Elgin Baylor's 'Hang Time' Addresses Racism And His Basketball Career

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on June 1, 2018 11:52 am

Before LA Laker greats like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O' Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, there was Elgin Baylor.

He was drafted in 1958 by the team before they were even the LA Lakers. They were still the Minneapolis Lakers, named for the lakes of Minnesota. He was the centerpiece of the team when they moved to California. Angelinos loved his freewheeling, acrobatic style. He took the Lakers to the finals seven times.

His new book, Hang Time, is a story about basketball, but it's also about racism: when an athlete should or should not protest, a question relevant in sports today.

For Baylor, an experience racism that informed his life later involved his sister, Columbia, older than Baylor by just about two years, and his father, in segregated Washington, D.C. Baylor and his sister, then 13, were walking home from school when a white girl spit on her and called her the "n" word. Columbia slapped the girl, then walked home.

The police came to the Baylors' house to arrest Columbia for assault. Her father pleaded with them not to. So the cops said he should punish her – and, Baylor writes, even suggested what to use to whip her. His father did as they said, using a leather strap to beat his daughter in front of a young Elgin. The beating and the way the police treated his sister and his father have haunted him ever since.

"For me, I didn't think she did anything wrong, and I was just wondering why my dad punished her," Baylor tells NPR's David Greene.

He was reminded of the incident in 1959, after a Charleston, W.Va., hotel refused to let him and some of his black teammates check in. In the book, he writes that later that day as he prepared for a game against the Cincinnati Royals, he was angry and felt just as he did after that childhood incident with the police.

"Nothing makes sense. Nothing matters. I feel so small. I feel so ... dismissed," he writes.

So he decided to stage a protest. "I want to be treated like a human being. I'm not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show," he writes.

He tells NPR it wasn't a hard decision to make.

"I'm not being big-headed or anything like that. The first thing I said was I was really hurt by that and I thought about it and I said 'I'm not going out there. We're not like animals in the circus or something and then go out there and put a show on for them,' " he says.

Baylor went on to play 14 years for the Lakers. He then spent some time as a coach, and as a broadcaster.

He finished his career confronting racism again, working as general manager of the LA Clippers with team owner Donald Sterling. Sterling became infamous in 2014, when audio tapes revealing his racism went public. Sterling was banned from the league.

But before that, Baylor worked alongside Sterling for 22 years, through 2008. Even though he knew his boss was a racist, he stuck it out.

Does he regret it?

"Now if you think about it yeah, I regret working with Donald. The thing about it – you're married, you have a family ... so you have to have a job," he tells NPR.

The sportswriter Bill Simmons once speculated that Baylor's affiliation with Sterling and the Clippers might have tainted the way fans remember his legendary career. Baylor doesn't think that's fair. And apparently the Lakers don't either. They recently unveiled an Elgin Baylor statue out front of Staples Center, where the Lakers play — alongside Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and O'Neal.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The proposed summit between the U.S. and North Korea is dominating headlines around the world - except in one place, North Korea itself. Our Seoul correspondent Elise Hu has a look at what North Koreans are learning in advance of the Singapore summit.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The summit was off. Now it's likely back on. And the talk about it plays on every channel in America.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump has spent weeks hyping his upcoming summit with North Korea.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...For months and months, and yet the summit was organized and was going to happen. Was the president...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: We've seen the president so eager for this meeting to happen.

HU: But what's dominating the news in North Korea?

CHAD O'CARROLL: North Korean TV news, the last few days, has mainly being about rice planting season. So it's a huge, huge difference.

HU: Chad O'Carroll monitors North Korean state media for his service nknews.org.

O'CARROLL: Seriously.

HU: What about rice planting season, I asked.

O'CARROLL: Well, now's the time. And they're showing, I guess, the farmers are at work.

HU: This leaves North Koreans largely in the dark about all the rushed diplomacy happening in the lead up to June 12. That's the scheduled date for a Trump-Kim summit. While a North Korean envoy met this week with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, North Koreans saw none of that in their regular 5 and 8 pm national broadcasts. Martyn Williams knows. He records and watches state television every day. And state television is the only TV news North Koreans get.

MARTYN WILLIAMS: You can keep 25 million people completely in the dark. So the sort of propaganda apparatus and the way that the North Korean government tells different things to its people - and also restricts them from hearing things - is one of the things I was most interested in.

HU: Williams says when Kim met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-In in April, the world watched live while North Koreans did not.

WILLIAMS: It was kind of amazing that we were watching all that live, and they had absolutely no access to any of it. But, of course, that changed after the summit.

HU: A few days after that summit and meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, state TV put together a half-hour documentary that place highlights they deem acceptable for the populace. This kind of information control, Williams says, gives the regime flexibility in case things don't work out.

WILLIAMS: There's a big risk for the North Koreans in kind of telegraphing too much to their own people ahead of time. So what they do is they wait until afterwards.

HU: North Koreans do know that a summit with the U.S. leader is coming up. But that's about it.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Korean).

HU: This is a North Korean state TV reference to the June 12 date and thanking South Korea for its effort in making things happen. Chad O'Carroll says the lack of coverage is normal in North Korea. But what has changed in North Korean news lately is its tone toward its traditional enemy the U.S.

O'CARROLL: The rhetoric was very angry, very anti-America. And that almost disappeared after Trump accepted that proposal for the summit.

HU: O'Carroll says the softer tone toward America is seen not just online, in newspapers and on television but even on the citizen-to-citizen propaganda level. He's talking about leaflets that are often dropped over or blown into the southern side of the border.

O'CARROLL: They used to find these things with cartoon depictions of Donald Trump being stamped on the side of a curb, blood everywhere, or him having his toes sucked by the South Korean president - really pretty crude stuff.

HU: But that anti-American propaganda has now taken a more peaceful tone.

O'CARROLL: Some of them you would even have thought may have come from South Korea, like cartoon designs showing the Olympic mascots.

HU: Those are from the February Winter Games in which the two Koreas fielded their first ever joint team. If this kind of North Korean propaganda is any guide, signs of peace are appearing. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES'S "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.