While no one can predict the future, August 26, 2020, will probably earn a place in sports history. In light of the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the floor for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic; the rest of the NBA, and some teams in other sports, have since followed suit in a historic boycott. Whether those NBA players realized it or not, however, they were following in the footsteps of one man: Elgin Baylor.
Although basketball fans may know Baylor for his impeccable playing career, he also earned a place in history by refusing to take the floor. In 1959, he became the first NBA player to boycott a game.
Who was Elgin Baylor?
Over the years, the LA Lakers have had plenty of stars on their roster. While he might not get the same level of modern attention as Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor was a legitimate talent.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Baylor was an excellent basketball player but struggled in school. That academic performance meant he started his NCAA career at the College of Idaho. After one season there, he transferred to the University of Seattle; once he was eligible to play, he emerged as a star. During his two campaigns with the then-Chieftains, the forward averaged more than 30 points per outing and carried the team to the 1958 national championship game.
Baylor then entered into the 1958 NBA draft; the floundering Minneapolis Lakers franchise selected him with the first overall pick. He promptly claimed Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Boston Celtics. From there, his star continued to rise
While knee injuries eventually limited the forward’s effectiveness, Baylor spent 14 seasons in the NBA. He averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds per game during his playing career, making 11 All-Star teams and 10 NBA First-Teams. He also briefly tried his hand at coaching and spent more than 20 years in the Clippers front office.
Elgin Baylor boycotted an NBA game in 1959
Based solely on his on-court exploits, Elgin Baylor earned a place in NBA history. In 1959, however, the Lakers star also made headlines by refusing to hit the hardwood.
As Mike Whiteford laid out in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Minneapolis Lakers traveled to Charleston, West Virginia, to face off against the Cincinnati Royals in the early days of 1959. When the Lakers arrived in town, however, their Black players were denied service in the team’s hotel.
While the entire team relocated to another hotel, the same issue arose when it was time to eat; according to Whiteford, Baylor headed to a grocery store and bought the necessary supplies to make sandwiches.
As tip-off approached, Baylor initially refused to leave his hotel room; he eventually agreed to go to the arena, but wouldn’t dress for the game. At that point, Hot Rod Hundley, a white Charleston native who played alongside Baylor, urged him to take the court.
“Rod, I’m a human being,’’ [Baylor] responded. “I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.’’ Hundley considered his teammate’s words and conceded: “Don’t play. You’re right. I was wrong.’’
Those words and actions still ring true today
From a social perspective, it’s easy to feel like the days when Elgin Baylor was denied service in a hotel and a restaurant are buried long in the past. Unfortunately, his words are painfully similar to what today’s NBA stars are saying about their boycott.
The Milwaukee Bucks are chasing a once-in-generation opportunity to win an NBA championship; they put that aside to send a message. LeBron James took to Twitter saying, in all caps, “WE DEMAND CHANGE.” Kenny Smith walked off of the TNT set in solidarity with the players.
As we’ve said so many times in 2020, this is an unprecedented moment; no one has seen entire teams boycott their own games during the playoffs. Looking back at Elgin Baylor’s stand in 1959, however, can help bring things into clarity.
“Rod, I’m a human being,’’ he responded. “I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.’’