There is only one word that can summarize the Los Angeles Clippers as a franchise, and following the exit of vice-president of basketball operations Elgin Baylor, the same word should be bounced back to the man who directed a creaky ship for 22 years: Sorry.
For every fan that thought Los Angeles’ third-best basketball attraction had finally turned the tide, guess again. Owner Donald Sterling and Head Coach Mike Dunleavy proved last week that they are shadier than a young George Steinbrenner while adding another chapter to a failure-filled 24 years in Los Angeles, turning back the clock to the buffalo days.
After two decades of employment, the basketball world doesn’t know whether one of the greatest ever to play the game resigned, retired or got fired, making the last year for the Clippers more disreputable than a Michael Olowokandi jump shot, foggier than a pair of Bo Outlaw’s goggles and uglier than Keith Closs’s hair.
For those of you keeping track, this is public relations’ nightmare No. 2 for the Clippers in a span of three months, the other he-he said episode being Elton Brand and his ugly departure to the Philadelphia 76ers. Brand opted out of his contract and jetted to Philly in July even though the team was being built to win now with the addition of point guard Baron Davis.
Dunleavy and Sterling took over Brand’s contract negotiations while the caretaker stood back. It was a pre-cursor that the 74-year old’s role with the team had been officially been reduced to crud. Brand was Baylor’s claim to glory after he acquired him on a 2001 draft-day trade. He evolved into the face of the franchise and only all-star the team had seen since Danny Manning in 1994.
After he inked a five-year deal worth $80 million and spurned the marriage of a formidable one-two punch with Davis, Sterling and Dunleavy had conflicts with Brand and his agent David Falk, who referred to Dunleavy as the ‘quasi-GM.’
‘Elgin did not have much of a role, as far as I could tell,’ said one basketball agent at the time. ‘Dunleavy did all the talking, because Dunleavy did all the dealing. It just wasn’t official.’
Before Baylor is portrayed as the ingenious guru who spearheaded sport’s greatest team, realize this announcement could’ve happened anytime during his .341 winning-percentage tenure. But, Baylor’s job was to strictly take the chair and fill the title while working with minimal payroll flexibility ‘- a bizarre owner-GM relationship Sterling had caucused. His credibility was based on his 11 All-Star appearances and a Hall-of-fame career rather than his nine playoff wins. Sadly, it led to 18 lottery picks under his watch.
After the trio of Mark Jackson, Ron Harper and Dominique Wilkins split to contending teams due to Sterling’s unwillingness to spend, Baylor fielded teams featuring Stanley Roberts, Loy Vaught, Lamond Murray and Olowokandi ‘- as the main attractions.
Over the last few years, Sterling finally fought the spiders in his pocket and finally paid for talent, a gesture that was extended to Brand as well. In result, Baylor was named NBA executive of the year in 2006 after the Clippers reached the playoffs with a roster he himself had compiled.
Sterling purchased the team for almost $13 million in 1981. As of today, his team’s value has ballooned up to $294 million. If Baylor lavishly threw some of Sterling’s money around, including close to $200 million of his real estate, then one could compare his tenure with former New York Knicks GM Isiah Thomas’ and the Detroit Lions’ Matt Millen’s, executives who paralyzed their organizations with Are-you-serious?-type decisions.
But because he was handcuffed for close to two decades, he never got a chance to. Now as Dunleavy pulls double-duty and assumes the additional role of general manager as he unofficially held, Sterling will make him earn every single penny of his $5.3 million a year contract.
The question isn’t why Baylor left, but why it had to happen like this:
‘We greatly appreciate Elgin’s efforts during his time with the Clippers and we wish him the very best,’ Sterling said in a press release the day of the announcement.
After 22 years, Sterling couldn’t wait to move on with a sentence so bland and thoughtless. Imagine if basketball icons-turned executives Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were dealt with an act so tactless. The owner’s head would’ve been called for and then asked to be kicked around at high school tetherball courts of the players they drafted.
So why Elgin Baylor, owner of career marks of 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds in 14 seasons and one of the best ever? Even the people around him don’t have an explanation for it.
‘For the last 40 years, Elgin has been a part of basketball,’ Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak said. ‘I had a really good relationship with him probably because of Jerry West. So I’m saddened by this. I’m surprised by the timing of it. And his timing.’
‘Loyal person,’ said the Lakers’ Lamar Odom, a 1999 fourth overall pick by Baylor. ‘He doesn’t deserve that. That’s too bad. He’s a good man.’
Chris Kaman, a 2003 Baylor draftee, echoed much of the same: ‘That was weird. I was asking questions and I wasn’t getting any answers. I guess they weren’t sure, either. It’s unfortunate.’
For the first time in years, the Clippers’ offseason sparked talks across town instead of that of their venue-sharing neighbors ‘- for all the wrong reasons. One would think Jerry Buss and Co. would reach out to the man who never should’ve left the organization in the first place.
It’ll showcase a lesson of first-hand class, a vital element the Clippers lack.