SALT LAKE CITY — When the Jazz left New Orleans for Utah in the 1970s, Elgin Baylor missed the trip. He had been fired as the team’s coach and never found his way to the Rockies. That was a shame, even though he had retired as a player. He was the original sky pilot. Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan followed in his slipstream.
Baylor spent so much time above the rim he would joke he got his hang time by inhaling helium. Now 84, he modestly says he didn’t stay airborne longer than anyone else; he just delayed his jump until after his opponent leaped.
Tell that to everyone he posterized.
As the Jazz launch their 40th season in Utah, beginning with Monday’s training camp opening, Baylor has a book out called “Hang Time: My Life in Basketball.” It details the life of one of the NBA’s most electrifying stars. In April, a statue commemorating his Hall of Fame career was unveiled at the Staples Center. It was too long coming for a player with the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.
Though he doesn’t follow the current Jazz, Baylor has ties to the franchise. Hot Rod Hundley was one of them. The longtime announcer was a teammate of Baylor’s with the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. In “Hang Time,” Baylor recalls the Lakers playing in Charleston, W.V., Hundley’s hometown. But when they arrived, the hotel refused to allow Baylor to stay with white team members.
“You listen to me,” Hundley stormed at the desk clerk. “You know who this is? This is Elgin Baylor. Now you find us rooms. All of us.”
Eventually the team decided to book a different hotel. Due to the racist treatment, Baylor declined to play in the game. Hundley initially tried to change the Laker star’s mind, but seeing the pain and humiliation, later recanted.
“Don’t play. You’re right. I was wrong,” Hundley said. “Baby, don’t play.”
Hundley had his back.
You gotta love it, baby.
“Hot Rod was a fun guy to be around, a lover of life,” Baylor said in a phone interview this week. “The thing I liked about Hot Rod was he was a man of his word, a very honorable person.”
Former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan never played with Baylor, but they were contemporaries.
“He was a hard-nosed player,” Baylor said. “He’d dive on the floor and you’d see skin coming off his legs. He really played hard. Guys hated playing against him. He was a very physical player, but he could take it. He was one of those guys you hated to play against, but he’d be a good teammate to play with.”
After retiring as a player, Baylor was hired as coach of the New Orleans Jazz, where he coached hoops impresario Pete Maravich. In the book, Baylor says he “unleashed” Maravich to do his thing.
But injuries curtailed Maravich’s career. By the time he got to Utah, he was a remnant.
“He was a terrific ball-handler,” Baylor said. “Sometimes he’d get out of control with the behind-the-back and between-the-legs passes, but he loved the game and loved his teammates.”
While Maravich was a defensive liability, Baylor said fans “wanted him to score points, and that’s what he did.” Baylor did, too. He once racked up 71 points in a game. His 61 points in a 1962 playoff game is the second-most in league history. That makes him well qualified to judge the great players of yesterday and today.Comment on this story
Baylor said if he had to pick one player from his era to start a franchise, it would be Bill Russell, a close friend. His top choice among today’s players: LeBron James.
“The thing about him that’s amazing is that guy can play every position,” he said.
Although Baylor was a 6-foot-5 small forward, he has no problem declaring he would thrive in today’s NBA.
“The game was so much more physical than it is now,” he said, noting the freedom of movement players enjoy. “You could hand check. Today it’s a finesse game, you can’t touch anyone.”
Nobody could touch him, either.