or got a good outside job, things that don't happen to us." He leaned forward. "You give us a chance in other things, and you'll get your white ballplayers back right away."

A long way from the Baylors' house at another time, when Fred Schaus was scouting in North Carolina, somebody asked him if he thought that Baylor was the finest ballplayer ever. Schaus smiled and thought. Finally he gave the motel table a little slap. "Yeah," he said, "if there were money on the table, I'd take Elg over anybody."

Somebody else there agreed, but said, really, if there were money involved, Baylor would win at any game, whatever it was. Whatever. Schaus smiled again. "Yeah," he said. "That too." A tiger beat anything.

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