I’m not old enough to have seen Elgin Baylor in his prime as a Laker, and definitely not old enough to have seen his days as a high school and playground legend in D.C.
I know that not so much from my birth date, as from the number of times I’ve seen, heard, or been part of a conversation about the greatest players that have ever come from the D.C. area and listened as an older observer said in no uncertain terms: “Elgin. That’s it. None of them was better than Elgin. You don’t know. You think you do, but you’ve got no idea.’’
You could argue with them, but you’d lose. Better yet, you’d learn, and you’d understand, and you’d get why the legend of Elgin Baylor was so worth preserving for generations to come, and believe the ones who so diligently preserved it.
Baylor died Monday of natural causes. He was 86.
The late John Thompson Jr. was among the best-known griots of Baylor’s story, as his autobiography I Came As A Shadow attests. Multitudes of others speak on Baylor’s behalf in the late John McNamara’s thorough history of D.C. area ball, The Capital of Basketball, published in 2019.
Said former high school teammate Marty Tapscott in the book: “I don’t know if I have the words to describe him. He was the best thing to come out of Washington before or since … There was nothing on the basketball court that he couldn’t do. It’s a wonder we didn’t all just stand around and watch him.’’
The greats who came along later figured it out, too. They were only following in the footsteps of an original, and they never failed to pay homage and respect the one who started it all.
Dave Bing went on to the Basketball Hall of Fame, was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996, and eventually was elected mayor of Detroit. He always made it clear that he was only walking the path laid down by Baylor at Spingarn High School in Northeast.
“Elgin, based on his skill level and the things that he had accomplished, both in college and professional sports, he was everybody’s role model, he was everybody’s idol, and everybody wanted to pattern their game after Elgin,’’ Bing told ESPN.com back in 2001.
Sherman Douglas, one of the most exciting guards the city has ever produced, a star in college and a 12-year NBA veteran, also relished having played at the same high school as Baylor and sharing just a piece of his legacy.
All the greats that carved out various pieces of basketball history in the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs over the decades—Adrian Dantley, Len Bias, Grant Hill, Kevin Durant—ended up in the discussion about the best ever from the area. And every argument was short-circuited by the immediate reminder that as good as they were, they weren’t Elgin.
What makes his legend so magical and so distinct from the others in different cities and eras is two-fold.
Baylor himself didn’t expend a lot of time or effort touting himself or his high school exploits. Throughout his long post-career life, mostly as an NBA executive, he was a living resource of NBA history—one of the many areas in which he’ll be so greatly missed—and a bottomless reservoir of knowledge. He also enjoyed talking about how and why he played the way he did and created what he created before anyone else could even imagine playing like him.
Baylor has told stories about his journey from Northeast through college and the NBA, and especially through the brutal racism he faced along the way, including the fact that the D.C. schools were segregated during the heights of his teenage fame.
There was so much to tell about that, ranking himself in the all-time D.C. hoop hierarchy wasn’t so urgent.
That’s the other part of his legend: It spread not through recorded or documented highlights but through word of mouth. There isn’t video of him from the early 1950s, of course, and there’s not much written, either, because, for the most part, the newspapers of the day chose not to cover the Black schools.
The best stories came from those who saw him on the playgrounds, from the way everybody knew when and where he was going to play, and then made sure everybody knew what he’d done on the courts.
You can find clips of Wilt Chamberlain in high school in Philadelphia on YouTube, and still photos of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving at Rucker Park and elsewhere. But with Elgin Baylor, you’re taking someone else’s word for it.
They swear by him. You believe them, even when it sounds too good to be true, especially for someone who did it 70 years ago, who played when the lanes were still key-shaped, and when the idea of playing against all-White teams was either frowned upon or strictly forbidden.
Just as we lost Baylor this week, those who preserve the legacy and passed it down to later generations are being lost, too. Soon, there won’t be anyone old enough to have seen him play in person.
But they did their job well, because Baylor will never be forgotten. And the generations to come will be ready when an elder stops their conversation and says, “Nope, that one ain’t the best. Let me tell you who was.’’