It has been 3 ½ years since the Los Angeles jury posterized Elgin Baylor and needed less than 4 hours to unanimously reject his claims against the Clippers. The team, as the Clippers of the time were wont to do, rubbed his nose in the outcome of the case when an owner with class would have let the results speak for themselves instead of having the team lawyer trash a good man on his way into retirement. Enough.
Enough time. Enough changes. Enough acrimony.
Baylor is 80, Donald Sterling is out as owner, Steve Ballmer is in, and it’s time for the next step in a successful offseason of Ballmer stabilizing and re-energizing the franchise and fan base that lived months like no other: Welcome Elgin Baylor back.
The new Clippers don’t have to hire Baylor, for basketball operations or community relations or anything. But they should extend an olive branch. Invite him to Staples Center for games, embarrass him with a hero shot on the video screen during a timeout, let the crowd take it from there with its own embrace. Have him at the team’s charity golf tournament or Christmas party or playoff pep rally.
It is not Ballmer’s problem to clean up. It is his opportunity for elegance, though.
The obvious problem for the team is that any increased Clippers-related visibility for Baylor will be a straight line to the Sterling past they’re trying to bury, complete with the ill-fated wrongful-termination lawsuit that initially included claims of racism but eventually went to trial with the assertion of age discrimination. As soon as Ballmer makes it about doing the right thing, that he’ll take the image concerns to bring an all-time great back in the family, his potential problem spins into a positive.
For all the abuse Baylor took for bad decisions as general manager from 1986 to 2008, which included a couple years as head of basketball operations in name only after the behind-the-scenes ouster by coach Mike Dunleavy, he was unfailingly loyal to the franchise. He took the hits for his boss and never once outed Sterling as the reason behind bad decisions.
Baylor wanted to take Sean Elliott at No. 2 in the 1989 draft and then, after doctors said knee problems would keep Elliott from having a career, Glen Rice. But Sterling insisted on Danny Ferry, who practically swam to play in Italy rather than suffer as a Clipper. Baylor negotiated an extension that would have kept Danny Manning in place, only to have Sterling and right-hand man Andy Roeser burn the relationship to the ground with a hard line on secondary issues — deferment schedules, other minor compensations — and cause Manning to realize the Clips would never change and that he needed to get out. (Manning’s agent, on the phone with Roeser, could hear Baylor in the background, imploring Roeser to stop talking already and take the deal in place.) There were a lot of those moments.
Under Sterling, closing a beneficial deal was never enough. He had to beat the other person, badly and publicly if the situation allowed, which could have made sense in his real-estate world but created avoidable problems when the deal is with someone on his own team. He had the same galling tact with fired coaches — make a flimsy argument to withhold a portion of what remained on the contract, dare the coach to sue and offer the choice between a reduced check or a legal wrangle that could drag out. Money saved.
Once it was Baylor on the other side of a lawsuit, he was instantly expunged from the organization. Employees knew not to mention his name in those uncomfortable times, as much as many liked him. There obviously would not be any reconciliation — under that management. There can be now.
Baylor was responsible for more mistakes than any other GM could have survived for two decades, and his name helped because Sterling was pretentious to gross extremes and loved being able to introduce the great Elgin Baylor to friends, but Baylor also stood up for the franchise with a terrible reputation as a man of ethics. He continued to work for Sterling by choice, of course, and so there are no straining sob songs of what he had to endure. But there should be an acknowledgement of the good he did.
Besides, he’s Elgin Baylor, Hall of Famer, 10-time first-team All-NBA, a man who in the 1960s helped build pro basketball in Los Angeles from the ground up. The Lakers, his team as a player, have him on the short list of the next person to get a statue outside Staples Center, the ultimate NBA tribute in town. The Clippers can at least invite him to a game. It’s an olive branch. It’s moving forward, not looking back.