Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor had already settled in at his table as the NBA Legends Brunch began in Las Vegas in 2007, but one of Baylor’s longtime fans was still determined to get some face time. The fan surprised Baylor with a hug, gushed about how much the all-time great meant to him and then thanked Baylor, repeatedly, for inspiring him to reach higher.
And with that, Dr. J finally took his seat.
That’s when it hit me how much my friend Elgin, who died Monday at 86, was revered by other giants of the NBA. Many of the stars who helped make the NBA a colossus among professional sports leagues, the incomparable Julius Erving among them, didn’t merely hold Elgin in high regard – they idolized him. At event after event during that NBA All-Star Weekend, former players lined up like planes awaiting takeoff clearance just to shake Elgin’s hand and share stories about how his artistry on the court influenced them. It was something to see.
Now don’t get me wrong: I knew Elgin was a superstar in his time. I knew he was a pioneer. I grew up in Los Angeles and was a Lakers fan as a kid, so, yeah, I understood Elgin climbed mountains while leading the league’s glamour franchise. (Bijan C. Bayne wrote a great piece about Elgin’s enduring impact on the NBA.) It’s just that while watching so many former NBA players sheepishly approach Elgin, I finally fully grasped how much he meant to other legends. To me, Elgin was just my guy.
Elgin was the general manager of the LA Clippers when I was the beat writer for the Los Angeles Times for two seasons beginning in 2005. I had covered the Dodgers for a long stretch and wanted a new challenge. The paper’s editors accommodated my request with a formidable one. Under then-owner Donald T. Sterling, the Clippers were among the worst organizations in professional sports. (After private recordings of Sterling making racist comments were made public, the NBA banned Sterling for life and fined him $2.5 million in 2014.)
Entering the 2005 season, however, the Clippers had assembled a playoff-caliber roster. After passing on other opportunities to cover the NBA, I accepted the assignment.
To hear many sports reporters in the market tell it, Elgin was considered aloof. He wasn’t interested in cultivating relationships with the top media people in LA, they said. The thing is, though, I never base my views on others’ opinions. One day during practice, I pulled up a chair next to Elgin, introduced myself and initiated a conversation. It was the last time I ever had to draw him out. Elgin actually loved to talk. A private man, he didn’t let many people in. But if Elgin trusted you, he had your back. And he would talk your ear off.
We bonded over conversations about sports history, especially NBA history, politics, life, etc. Elgin had lived through major events, and was at the forefront of many, that I had only read about in newspapers and books. Not surprisingly, I listened a lot more than I talked. And my life is so much richer for it. When my son was born, Elgin and Elaine, Elgin’s wife of more than 40 years and his best friend, were the first at the hospital.
This will probably surprise many, but Elgin was a great storyteller. Like the one about how when he and Wilt Chamberlain were Lakers teammates, coach Bill Sharman started the shootaround for players to practice informally at arenas early on game days. To say the least, Chamberlain was not fully supportive of the concept.
On a road trip, Sharman asked Elgin to remind Chamberlain that shootarounds would begin the next day, with the team leaving for the arena promptly at a certain time. The next morning when Sharman boarded the bus, Chamberlain was nowhere in sight. Sharman asked Elgin, “Where’s Wilt?” And Elgin replied, “Wilt told me to tell you he’s going to the arena once today. It can either be now or for tonight’s game.” Needless to say, the bus left without Chamberlain.
One of Elgin’s favorite stories involved his longtime friend John Thompson, the legendary Georgetown coach. Sterling once sought to interview Thompson for the Clippers’ head coaching position. Elgin knew Thompson wouldn’t leave Georgetown to coach the Clippers. But as a favor to Elgin, who, like Thompson, was among the hoops luminaries reared in Washington, Thompson agreed to meet with Sterling. At some point during the interview, Sterling asked Thompson, “Do you want to win?” Uh-oh. Wrong question.
By that point, Thompson had built Georgetown into a perennial national power. He led the Hoyas to a national championship and three Final Four appearances. Conversely, the Clippers were the laughingstock of the NBA, if not all of professional sports. Elgin knew what was coming.
Thompson lit into Sterling, explaining in the, ahem, colorful language Thompson often used, that Sterling had stepped in it. “Do I want to win, motherf—er? I’ve already won. Motherf—er, do you want to win? That’s the question.” Shocked, Sterling was tongue-tied. Somehow, Elgin maintained his composure. “But I sure laughed later. A lot,” Elgin once told me. And then he began laughing and shaking his head while recalling the scene.
Despite our friendship, there were lines we didn’t cross. Elgin never leaked information to me. I never eased up in my reporting on the team. It wasn’t something we discussed. We just had an understanding.
After two seasons covering the Clippers, I left Los Angeles for a job at The Washington Post. While juggling work and growing kids, I didn’t call Elgin enough. But whenever we talked on the phone or got together, it was just like old times. On family trips to Los Angeles, my kids had two standing requests: a day at Disneyland and a day at Elgin and Elaine’s house.
Elgin is gone now, which brings me sadness. I’ve lost several friends recently, and with each passing I lament missed opportunities to have shared more with them. Especially more laughs. However, I believe Elgin knew I loved him. I believe he knew he helped me to become a better man. And I believe I’ll see him again one day.