Baylor's exit lacks the dignity he deserves

You'd like to think one of the most elegant, innovative, swooping scorers this game has ever known could have counted on one graceful exit in Los Angeles. Just one.

Sadly for Elgin Baylor, it didn't happen with the Lakers, and it's not going to happen with the Clippers.

Then: Baylor abruptly ended an ahead-of-its-time career of levitation just nine games into the 1971-72 season, deciding his body no longer could withstand long-standing knee trouble and the aftereffects of a torn Achilles. The Lakers promptly (and cruelly) reeled off 33 consecutive victories without him, good for a still-standing NBA record, before breaking through to win the championship Baylor never quite reached alongside Jerry West.

Now: Baylor has left the Clippers in mysterious and contentious circumstances, managing to come away with some validating hardware -- thanks to that NBA executive of the year trophy he snagged in 2006 -- but speaking out louder than he has in years by describing his departure as a "dispute."

Surprising? No. Disappointing? Definitely.

Tuesday's developments certainly didn't surprise many (any?) of Baylor's counterparts around the league, because Baylor has reached the age of 74 after more than two decades with L.A.'s long-suffering NBA stepsister and because Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, before GM duties were officially added to his nameplate Tuesday afternoon, had been quietly operating as the Clips' lead negotiator and decision-maker in the front office for the past few years.

"It's been Mike's show for as long as I can remember," one Western Conference executive said.

The manner of Baylor's farewell, however, is another matter. Given the unkind, injury-induced end to his legendary playing career, as well as the years of thankless service he gave the Clips long before their more recent flirtations with respectability, this is no way for Elg to go out, embroiled in a murky he-said, he-said.

Resigned? Retired? Fired? One story in circulation says Baylor feels that the Clips are making an issue of his age, leading him to reject their offers to stay on as a consultant/ambassador/front-office figurehead who would be stripped of all real authority. Another story asserts that it was Baylor, before a team-imposed Monday deadline for a final decision, who hit the Clips with an aggressive string of demands to stay on, prompting the abrupt breakup.

So much, then, for the fantasy notion that Baylor would be the one prominent figure in a quarter-century of Clippers history under Donald Sterling who could avoid leaving the organization in a messy divorce. We're instead looking at the usual unsavory parting of Sterling and one of his leading basketball men, requiring the intervention of lawyers to negotiate a resolution.

The Clippers might actually run more smoothly without Baylor, because it reduces their management muddle from three factions -- (1) Sterling and team president Andy Roeser, (2) Dunleavy and trusty aide Neil Olshey, (3) Baylor -- to two.

It's also undeniable that Dunleavy -- whether it was somehow keeping the Clips in the free-agent hunt for Kobe Bryant all the way to the buzzer in the summer of 2004 or combining with the supreme on-court confidence of Sam Cassell to lead them to within one win of the Western Conference finals in 2006 -- gave this longtime laughingstock of a franchise credibility it had never had previously.

Yet none of that stops us from wishing that ol' No. 22, after an unfathomable 22 seasons at Sterling's side, went out in the more stately manner he deserved this time.

Baylor is routinely lampooned for his draft record and the serial losing endured by the Clips during his tenure, but you can legitimately throw out much of his first 15 years, when Sterling's constant interference and infamous reluctance to spend made the GM's job almost impossible.

Not until the club moved into Staples Center in 1999, with its big-league revenue streams, did Sterling consider the possibility of actually spending money to make money -- known in professional sports as Trying To Win -- and the years since reflect rather favorably on Baylor. After bottoming out with the monumental mistake of drafting Michael Olowokandi with the No. 1 overall pick in 1998, Baylor enjoyed a string of successes, including the draft-day trades for Corey Maggette and Elton Brand, drafting Chris Kaman sixth overall in 2003 and, while still clinging to a influential role, leading the way on the deal to acquire Cassell and a future first-round pick from Minnesota for Marko Jaric in 2005.

You thought all that would add up to at least one soft, happy swoop of a landing, even from Sterling.

Gullible me.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.