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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 more often of an ex post facto nature. The other Lakers shrug a lot; Baylor is resident arbiter and verbal rule book. 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 Merv Harris, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner basketball writer. In Categories, players must list the names of countries, authors, etc. that begin with certain selected 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 a time 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!" Boozer screamed in anguish. "Where's that?"
"What 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 occurs so often on the court—will show itself in the heat of cardplaying. And because of his running dialogue, all Laker games are more spirited than classic; losers 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 promptly became the Lakers' star. For much of the season, though, he remained quiet and diffident, 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 Negroes 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.