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Basketball Superstar Elgin Baylor Dies At 86

NOEL KING, HOST:

NBA legend Elgin Baylor died on Monday at the age of 86. Baylor played with the Lakers from the late '50s, when they were still in Minnesota, into the '70s, when they were in Los Angeles, of course. He was known for - here's how an opposing player once put it - he said, guarding Elgin Baylor is like guarding a flood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Baylor, of course, can move inside, or he can shoot from outside. Here he's penetrating, off balance, lets it go, and it's good.

KING: For 20 years, after he retired from playing, he was the general manager of LA's other NBA team, the Clippers. Writer Bijan Bayne is with me now. His book is called "Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball." Good morning, Bijan.

BIJAN BAYNE: How are you?

KING: I'm good. I can't get over that line - it's like guarding a flood. How did he change basketball?

BAYNE: Well, he was the first player in major league sports to sit out a game because of racial discrimination. And he also helped change the style in which the game is played, that we take for granted today - moves such as spin dribbles, changing the ball from one hand to the other in midair, reverse moves, the move that people commonly call today the Eurostep, things of that nature he brought to the game, in terms of people seeing those moves in the mainstream as opposed to in the schoolyard.

KING: So other players have gone on to copy them, but where did those moves come from? Was he just a virtuoso in that way?

BAYNE: As far as anyone knows. He has never really cited anyone as an influence...

KING: (Laughter).

BAYNE: ...Or as a role model in terms of his style of play. So he might have been sort of like Charlie Parker in that regard, an innovator.

KING: I love it.

BAYNE: At least, again, in terms of people seeing these moves in mainstream and on television as opposed to in the schoolyard, where, you know, improvisation is the order of the day.

KING: Yeah. You mentioned him standing up to racism. We had Mr. Baylor on the show about three years ago. Our colleague David Greene was interviewing him, and he told David this story. He said, in 1959, the Lakers had gone on the road for a game in Charleston, W.V., and the hotel wouldn't let Baylor and some of his Black teammates even check in. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELGIN BAYLOR: I was really hurt, you know, by that. And as I thought about it, I said, you know, it's like, hey, I'm not going to go out there. You know, we're not like some animals, you know, 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?

KING: So he sat out the game, and some people were really furious with him. What made him risk his career in a moment like that?

BAYNE: Well, the way in which he was raised, a lot of it has to do with the standard in his household, his older brothers, who stood 6'9" and 6'6", respectively, were very strong players themselves. His mother worked with the Department of the Interior. And he grew up in a Washington, D.C., where the parks and other facilities were segregated, and he just was not a person who really put up with racial discrimination or being treated one way off the court and one way on.

KING: What do you think his legacy is?

BAYNE: Well, his legacy is that the rookie who stood up for his rights and for being treated justly on and off the court, who refused to play in that game in Charleston, W.V., is also the executive who, 45 years later, sued Donald Sterling for racial discrimination and age discrimination. So throughout his life, he's consistent with that stance of being treated not just as a wind-up animal to be celebrated and to entertain people, but a human being.

KING: Journalist Bijan Bayne. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.