Elgin Baylor known to family and friends as Rabbit on the playgrounds of DC
High school Coach Dave Brown, the man most responsible for Rabbit’s NBA career. DC Mayor Walter Washington and I pay tribute to Coach Brown’s retirement.
In April 2018 Former Spingarn High School and NBA Hall of Fame player Elgin Baylor blew into his hometown of Washington, DC. The ocassion, he was selling his new book titled “Hang Time.” What a great tile, in a town he left hanging his entire NBA career except for a visit back home for the funeral of a family member. During those visits he would use the back roads and under the cover of darkness to find his way into a place he once called home.
Elgin without a doubt is the greatest basketball player to ever come out of DC (I am a eyewitness). I watched Elgin when I was just a student at Brown Middle School in NE DC. My middle school was in walking distance of Phelps and Spingarn high schools. This was where his legendary status first took root. He followed coach Dave Brown from Phelps to next door neighbor and rival Spingarn. And as they say, “The rest is basketball history!”
His basketball legendary status was born on the playgrounds and in a segregated DC Public School system in Washington, DC.
NBA great Dr. J described Elgin’s prowness on a basketball court to that of a ballerina as it related to his movements. Rabbit was the first to use hang-time as a part of his basketball offensive arsenal leaving opponents flatfooted in his wake. Dr. J and Michael Jordan were all students of his hang-time classes taught from their home television sets.
When I was contacted by Frank Jones, Jr. and told that Elgin would be at the new Afro-American Museum I was skeptical about his appearance. His travels back home were rare, far, few and in between. I was then told that his appearance was based on his new book titled “Hang Time!” Frank Jones the nephew of the late basketball legend Wil Jones advised me I could get free tickets to hear a one on one interview with Elgin conducted by former Wizard’s player Phil Chenier–I immediately said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Phil Chenier knows absolutely nothing about DC basketball or Elgin Baylor! The last time I got free tickets to see Elgin Baylor, the free tickets were given to me by Elgin Baylor in Greensboro, NC in 1959.
The ocassion, the Lakers were on an exhibition tour in the south and their next stop was Greensboro, NC. The city was located 30 miles north of Winston-Salem. There were several Spingarn student/athletes attending Winston-Salem Teachers College and I was one of them. When I heard the Lakers would be playing in Greensboro I told my roommate Donald ‘Duck’ Wills and suggested we go and try to catch up with him and get some tickets for the game.
Donald and I grew up together in the same NE housing project and we were the quarterback/wide receiver combination at Spingarn High School. His brother Maury ‘Sonny’ Wills was a star athlete at Cardozo High School and against all odds went on to become a record breaking and legendary base stealer for the LA Dodgers’ Major League Baseball team. He spend 10 years in the minor leagues before he was called up to the Dodgers. We were all connected to Rabbit. Donald like his brother was a great all-around athlete. I followed in their footsteps and was a three sports star in football, basketball and baseball. I even worn Rabbit’s No. 23 Spingarn jersey. My athletic skills never matched theirs.
In the meantime, Donald begged off of traveling to Greenesboro to see Rabbit claiming he had a hot date and for me to say hello to him. I was not deterred, I borrowed my teammate/roommate Arnold McKnight’s car and hit the road. During the drive to see my homeboy I was kind of apprehensive about how he would receive me. He was always very quiet and some what introverted.
The common denominator was our alma mater Spingarn, Coach Dave Brown, and the Wills brothers. Elgin and I had become ‘friends’ after he married his first wife Ruby and they moved to an apartment complex in NE DC called The Mayfair Mansions. The complex was located directly across the street from my housing project, Parkside. Elgin like most pro athletes black and white during that era had second jobs once the season was over. Today’s salaries were unheard of. His second job was working for the DC Recreation Department at Bannecker Playground in NW DC. The playground was located directly across the street from Howard University on Georgia Avenue.
In the evenings I would wait at the corner of Hayes Street and Kenilworth Avenue leading out of our community. This was the route he would take to his job. I would hitch a ride with him to 24th & Benning Road (Langston Golf Course)where he would drop me off to walk to the Brown Middle School’s basketball court. Some days (mostly weekends) we would play at Henry T. Blow elementary school playground located at 19th & Benning Road (directly across the street from John Thompson’s residence)and that would be my drop off point. I remember one evening I was running late and there he was parked waiting for me. He said, “Don’t make this a habit” and I kind of smiled to myself.
