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Off-Court Bumbling: Elgin Baylor v. LA Clippers

NBA Hall of Famer and former Los Angeles Clippers executive Elgin Baylor is suing the team saying he was wrongfully terminated in 2008 "on account of his age and his race" and that he was grossly underpaid. (AP)
NBA Hall of Famer and former Los Angeles Clippers executive Elgin Baylor is suing the team saying he was wrongfully terminated in 2008 "on account of his age and his race" and that he was grossly underpaid. (AP)

This is a story about labor litigation. Hang on. I see you there … starting to doze off, muttering “CBA” and “decertification,” as you swoon toward a faceplant into your keyboard. But this is a Los Angeles Clippers labor litigation story, and if you think that sounds funny, you’re right.

Former Los Angeles Clippers executive Elgin Baylor is suing the team for wrongful termination. Baylor was fired in 2008 after 22 years with the organization. Apparently, unlike most players and coaches who’ve landed on the wrong side of LA’s NBA tracks in the past few decades, Baylor wanted to stay with Clippers. The NBA icon was 74 at the time of his firing and claims his age and race were among the factors. The suit also argues Baylor was underpaid.

Two details about this civil lawsuit are shockingly silly, even by Clippers standards. The first came out during team owner Donald Sterling’s testimony in a Los Angeles courtroom on Tuesday. When questioned by Baylor’s attorney, Sterling revealed he was essentially unaware of Baylor’s basketball credentials when he hired him in 1986 to be the Clippers’ vice president of player personnel.

According to an LATimes.com report by Lance Pugmire published Wednesday, attorney Carl Douglas asked, “You didn’t know about his basketball career? His accomplishments? The Hall of Fame?”

“No, I didn’t know that. I hired him for $3,000 a month,” Sterling replied. “I didn’t really know what his role was.... He was working in a mail-order company back then.”

So the owner of a major company is admitting he did little or no research when hiring a top executive. It would be unacceptable in a dog toy manufacturing outfit. It’s inexplicable in the NBA, especially considering the executive in question is a legend of the league.

If you’re feeling a little like Donald Sterling right now, that’s ok. You probably don’t own an NBA franchise and it’s been nearly 40 years since Baylor retired. You can become more informed than Sterling was in 1986 by reading the next paragraph.

In 11 of his 14 NBA seasons with the Minneapolis / LA Lakers, Baylor averaged at least 24 points and 10 rebounds per game. (Yes, Kevin Love, that’s 11 seasons with a double-double average.) For three seasons between 1960 and 1963, Baylor put up more than 35 points and 17 rebounds a game. The 11-time All-Star also found time to share the wealth, doling out more than 4 assists per game for his career. (For in-depth insight into Baylor’s career, his personality, and the difficulties he went through as an African-American athlete in the 1960s, read Bill Simmons’ terrific profile of Baylor for ESPN.com from October 2008.)

But Sterling and his ignorance are not the only surreal aspect of Baylor’s lawsuit. The second shocker is the suit itself.

Elgin Baylor was a marvelous basketball player, but a terrible NBA executive. In his 22 years with the team, the Clippers racked up two winning seasons. To be fair, they also finished at an even .500 in 1992-93. So make that three non-losing seasons.

Under Baylor’s supervision, the team made the playoffs four times. “But wait,” you say. “The Clippers only had three non-losing seasons under Baylor.”

Well, this is the NBA we’re talking about, and the fourth playoff appearance came when the team finished the 1996-97 regular season at 36-46. Playoff Darwinism ensued and LA was promptly swept by Utah in the opening round.

When your team is bad, you tend to get high draft picks. Between 1987 and 2008 LA had 14 top 10 picks in the NBA draft. There were 8 years when they had multiple first round picks. Take a look at the Clippers draft history.  It doesn’t read like a basketball “Who’s Who” list. It’s more like a “Who?” list.

To be fair, LA did pick a number of players who went on to have respectable NBA careers (Hersey Hawkins, Antonio McDyess, and Lamar Odom, to name a few), but some were traded for lesser players before ever donning a Clippers uniform and those who did play in LA tend to be remembered for later accomplishments with other teams.

Should Baylor take all the blame for the Clippers’ miseries? No. Donald Sterling deserves his share, as do other team executives, and a long list of coaches and players.  But to claim you’ve been wrongfully terminated, after years of running a team widely viewed as the laughingstock of professional sports, is a stretch.

If nothing else, Baylor’s lawsuit has crystallized two key facts that perfectly exemplify the institutional problems within the Los Angeles Clippers: Donald Sterling didn’t know who Elgin Baylor was and Elgin Baylor thought he should have more than 22 years to turn the team around.

This program aired on March 17, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Doug Tribou Twitter Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.

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