Elgin Baylor passes – “my memories of the Capt’n”

Postscript – I originally did a Facebook post referencing the passing of Elgin Baylor. I removed it after receiving a notice from one of my Sintown homies, Vince Wisniewski and decided to expand the post to an actual article. That is how special Elgin Baylor was to us who grew up in his playing era.

Growing up in the era when Elgin Baylor joined the Lakers brought many great memories of Vince and those friends from Sintown who went to Ganesha High School. At the time Sintown was a basic bedroom community in Pomona. Ganesha was built in the late ’50’s. It was an interesting time for our country. People were moving around looking for a place to raise their family. In Sintown you had your close friends but you knew just about everyone. Like so many communities White Flight was happening right before our eyes yet it didn’t matter to the Whites or Hispanic’s who stayed because they appreciated the diversity afforded to their families. We left Los Angeles two months before the Watts Riots and landed on Carlton Street. Fast forward as mentioned everyone got along and sports was a common denominator but the NBA wasn’t what it is today. The Lakers had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and we perhaps took their greatness for granted, but we also had Chick Hearn giving us the play-by-play.

Baylor has passed and even though it has been several days I still can’t get over it. Anybody and everybody from that era wanted to emulate his style of play. That is, except the ultra conservative coach Fulkerson. More on him later. In 1960 the Lakers ditched Minneapolis and came to Los Angeles. They played at the Sports Arena which was part of the complex that also housed the Coliseum. My brother Ronald and I remember attending our first professional baseball games when the Dodgers moved there in 1958. Surprisingly we can’t remember going to a Lakers game? Maybe it was because the Lakers were new but to have a professional team in that 9,000 seat arena was a big deal. I do recall one time circa 1967 my Father secured tickets for us to go to a game. I forget exactly what we did to make my him upset and cancel our trip……but looking back maybe it was just a ruse? Anyway, before my time with Coach Fulkerson, Ganesha was coached by the legendary Coach Lee Mathis – crew-cut and all. For a new school who had to play second-fiddle to powerhouse Pomona High School that exodus of families who left Los Angeles and landed in Pomona, specifically Sintown was like being awakened at Christmas!! After the great Rex Huxford graduated in 1968, our 1969 Varsity squad had Dean Ligenfelter, Robert Hines, Ronnie Carr, my brother Ronald and of course the unstoppable Wilbur Gatson just to name a few, A few from my class who got elevated to the squad as juniors, such as Gary Fisher, Stanley Johnson and Steve Burns.

Those ’69 athletic teams pumped pride and inspiration to that campus in west Pomona as Sintown became the incubator of possibilities. What a year and yes, we finally beat the hell out of Pomona High School and just about everyone in the San Antonio league. It was also the year Ronald was able to secure number 22, which of course was Baylor’s number.

There are so many stories about Baylor, it is incredible. In Sintown or specifically at Ganesha everyone loved him and despised the thorny Celtics. As I’ve mentioned Baylor was affectionately known as “The Captain” because when he was on the court he took charge. As mentioned Basketball today is not the basketball I grew up watching. A great attribute about sports is that it transforms cultures and community. The Lakers had few African-American players but like the rest of the league that was alright because at least it was our team. Plus, we had one of the best players in the league. He was a revolutionary who transformed the game. At that time players were not acrobatic. They weren’t hanging in the air to fool the defenders. There was no double-pumping, shooting the ball off the dribble, going behind the backboard, dunking over the Celtics Bill Russell. Yet, that’s who Baylor was and he did so wearing LO-CUT CONVERSE ALL-STARS!!!! At 6’5″ he was known as a small forward. He took the Lakers from the 9,000 seat capacity to the ultra-modern Fabulous Forum in Inglewood that could hold a whooping 18,500 fans. Baylor was before the Pearl, before Clyde, before Dr. J. Rick Barry, the Iceman, Magic, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and the rest.

This is my brother Ronald in 1969 wearing #22

One last story. I know this is supposed to be about my little tribute to Elgin Baylor but his name brings back so many memories about my teen and young adult years. I was the lucky lad because as mentioned my brother Ronald was a year ahead of me and I knew all I had to do was make the varsity squad and number 22 would be mine for the ’70 season, although some games he wore number 15.. As my luck would have it Coach Matthis retired after that great ’69 team graduated. Coach Fulkerson had been his assistant so he took over the reigns in 1970. He considered himself a “purest.” You had to shoot the ball a certain way – elbow neatly tucked in, no leaning but jumping straight up. There was to be nothing acrobatic or anything assimilating Baylor’s style – not that Fulkerson didn’t like him. He was just stuck on a very basic conservative style of play. Even lay-ups had to be performed a certain way. It would be suicidal to think about “going behind your back” or look like you were “trying to dunk” and even trying to “spin a reverse lay-up.” Anyway, I made the team and the equipment manager Mr. Auckee arranged for me to have number 22 for the season. Wow!!!! It didn’t matter I barely made the team as I surely didn’t have the shot Fisher or Tucker had or the soft touch that Burns had. Further as much as Fulkerson tolerated the greatness of the ’69 squad, in ’70 he had his favorites in Hackley and Tharp so my ticket in making the team was displaying sheer hustle, willingness to hit the boards and understanding the ball was for others to shoot. My reward was limited playing time but that was not as important as being on the team. I could put up with Fulkerson’s antics and humiliation he dished out to those he considered radical or caught up in the social unrest that was also part of that era. I was just stoked to be wearing Elg’s number and the pride just to suit up because of all the numbers on our team, 22 was mine.

One quick note, near the end of the season we were playing Pomona at their gym and during a brief stint I was in the game. I had a break-away and was going in for a layup and the Baylor magic came over me as I was able to hang in the air, like Elg just long enough for the defender to lose his ascent which allowed me to do a double-pump and finish the shot by banking in the layup. That was one of the key memories I remember of my playing days at Ganesha. It was like a secret, something you keep to yourself. Coincidently once I graduated from Ganesha and moved back to Los Angeles I started improving my game way beyond the ridicule I received from Coach Fulkerson. One of Chick Hearn’s favorite calls was “Baylor goes baseline and scores with a dunk.” I finally got that play down and use to take great delight in executing it. As I have attempted to stress watching Baylor gave you the confidence to try new things. The Capt’n is gone but his spirit and memories will be something we all treasure.

This is a shot of the Staples Center marquee paying homage to Baylor. The cover photo is a gift from one of my Sintown homies – the great Jacques Bordeaux. He too appreciated Baylor’s greatness and knew what he meant to me so out of his collections of goodies he gifted me the treasured bobblehead.

[postscript – I live in West Adams and approximately four miles west of the Staples Center. In 2018 the Lakers awarded Baylor a statue which is alongside the other greats of the Lakers/Kings organization. I was mortified as when the news of his passing there were loyalist like me who simply wanted to visit the statue as a way to pay respect. The Lakers and the Staples Center boneheaded management team had the entry way blocked and only if you knew where the statue was, it was impossible to see from the street. A bitter disappointment so I guess I will have to wait for the pandemic to end or when those knuckleheads realize it is OK to get close up.]