Lets return to Greensboro and my encounter with Rabbit. I was able to locate the motel rather easily where the Lakers were staying. I had my coach Clarence ‘Bighouse’ Gaines call Cal Irving the basketball coach at North Carolina A & T to get the name of the motel, but before giving me the information, he asked me for the second time, “Do you really know Elgin?” I looked at him and said, “Where is Elgin from, what school did he attend and what coach did he play for?” He then surrendered the piece of paper he had written the information on.
Once I arrived in Greensboro I knocked on the door and Rabbit opened the door and said, “Man what are you doing way down here?” I told him Duck and I were attending Winston-Salem on an athletic scholarship. He asked where was Duck? And I said ‘he had a conflict and was chasing some nursing student around the campus.’ He laughed and we talked hometown and basketball for about 20 minutes. I then made my exit back to Winston-Salem. He gave me 4 tickets to the game, a Laker jacket and twenty-dollars with instructions to give Duck ten. The tickets I gave away to some white youth hanging around the motel trying to get autographs. The jacket I held on to for several years before losing it and Duck never asked me for the ten dollars.
After college I would follow Rabbit on television and travel to watch the Bullets play the Lakers in Baltimore at the Civil Center. The Gus Johnson and Elgin Baylor one on one battles were always the best knockdown and dragout battles in the NBA. They were like gladiators on a basketball court. Rabbit (Elgin) and Honeycomb (Gus) were worth the price of a ticket and they left you checking the schedule for their next encounter. This was “Real Men’s basketball.” There was no crying or signifying to the referees on every play. Sometimes the referees would just let them play until there was a sign of blood.
Too many think “Show Time NBA” originated in LA, but the real ‘Show Time’ originated in Baltimore with arrival of Earl ‘The Pearl’ Monroe from Winston-Salem State in North Carolina in 1968. Show Time started with a rebound and an outlet pass from Wes Unseld to Earl with Elvin Hayes running on one flank and Honeycomb running on the other. It was breath taking and had the crowd standing on their feet wondering who would be the last to touch the ball. It was here Earl earned his nick name “Black Magic.” It was double the drama when it was Lakers versus Bullets–to include the duel between Rabbit and Honeycomb.
I notice after Rabbit turned pro he became “The Invisible Man” around his hometown. His friends and former teammates would attend NBA games in Baltimore by car and busloads hoping to get an audience with him, but he hardly said, “Hello” and he avoided them whenever possible. The stories of the sightings and non-sightings of Rabbit are many, and sometimes it is hard to know who to believe. To be perfectly honest there is very little difference between him, and DC homegrown *Dave Bing, John Thompson, Sugar Ray Leonard, James Brown, Adrian Dantley, Adrian Branch, Tony Paige, and Tim Baylor. Its a photo finish when it comes to being invisible and selfish human beings in their hometown. The sad part of their selfish behavior, they all act like they were born rich instead of poor—I could write a book.
Let me tell you about one of the stories that I know “First Hand” up close and personal. The stories that have been written about Rabbit and his greatness never mention the man most responsible for his success as an athlete and as a man in this GAME CALLED LIFE. His name was Coach Dave Brown!
Former writer and columnist Dave McKenna has probably written more about DC playground legends than anyone else in sports media with the exception of yours truly. I remember a column he had written titled, “Wilt vs. Elgin: When Their World Was the Playground–Two legends in the summer of 57” dated August 28, 2012.
It was the best caption of DC playground basketball I have ever read, but there were so many outlandish lies told about who was there and how Wilt got there were comical. Dave Harris was the most reliable source. It was not McKenna’s fault, he just didn’t know. It was a historical moment in DC basketball history and everyone wanted to be a part of it, including some of those who claim they were there and were nowhere in the zip code.
