While working together on the book I Came As a Shadow: An Autobiography, the late John Thompson Jr. shared countless stories about his life with his co-author, Jesse Washington, a senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated. Many of those stories focused on Thompson’s time in D.C. and his special connection with the city. The longtime Georgetown men’s basketball coach was born in the District in 1941 and starred for the Archbishop Carroll High School basketball team in the late 1950s. Growing up in D.C. at this time, Thompson got to witness some of the top basketball talents in the country.
One player though, Thompson wrote, stood out from the rest: Elgin Baylor. Even when including the most accomplished players in NBA history with local ties, among them Dave Bing, Adrian Dantley, and current star Kevin Durant, Baylor, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977, is often considered the greatest basketball player to hail from D.C. On Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers announced that Baylor died “peacefully of natural causes.” He was 86.
Throughout the years, players and friends who knew Baylor and saw him play during his formative years in D.C., have exalted him as one of the game’s best ever and a player whose above-the-rim playing style was ahead of his time.
“Let me try to put this modestly,” Baylor’s childhood friend and college teammate Lloyd Murphy told former City Paper writer Dave McKenna in 1999. “Elgin was a god around here.”
Thompson, who died on Aug. 30 at age 78, was a student a Brown Junior High School when he first heard about Baylor, though not by name. Well, not his actual name.
“Everywhere you went in the neighborhood, people were talking about what this Rabbit person did on the basketball court,” Thompson writes in his book. “He sounded to me like Superman. People said he could leap way over the rim, shoot from deep, make all kinds of difficult runners and floaters and bank shots. They said he could change direction in midair … I had to ask my sisters, who is this Rabbit? They said, ‘That’s that boy over at Spingarn High School. His name is Elgin Baylor.”
In his senior season at Spingarn, according to McKenna, Baylor broke “every schoolboy scoring record that mattered, tallying 37.5 points per game and notching 70 points in one memorable contest.”
Baylor quickly became “something above a hero” to Thompson. In the summer of 1957, Thompson watched Baylor play for the first time at the Randall Playground in Southeast. A few months later, he got to be on the same team as Baylor in a pickup game.
“Let me tell you right now, none of Elgin’s reputation was exaggerated,” Thompson writes. “He was six foot five, with unbelievable quickness and strength in the air. When people talk about the best ever to come out of Washington, you need to put Elgin at number one, skip over two, three, four, and five, and then count the rest of the guys from there, including Kevin Durant.”
Baylor played for the College of Idaho for one season before attending Seattle University, where he guided the team to the 1958 NCAA championship game his junior year. And even though the team lost to the University of Kentucky, the tournament named Baylor its Most Outstanding Player. Later that year, the Minnesota Lakers selected Baylor No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft and he spent his entire 14-year playing career with the Minnesota/Los Angeles Lakers organization. During that period, Baylor became an 11-time NBA All-Star and reached eight NBA Finals. In 1960, he scored 71 points in a win over the New York Knicks to earn the honor of being the first player in NBA history to break the 70-point barrier.
“At his peak he probably was the best all-round player in the sport’s history,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1966.
After retiring as an NBA player in 1971, Baylor worked as a coach for the New Orleans Jazz and then Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Clippers. He was named the NBA Executive of the Year in 2006 after the Clippers finished their regular season with a 47-35 record, the most wins for the franchise since the 1974-75 season.
But as impressive as Baylor was in high school and as successful he was in the NBA, he didn’t receive much mainstream coverage during his time in D.C. Baylor, as McKenna wrote in 2011, played high school basketball in the segregated era before Brown v. Board of Education. Mainstream and mostly White newspapers like the Washington Post largely ignored Baylor’s accomplishments.
“So many terrific Black players didn’t get an opportunity to play organized ball,” Thompson notes in his book. “Elgin Baylor didn’t get recruited out of high school, and wound up at some obscure college in Idaho basically by accident before he went to Seattle University.”
Baylor, who lived on Heckman Street SE, couldn’t even use his 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 told McKenna in 1999. “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.”
Baylor, as McKenna noted, didn’t return to D.C. much after he left for college, and spent his retired life in Southern California. When McKenna asked in 1999 why he stayed away from the city where he became a legend, Baylor responded, “I’m just busy, I guess.”
That hasn’t stopped McKenna or basketball icons like Thompson from praising Baylor whenever they can. McKenna wrote in 2013 for Grantland that he has sent letters as a private citizen to former D.C. Mayor Vince Gray and local sports owner Ted Leonsis “begging them to get a street or playground or SOMETHING named for Baylor.”
That hasn’t happened yet. McKenna speculated that Baylor’s refusal to publicly lobby for his own legacy may have been a reason. But his legendary status is secure. Those who knew Rabbit always made sure people understood.
“You could never convince me, rightly or wrongly that Kevin Durant or LeBron James is a better player than Rabbit,” Thompson writes in his autobiography. “I couldn’t even compare Michael Jordan objectively or fairly with Elgin Baylor. That’s how much of an influence Rabbit had on my life. I wouldn’t say anybody is better than Rabbit. That would be heresy.”