DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The NBA Finals opened last night. Of course, for years, this was an exciting time for people here in Los Angeles. The Lakers are one of the league's premier franchises. Just think of the names - Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson.
(SOUNDBITE OF NBA TELECAST MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Magic hits one from outside.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: The Lakers, led by the exuberant Shaquille O'Neal.
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Bryant to Shaq.
GREENE: But before any of them, 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. Angelenos loved his freewheeling, acrobatic style.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Baylor, of course, can move inside on you, can shoot from outside. Here, he's penetrating off-balance, lets it go and it's good.
GREENE: Elgin Baylor took the Lakers to the Finals seven times, though he just could never get past those pesky Boston Celtics. The 83-year-old has now written a book. It's called "Hang Time." It's a story about basketball, for sure. But it's also about racism. And it's about when an athlete should or should not protest, such a relevant question in sports today.
I sat with Baylor the other day in his living room in his Beverly Hills home, and he remembered first falling in love with basketball. He was a kid in segregated Washington, D.C. And to find an actual basketball hoop, he would sometimes have to sneak onto white-only courts at night.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Our playground and park was white only. And the park had - the white park had a swimming pool, a tennis court, a football field, had everything. And there was a park adjacent to it to where - I guess you say anybody can go, public park. It didn't have anything, didn't even benches.
GREENE: Now, the most shocking story in the book may have involved Elgin Baylor's older sister, Columbia (ph). The teenager was outside in D.C. when a white girl spit on her and called her the N-word. Columbia slapped the girl and then went home. And then the police came to the Baylor's house to arrest Columbia. Her father refused. And the cops said, well, then you punish her right now. And so he did. He used a strap to beat his daughter in front of a young Elgin. Elgin Baylor still struggles to talk about that today. His wife, Elaine, was sitting with us.
ELAINE BAYLOR: So you can imagine how she was. It was just howling and screaming. And Elgin doesn't like to remember it because it's just so intensely emotional.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Yeah. I never, you know, think about it because most of the time I do, you know, I start crying and everything, you know. To me, I didn't think she did anything wrong. And I was just wondering why my dad punished her.
GREENE: As angry as you were at your father to see him hurt your sister like that do, you ever wonder if it came from him wanting to protect her and not let her go off with the police?
ELGIN BAYLOR: I really don't know. I just know that for years just always disliked my dad - hated my dad for that, you know.
GREENE: Well, not long after your pro career started, you said there was a game in Charleston, W.V. And on that night, you thought back to that experience watching the police treat your dad like that because you and several teammates were told you couldn't stay in a hotel in Charleston because of the color of your skin.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Right.
GREENE: And you made a decision to sit out the game. How hard was it to decide that you were going to sit out the game and protest?
ELGIN BAYLOR: Oh, it wasn't hard at all. It wasn't hard at all, and not being big-headed or anything like that. First thing I said, you know. I was really hurt by that. And I thought about it. I said, you know, it's like, hey, I'm not going to go up there - you know, we're not like some animals, you know, at the circus or something and then go out there and put the show on for them. So I said, you know, I'm just not going to play. Then I thought about it. I'm the captain of the team. What are you going to do to me? What are you going to do?
GREENE: A lot of people in the community were furious at you for not playing that night.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Oh, absolutely. And then the next day, the media - you know, at the hotel, they were down in the lobby waiting for you to come down so they could, you know. It had to be quite a thing, yeah.
ELAINE BAYLOR: From the newspaper at that time, they said the big colored boy was more interested in eating than playing the game.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Can you believe that? (Laughter) Yeah.
GREENE: Elgin Baylor went on to play 14 years for the Lakers. He then spent some time as a coach and also as a broadcaster. He finished his career confronting racism again. He was working as general manager for the Los Angeles Clippers and its owner Donald Sterling. Sterling became infamous in 2014 when audiotapes revealing his racism went public.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD STERLING: Don't come to my games. Don't bring black people. Don't come.
V. STIVIANO: Do you know that you have a whole team that's black that plays for you?
STERLING: You just - do I don't? I support them, giving them food and clothes and cars and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?
GREENE: So Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for making those comments. But before all of that, Elgin Baylor worked alongside Sterling for 22 years through 2008. Even though he knew his boss was a racist, he stuck it out.
Do you have any regrets?
ELGIN BAYLOR: Well, now, if you think about it, yeah (laughter). I have regrets working with Donald. But think about it, you know, you're married, you have family and things like that. So you have to have a job.
GREENE: I was really struck by what you said about Charleston. And one reason you sat out in that game so many years ago was you were not a circus animal. And Donald Sterling has sort of been seen as that, I mean, treating black players like circus animals. And he's made comments that really suggest that, and, you know, it hurt a lot of people.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Donald, you know, I just - I tried to stay away from it as much as I could because, you know, it's always something negative when you would walk in and talk to him. Even with the players, he was telling me how bad this player was. And he didn't know a damn thing about basketball. And certain players, he didn't want to pay them that kind of money.
GREENE: And he would say because of their race. I mean, he would be open about that.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Racism - because he said he'd rather have black players than white players.
ELAINE BAYLOR: Plantation mentality.
ELGIN BAYLOR: Yeah. But I said, you know, we can't. You know, you're trying to get the best players you can. I don't care what color they are.
GREENE: When you said he had a plantation mentality and you told him that, what did you mean by that?
ELGIN BAYLOR: I'm calling him a racist. But, you know, he didn't care.
GREENE: But if you faced this today, given that so many athletes and people in sports are now publicly protesting, do you think you might have felt more empowered today to quit and say, you know, I'm just not going to work for a racist?
ELGIN BAYLOR: Of course. Yeah, I would think so.
GREENE: Elgin Baylor likes to keep the focus on his playing days, and so apparently do the LA Lakers. They have honored him with a statue outside the Staples Center, where the Lakers play. He's right alongside Shaq and Magic and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The statue was unveiled in April.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #5: Here's Elgin Baylor driving the baseline on the left side, getting by Russell, and then the ball comes out.
GREENE: Elgin Baylor's new book is called "Hang Time."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.