I love me some Morgan Wooten, but Morgan was no Dave Brown, he just had more resources and press coverage. The other Division Two black coaches include, Sal Hall, Jessie Chase, Biff Carter, Ted McIntye, Charton Steward, and Charlie Baltimore. They were just never given their just due for developing some of the greatest athletes to come out of this town. The DC Public school system is the only public school system in America that can claim four professional athletes in the hall of fame. Armstrong High School produced NFL players, Len Ford and Willie Wood. Spingarn High School produced, NBA players, Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing. Other great athletes had names like, Avatus Stone, J. A. Preston, Rock Green, Reggie Lee, Hosie lee, Frank Lee, Terry Hatchett, Roger ‘Shoes’ Scott, Mo Joe Icely, Melvin ‘Weasel’ Jackson, Willie Johnson, James ‘Chicken Breast’ Lee, and Bernard Levi. Kiyi Battle, Jaky Mathews, Walter Brooks, Nick Turner, Jabbo Turner, Bill Butler, Bootsie Harris, James Dudley, Everet ‘Cookie’ Payne, all of these men were playground and Boys Club mentors. They were also important role models to young brothers like me who had no father figure.
The greatest, I have to give him some slack when it comes to returning home and not giving something back. He was truly shy and an introvert, what you saw was what you got. One rumor, concerns Elgin’s former teammate at Phelps Maxwell Banks. He adopted the Hollywood name of Max Julien and went on to become a movie star with films portraying the life of a pimp and other street hustlers. Max played opposite the legendary comedian Richard Pryor in “The Mack” the film was released 1973. It was seen as a blaxploitation drama/crime movie. Rumor has it Max fell on hard times and went to Elgin’s home without an invitation. He rung the door bell and Elgin answered in his bathrobe and Max asked him for a loan until he could get back on his feet. Without a word Elgin shut the door and returned with a hundred dollar bill and told Max to never come back to his house again.
In 1989 my mentor the legendary NBA broadcaster and playground basketball legend Sonny Hill and I attended the NBA All-Star Game in Houston, Texas. Remember, I had not seen Elgin up close and personal since 1959 in Greensboro, NC. He retired from the NBA in 1971 one year after I took to the airwaves with Inside Sports. We had communicated when I was coordinating and hosting a retirement tribute to our high school coach Dave Brown in 1978. I called him at his LA Clipper office and to my surprise he took my call. I explained I was coordinating a tribute to Coach Brown and if his busy schedule allowed I would like for him to attend. He begged off saying he had a conflict in his schedule, but said he would send a telegram to congradulate him and asked me for Coach Brown’s home number. He did send the telegram and I read it during the tribute, but he never called his savior.
During the NBA All-Star Game Sonny and I shared a hotel room. Sonny had left me down in the media room trying to convince NBA Press Relations Director Brian McIntyre I was a legit member of the media. This was after he told he had not received a credential request from Inside Sports. I had to call Red Auerbach’s home and have his wife Dotie confirm who I was. Mr. McIntyre and I later became great friends. As I was taking the elevator to my room, guess who came to dinner, Elgin Baylor. There standing before me as I stepped on the elevator was Elgin and a pretty little lady standing next him. We rode together for at least 8 floors with folks getting on and off. He never open his mouth. On his depature he looked back and said, “Nice seeing you again Harold!” I was amazed, I was too lost for words to respond. When I got to the room I told Sonny about my encounter with Elgin and he just said, “Thats Elgin.”
Frank Jones is the brother of the late great Willie Jones, he and his family attended the book signing. Frank was a decent basketball player in his own right and knew Rabbit well, but when he had a face to face encounter with him years later during his NBA career, he claimed he didn’t know Frank. During the book signing Frank was having his book signed by Elgin and according to rumor, someone yelled “thats Willie Jones’ brother.” Rabbit looked up and back down without a word of acknowledgement. This was one of those times I wished Willie was still alive and was in the same room with Rabbit. He would have clothed Rabbit back into his right mind. Willie had no cut-card for cuties on duty, unless it was himself!
Dave Bing a Spingarn grad and a NBA Hall of Fame player thought he was all that, but Rabbit gave him a wake up call also. He asked Rabbit to be his presenter in his induction into the basketball hall of fame, Rabbit claimed a conflict in his schedule. That was Rabbit being Rabbit!
STAY TUNE:FOR OTHER HOW I FORGOT STORIES!
Sugar Ray Leonard
John Thompson, Jr.