Over the last few months, a number of homophobic incidents, followed by management and player's positive actions, surrounding the National Basketball Association (NBA) have given professional men's sports and several of its star players an opportunity to support equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. And after each one, I couldn't help but think about a night in 1958 Charleston, WV.
In 1958, the Minneapolis Lakers, who wouldn't move to Los Angeles for another two years, had three black players -- Boo Ellis, Ed Fleming, and Elgin Baylor. Baylor is in the Hall of Fame. His jersey hangs in the Staples Center. He is inarguably one of the all-time greatest players in the NBA. He was also the first black player to ever boycott a game.
The Lakers had been scheduled to play an exhibition game in Charleston, which was the hometown of Lakers' Hot Rod Hundley. When the team arrived in the city and attempted to check into the team's hotel, they were informed that the black players could not stay at that hotel. Baylor argued with the clerk, but the clerk ignored him. Hundley interceded and pointed out that Baylor was their star player, but the clerk refused to budge. Hundley made two other calls to hotels, but he was told they had the same policy. Ultimately, the team had to stay in a run-down hotel that was reserved for black people. When Baylor left the hotel to eat, he found that no restaurants in the town would serve him, and he and the other two black players were forced to eat at the concession stand at the Greyhound bus station.
When it came time for the game, Baylor refused to play in a town that would not afford him the basic respect to serve him a meal. The promoters of the game approached Hundley to get him to convince Baylor to play since the two were friends. Hundley asked Baylor to play as a favor to him, since it was his hometown. Baylor told his friend that he simply couldn't play in a town where he hadn't been treated him like a human being. Hundley remembers that as the moment that he started to feel Baylor's pain. "Elj," he told him, "Don't play."
While this was the first time a black player boycotted a game, it wouldn't be the last. Just a few months later, Bill Russell would do the same thing at an exhibition game in Dallas. But what strikes me about this particular story isn't what it meant for Baylor, but what it meant for Hundley. It's always amazed me that it was at that moment that Hundley began to understand that the racism his teammate faced was about more than restaurants and hotels. It was about equal dignity. And he wouldn't have understood that unless he knew Baylor. And I've always kind of loved him for that because it is simply the most perfect explanation for why the NBA works so well as an unwitting agent for social change. And the perfect explanation for why I've been so encouraged by recent actions from the league and from the players condemning homophobia in the NBA.
Following their recent high-profile use of anti-gay slurs, Bulls' Joakim Noah and Lakers' Kobe Bryant each faced substantial fines. In the aftermath of those ugly outbursts, the league took the opportunity to issue public statements condemning homophobic language in the NBA, and released a Public Service Announcement (PSA) featuring stars like Phoenix Suns' Grant Hill encouraging young people not to use the word "gay" as an insult. The Lakers released their own PSA pointing out the damaging effect of such language. Former MVP and Suns' star Steve Nash released a video supporting marriage equality in New York. And Rick Welts, president of the Suns, publicly came out as a gay man.
When asked to comment on Welts and whether an active NBA player could ever come out, Hall of Famer and former Suns' star Charles Barkley stated that everyone in the league has played with gay teammates, and, as he explained, "I'd rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can't play." In other words, as long as the moral arc of the jump shot bends toward the basket, no one cares who's shooting it.
The NBA has an incredible capacity to make teammates out of strangers, and link the fates of people who might otherwise never have understood each other's perspective. And if the NBA could make a white guy from Charleston begin to understand the discrimination faced by a black guy from Washington, D.C., when an active player in the NBA finally does come out as gay, it's exciting to think of the effect that will have on the players and fans of the league and sports in general. The NBA may well have a transformative impact on the lives of LGBT people. It is, after all, where amazing happens.