Elgin Baylor's quiet refusal

January, 16, 2012
1/16/12
10:57
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In 1966, Frank Deford profiled Elgin Baylor for Sports Illustrated. What emerges is undeniably one of the greatest players, and characters, in NBA history. Of course Baylor scored with the best, and rebounded better than almost anyone his size. Today is January 16, 2012, the day we honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. It also happens to be, according to Hoopedia, 53 years to the day that Baylor made it known that he would not let West Virginia racists sap his dignity. Deford tells the tale of the racial encounter that marked Baylor's rookie year:
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.

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 Anyway. 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 the 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 says, "we couldn't shut Elg up." They split the playoff money 10 ways.

Henry Abbott | email

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