Sometime in the late '90s—memory can't pinpoint when—I was sitting around with a few pals discussing the state of African Americans in the executive suites of sports teams.
Certainly progress was being made since Al Campanis' racist remarks on Nightline, but it seemed that the sporting world was no different than the real world in that a black man in a position of authority over a sports team would have to be two or three times better than all available white men. (A woman of any color will probably have to be fifty or sixty times more qualified; Kim Ng has been assistant general manager with first the New York Yankees and now the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2001, yet she has been a serious candidate for only one GM opening, though her qualifications dwarf those of many GMs.)
My pals and I thought that a rash of hiring would soon come, and most of it would be public relations gestures. I vividly remember one of my pals noting that "real progress would only come when a black GM could do a mediocre job and keep his position for years."
Against that standard, Elgin Baylor's tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers, which concluded abruptly this week, must count as progress. Baylor held his position for 22 years, and during that time, there were few team executives who were more incompetent.
When Baylor was hired it certainly reeked of public relations. It wasn't his fault; many teams that hire former star players as team executives have that motive; there is really no connection between playing a sport superbly and making solid administrative decisions, just ask any Washington Wizards fan about the Michael Jordan era. During his playing career, Baylor was one of the five best players in basketball. To think of his game in terms of more contemporary players, he was a combination of Julius Erving's grace and Kevin Garnett's power and touch.
The Clippers needed the PR bounce that hiring a legend brings. The team had moved from San Diego to Los Angeles just as the Magic Johnson/Showtime era Lakers were shifting into high gear. The Clippers ranked a distant third among the Los Angeles basketball powers, far behind both the Lakers and the University of California at Los Angeles Bruins in the heats and minds of L.A. sports fans.
Baylor received an unusually long honeymoon from the press. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was a notorious tightwad, so building a winner via free agency was out of the question, and it made Baylor's job seem nearly ceremonial. The draft, however, was a clear avenue of team building, and in this regard, Baylor failed miserably. Although Baylor suffered bad luck in that knee injuries prevented his first No. 1 overall choice, Danny Manning, from having the same impact in the pros that he had in college, Baylor's picks through the '90s reeked of guesswork more than careful scouting. Only one of his picks played more than 500 NBA games with a shooting percentage better than the league average, and that player, Antonio McDyess was traded away on draft night for a package of players and picks that were well below his market value. It was during this time that the Clippers became synonymous with miserable teams. (It was often said in New York in recent years that the Knicks had become the new Clippers.)
In 1998, a year after Baylor took center Michael Olowokandi with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (arguably the worst draft pick of all time Kandi Man was taken ahead of Paul Pierce, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Dirk Nowitzki), the Clippers moved to Staples Center, an arena they would share with the Lakers, and suddenly the administration of the team improved markedly. They began drafting talented players and making shrewd trades; the Clippers began to look in earnest like a winning team about to happen. In 2006, the Clips came within a game of reaching the Western Conference Finals.
Although I'd like to think I'm getting smarter as I get older, I was skeptical that after 13 years of mediocre service, Baylor had begun to take his job seriously. When I did Web searches on sophisticated NBA analysis and the Clippers other names in the L.A. front office showed up. I've been around long enough to know what ensues when an executive delegates his principal decision making authority. Either he's set for life, or he's about slide down a slippery slope. With his dismissal this week, it looks like Baylor thought he had the former scenario, when it was the latter that was in effect.
Most of the homage to Baylor has focused on his playing days, which deserve greater attention. The '60s were a true heyday for basketball and the accomplishments and the superstars of that era should receive more fame. In evaluating Baylor, I can't ignore his time as a team executive, which is a mixed bag only through the most rose-colored glasses.
I need to reconvene my pals, however, as the playing field is changing again in team sports executive suites. On the one hand, it takes a few minutes to name all of the African Americans leading front offices. From Jerry Reese of the New York Giants and Otis Smith of the Orlando Magic to veterans like Ozzie Newsome of the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Dumars of the Detroit Pistons, it's no longer unusual to see a black man in a position of power. However, the surge that brought that increase in representation is ending.
Teams often hired men who played the game for their brand-building value. Now teams have become aware that winning brings its own marketing bounce and that winning is less a matter of guesswork than of well thought out decision making. The most recent wave of GMs are not stars but men who have proven their mettle in front office capacities and earn their way to a top position via working up the ladder. Reese is an excellent example of the new wave, but he's the only African American in it. This trend will probably slow the desegregation of the front offices, unless African-American MBA candidates and the like realize that the games they couldn't rule as a player can be ruled as a general manager. It's a golden opportunity as long as people capitalize on it.
Ultimately, Baylor's hiring and his lengthy tenure ushered in a new era of racial progress in sports front offices. His dismissal this week, however, coincides with the acceleration of a trend that may reverse some of that progress.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.