Elgin Baylor is selling off pieces of his memorabilia. Joan Niesen takes a seat at the auction.
By JOAN NIESENFS West
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Six men slouch at a table against the wall. They’re nondescript, wearing variations on the uniform of plaid shirt, sport coat and thick-rimmed glasses so prevalent among that certain subset of men between 25 and 40. Each has a laptop; some sport headphones. All appear bored.
The noise in the room is some kind of strange song, almost, with these men as the worst kind of backup vocals.
“Yes,” some grunt, and “yeah,” and “yep,” and “uh-huh” if they’re feeling especially blah. Their timing is sporadic, hurried and then bored and then back to hurried. These men deal in interruption.
Sometimes, it’s a number. “Nineteen!” “Three hundred!” “Twelve!” The numbers have some urgency.
When I walk in, the yes-ing and yep-ing and number-grunting pertains to a 1971 letter from then-president Richard Nixon. The thing is climbing up from around $2,500, and by the time the gavel punctuates the end of this particular orchestra of bidding, it’s reached $3,250.
More numbers are exchanged, which I will learn correspond to the lot and the bidder, and the beat goes on.
This is Elgin Baylor’s life, flashing across a screen, being monetized in dollars and euros and pounds and even yen. This is Beverly Hills on a Friday, where Julien’s Auctions has for years made its business on driving up the prices on everything from Michael Jackson’s clothing to Madonna’s VMA awards. This is nearly six months in the making, the room decorated in Lakers purple and gold, its display cases stuffed with the 78-year-old’s awards, plaques and even telegrams.
The 11-time NBA All-Star forward decided last year that it was time to get rid of the rooms of stored memorabilia, memorabilia to which he had little emotional connection, in some cases. Baylor is reportedly not in financial straits and is simply tired of paying to insure more than half a century’s worth of the trappings of his career, and so he sought out a way to divest himself of it.
Late last fall, Baylor began to speak with Dan Nelles, the sports specialist at Julien’s, and for about three months, Nelles made his auction his full-time job. There were trips out to the house, where Baylor and his wife, Elaine, had memorabilia packed into a room. Nelles was in charge of researching it and assigning its value, photographing it, cataloging it, and eventually compiling it all into a glossy book.
Then there were weeks of viewings of the auction items at Julien’s, and finally, Friday’s auction.
A place called Julien’s Auctions, located as it is on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, evokes images of wood-paneled rooms and an auctioneer with a waxed handlebar mustache. It evokes images of a clientele of 50-something men in thousand-dollar jackets, and at least something of a crowd.
That is not Julien’s Auctions. That is not Elgin Baylor’s event.
Besides that table of proxy bidders, there are 40 black folding chairs in the bright room that resembles a temporary museum exhibit in the sense that you imagine it could be taken apart and repurposed within hours. There’s a podium and two mannequins done up in Baylor’s garb, an auctioneer who very conspicuously lacks that most dignified of mustaches.
And the room is close to empty.
Exactly four chairs besides mine are occupied, all by graying men in polo shirts who look more like basketball-nerd collectors than Hollywood millionaires. For the hour I’m there, no one bids more than $150 in person. When a steal — like some minor trophy from an event you’ve never heard of — flashes across the screen and the man behind me snares it, he can’t contain himself. “I can’t believe what I’m getting,” he squeals, and anyone with even a dose of perspective wonders what this man is going to do with this trophy.
It sounds kind of sad. One of the greatest players in NBA history should not have his life reduced to something so sterile. This is Elgin Baylor, after all, a Laker great, former Rookie of the Year, 10-time member of the All-NBA First Team, Hall of Famer.
It sounds sad, at least, but it isn’t.
It isn’t because the whole thing seems kind of silly. The 1972 NBA Championship ring is still to come, along with the MVP trophy. Maybe it won’t seem so silly then, but when the bidding is on a succession of goods that many would term as junk, I get it. Elgin Baylor has no need for a LeBron James-autographed basketball, or for Elton Brand’s 2004-05 jersey, or for his Clippers garment bag.
There are trophies from every tennis tournament and golf outing ever played, it seems. There are even golf clubs. If there’s one thing to be taken away from all this, it’s the concept of how much an athlete is handed over the course of his career and even after it. Walk out the door, and you’re given a plaque, a program, a trophy. Retire, and everyone in sports signs something for you, even if their signed merchandise means nothing to a man who’s accomplished as much, if not more.
It’s so well-meaning, but presented like this and imagined in its former place at Baylor’s home, it’s tedious.
Nelles has been working with Baylor for months know, and he’s gotten to know him over that time. He’s learned about why the former player is getting rid of so much. He’s learned what he values and is keeping and what he wants to be rid of. But what he hasn’t learned, he said, is why now? Why not last year? Why not next year, or in two, or three?
Baylor simply told Nelles that he’s been overwhelmed throughout the years by requests for merchandise, that this is a way to get it out into the public. It’s vague, but really, that’s all we need to know. The hundreds of people on the phones and Internet who are ready to wire their thousands of dollars in could not care less. Someone, some lucky person assigned a random number, ended Friday with a NBA Championship, another with an MVP trophy, still more with Baylor’s uniforms and warmups.
They don’t care why. They just care that they have it, and these pieces of a man’s life, pieces he was tired of curating as they collected dust in his home, now mean something, however strange that might seem.
By close to 1 p.m., more than 100 lots have been sold off. The haul has diminished in novelty since the Nixon letter, and a new auctioneer has taken the gavel. He’s prone to theatrics, despite the cough that’s occasionally ruining his flourish, and when a 1988 All-Star game duffel comes up, he’s desperate to spice up the bidding.
The duffel, it seems, comes with an added bonus. “You’ve got a mug with this one!” he positively shrieks, and the drones start humming.
Even the deal-hunters in the room aren’t going to spring for this one, and it goes to one of the voices on the phone. They got a mug with this one!