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BILL DWYRE

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor are together again

The two players who put the Los Angeles Lakers on the map are honored at the Coliseum.

February 05, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Playing the game of basketball, in a city that didn't notice or care at first, they were joined at the hip. Still are.

Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were the basement cement blocks on the ritzy high-rise building now known as the Los Angeles Lakers. Long before much of the ga-ga masses who now worship the Purple and Gold were even born, Baylor and West were piling bricks and spreading plaster.

Before Kobe, before Shaq, even before Magic, the seed of professional basketball in the West was planted by Baylor and West. They were the pied pipers, the water on the sapling.

On Wednesday they stood in the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, two 70-somethings, shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a bronze plaque, with photographers clicking away. They were there for recognition, both fitting and overdue. So were the words that began the first two paragraphs on the plaque:

"Jerry West was fire."

"Elgin Baylor was ice."

Until a few years ago, these Coliseum ceremonies honored only the dead, and only those who had accomplished a measure of their excellence in the Coliseum. But Coliseum Commissioners David Israel and Zev Yaroslavsky led a movement to extend those honors to the living, and to the entire complex, which includes the Sports Arena.

Baylor and West were obvious choices. Baylor and West together even more so.

"Most people, when they are honored, are honored separately," West said. "For me, this is more significant."

The master of ceremonies was Tommy Hawkins, for five years a teammate of Baylor and West after the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to the Sports Arena in 1960. Keith Erickson, who was a Laker in that era for five years, spoke. As did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the highest scoring player in NBA history, who coached under Clippers general manager Baylor and played under Lakers coach and GM West. As did Mitch Kupchak, the former Lakers player who followed West as general manager.

The laughs came easily. So did the stories, some of them even true.

"We got here a few years after the Dodgers," Hawkins said. "They arrived on airplanes, greeted by a crowd of thousands, and they had a parade. We drove in through San Bernardino at midnight. Nobody knew and nobody cared."

Both Hawkins and Baylor joked about that first year in the Sports Arena.

"We'd come back from a two-week trip," Hawkins said, "and we'd get off the plane and they put us in vans and trucks with speakers on the top and they'd give us a script and we'd drive around the city, reading: 'Hi there. I'm Tommy Hawkins of the Lakers. We're back in town after a two-week trip and we'll have five games at home. First up, the Knicks on Tuesday night.' "

Kupchak, speaking later, said, "I'm having trouble visualizing Kobe and Pau Gasol, riding through the streets with a speaker system."

There were stories of that first season, 1960-'61, when no local radio station had enough interest to even do broadcasts, and Lakers owner Bob Short said he couldn't afford a broadcaster anyway. When the Lakers got to the playoffs, a local play-by-play man was identified as a possibility, but when Short balked at paying him, Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe stepped up and said he would pay, but only if he would be allowed to do the analyst's job next to Chick Hearn.

And a Lakers voice was hatched.

There was much banter about Kobe's recent 61-point game against the Knicks in the current Madison Square Garden. Baylor once had 71 in the old building.

"That was the night Elgin and I combined for 86 points," Hawkins said -- he adds a point every time he tells the story. "If he had passed the ball more, I could have had 25."

Baylor told Hawkins: "If you had taken fewer shots, I could have gotten 80." Hawkins said Baylor told him in the locker room, "I was going to pass to you as soon as I missed."

Then there was the story about the night Baylor, a known jokester, was called to be Hearn's postgame guest. Baylor was sweaty, his warmup suit hanging loosely and totally drenched, a towel around his shoulders. It was live television and when the interview ended, Hearn thanked him and handed him a gift certificate from a local men's clothing store. Baylor looked at it and handed it back to Hearn. "Looks like you need this worse than I do," he said, leaving Hearn speechless for the first and last time in his broadcasting career.

Erickson said that West was the only player he has ever seen who could score 40 points in a game in which his hamstring was torn and he couldn't run. He said Baylor once "averaged a couple of ticks under 20 rebounds a game for the entire season, and now, one of these guys gets 15 one night and they hold a parade."

Abdul-Jabbar said he especially remembered West showing up for his mother's funeral.

Baylor said he was honored to have West as a friend, and West, four years younger than Baylor at 70, said Baylor had been a mentor and he had never told him that. Hawkins said, "If it hadn't been for that damn Bill Russell, we would have been all-everything."

In the end, even though they had worked for other teams -- Baylor for 23 years as Clippers general manager before being unceremoniously dismissed last fall and West for five as Memphis GM -- they were both Lakers, together, through and through.

Nobody can ever question that. It is there, in bronze.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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