Jim Wexler figures he remembers playing against Elgin Baylor a little more clearly than Baylor remembers playing against him. Wexler figures correctly.
Since 1986, Baylor has been the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA franchise most likely to end up in a Tonight Show monologue. He was born and raised here, however. With his employer holding the fourth pick in the NBA draft that was held at the MCI Center on Wednesday, Baylor had a fine excuse to come back to his hometown for a visit. But he’s not one to look for such excuses. For reasons that continue to mystify and sadden his closest boyhood pals, Baylor cut his ties to D.C. several decades ago, and he ignores all overtures to rekindle old friendships. Though very possibly the greatest athlete this city has ever produced, Baylor’s presence here is essentially nonexistent. To Wexler and a generation of 60-something males native to these parts, that’s a crime. To them, Baylor will never be a punch line, no matter what the Clippers do or Jay Leno says. And he’ll never be forgotten.
“He’s my one link to immortality,” Wexler tells me, with a small laugh and too much humility. “As an athlete, I’d be nothing without the legend, Elgin Baylor.”
Some 45 years ago, Wexler shared equal billing with the legend. For one night. You can look it up.
The world, like this city, was a different place back in the early ’50s, when Baylor and Wexler played the same game on opposite sides of town.
Wexler, 64, grew up in upper Georgetown. He was the big man on campus at all-white Western High School, which then occupied the parcel off Reservoir Road now taken up by the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. Wexler was a great all-around athlete; his feats on the basketball court were particularly noteworthy. In his senior season, 1953, he hit for 52 points against Charlotte Hall Military Academy. The major daily newspapers called it the greatest single-game performance in the history of schoolboy hoops.
“The Washington Post had a two-line headline across the top of the page in the sports section—the kind that they use for Super Bowls nowadays—saying in huge print that I’d broken the scoring record,” Wexler recalls. He also averaged more than 25 points a game for the year—another record.
Those marks wouldn’t last long, however.
As a kid, Baylor, now also 64, lived on Heckman Street in Southeast, right near the rec center on Virginia Avenue, which had a pool, tennis courts, softball fields, and a basketball court. But Baylor, like all blacks, was banned from using any of the neighborhood facilities.
“The police even put chain locks on the gates around the basketball court so we couldn’t get in when the park was closed,” Baylor tells me, from his L.A. offices. “The older kids would sneak in at night over the fence and play with whatever light they could get, but most of the time, we just played stickball in the streets.”
The lack of any decent hoops near his house, Baylor says, kept him from taking up basketball until he was 15, when he started bringing his game to blacktops all over town. He proved to be a quick learner. By the time Baylor transferred as a junior to Spingarn, which opened in 1952 as the last “colored” school built in the city before integration, his playground exploits had already made him an almost mythical figure in local basketball circles.
“Let me try to put this modestly,” says childhood friend and college teammate Lloyd Murphy. “Elgin was a god around here.”
Although everybody who could lace up sneakers had heard about the kid named “Rabbit” Baylor who played a higher, faster brand of ball than anyone had ever seen, a lot of ballers never got the chance to actually suit up against him: Baylor’s high school career was played exclusively with and against blacks. Not by choice, but by law.
The white press, Baylor remembers, never paid much attention to Spingarn or any of the other nonwhite teams while the apartheid system was in place.
“I know we all were very annoyed that these white teams were always rated above us in the papers,” Baylor says. “We’d be undefeated and ranked about 10th, and we’re saying to ourselves, ‘How can that be? They didn’t even play us!’ We wanted to play the white schools, to find out if they really were better. And we didn’t feel that they would be.”
Baylor finally forced everybody to take notice. In his senior year, 1954, he tallied 63 points in a single game and went on to average almost 35 points a game. Although Curtis Jackson, one of Baylor’s coaches, had personally visited the Post’s newsroom to rail about the lack of coverage being given the burgeoning legend, the editors who’d given so much ink to Wexler’s records decided that the Spingarn kid didn’t deserve the same treatment.
“I was reading the Post one morning and saw this real small article, maybe 3 inches, about my single-game record being broken by Elgin Baylor,” Wexler says. “My headlines were bigger than that whole article. Baylor never got any coverage from the Post.”
But some folks at the Washington Afro-American thought up a way to get Baylor the proper respect. “The reports I got all said that he was playing a different brand of basketball from other youngsters at the time,” says Sam Lacy, the Afro-American’s wondrous 95-year-old sports editor. “And the mission of the Afro was to get the word out about the black schools and kids like him. The other papers weren’t doing that.” They had to work their way around the statutory segregation, however.
So, shortly after Spingarn’s season ended, the newspaper arranged for the current schoolboy scoring champ to meet the previous record-holder on the court. Wexler, a year out of high school but a few months younger than Baylor, got a call from the newspaper asking if he’d play on a team of white schoolboy ballplayers from around the city in a game against Stonewall A.C., Baylor’s all-black club team. The two scorers would guard each other. Wexler quickly agreed.
“I’d never heard of any white team playing a black team in this city before that. It was pretty radical here,” Wexler recalls. “But, I said I’d bring my sneakers, just tell me where.”
On March 12, 1954, the monumental matchup was held at Terrell Junior High School. Through just word-of-mouth promotion, more than 900 people, almost all black, bought tickets to get into the game, and another 500 people were turned away.
According to the Afro-American’s write-up (the Post and the other major dailies ignored the game) of what it described as a “mixed basketball battle,” Baylor hit his first eight shots and scored 44 points total as the Stonewalls went on to a 25-point romp over the “Scholastic All-Stars.” Wexler more than held his own, putting in 34 points.
Wexler, though very proud of the numbers he notched that night, said he realized very early in the contest that he wasn’t Baylor’s equal.
“Here I am guarding Elgin Baylor one on one,” Wexler says. “And he showed me basketball at a totally different level—another world, heads and shoulders above anything I’d ever seen. He could do everything. He was a scorer. He could jump out of the gym. He reverse-dunked on me! You have to remember: Nobody did that before Elgin Baylor. That’s not how basketball was played before him.”
Baylor’s recollections of the Terrell Junior High encounter are a little less expansive.
“I remember we won,” he laughs. “And I know I wanted to win. I always wanted to win.”
Wexler saved the Afro-American’s article on the matchup, and he still gets a charge out of the extremely egalitarian headline: “Baylor, Wexler Point Duel.”
“Like we had a big rivalry,” Wexler says. “Elgin Baylor, my rival.”
Baylor later led tiny Seattle University to the NCAA championship game in 1958. During a 14-year career with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, he made first-team All-NBA 10 times. He was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1996, he was named one of the NBA’s top 50 players of all time.
Wexler had a minor-league baseball career in the Dodgers organization before arm troubles sidelined him in 1957. Now a paralegal for a downtown law firm, Wexler was recently informed that he’ll be inducted into the Washington Jewish Sports Hall of Fame this fall.
Two months and five days after their game, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.—Dave McKenna