Sixty years on, an NBA story teaches about racial injustice

A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim."
A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim," by author Jen Bryant and illustrator Frank Morrison.
Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers

When the Milwaukee Bucks sat out of their NBA playoff game to protest the Kenosha, Wis., police shooting of a Black man earlier this summer, it shocked fans across the nation. 

It was a big moment for athlete activism. 

But, the Bucks players weren’t the first NBA athletes to protest racial injustice. 

In 1959, Minneapolis Laker Elgin Baylor refused to play an away game against the Cincinnati Royals after being turned away from a hotel because he was Black. 

And now, author Jen Bryant and illustrator Frank Morrison are telling his story through a children’s book. It’s called “Above the Rim,” a term describing players who demonstrate ability far above others. 

A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim."
A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim," by author Jen Bryant and illustrator Frank Morrison.
Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers

The book tells the story of Baylor using his skills on the court, and off, to make a difference as an activist for racial justice.

Baylor attracted attention throughout his college career with multiple championship titles. And, he was the first pick by the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1959 NBA draft. Fans knew he was something special and his ability to play the game differently shot him to national prominence.  

Basketball was no longer a flat-footed game. Not with Baylor’s jump shots and rim suspensions.

But in a way that was just the start of his importance to basketball in the U.S.

Jen Bryant is the author of the book, "Above the Rim."
Jen Bryant is the author of the book, "Above the Rim."
Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers

“Everything that's happening today in social justice, and everything that's happening on the court in basketball, an awful lot can be traced back to Elgin,” said Bryant. “It gives young people a personal way to understand the history of where all of this has come from and continues to be in the national discussion.”

Morrison agrees and adds that “one of the great things about children's books, is that you literally get a chance to bring history to life.”

The idea to make Baylor’s story a children’s biography came to Bryant seven years ago.  

“I couldn’t have known this back in 2013, when I’m reading about Elgin Baylor, I couldn’t have known about the boycotts today. I couldn’t have known any of that was going to happen, but yet, it’s a common theme, isn’t it?” explains Bryant. “It’s kind of a window into the building up of what we know today as modern athletics.”

In Baylor’s time NBA stars didn't get much chance to shine. 

“Early in the league … the stars of the team were basically unknown, you know, they didn’t earn a lot of money, they washed their uniforms out in the hotel room sinks,” said Bryant. 

Consider that for a moment: Can you imagine Lebron James washing his uniform in a hotel sink?

“You know that doesn't happen, but it did then,” continues Bryant. “So, it gives a good tangible example of where the NBA has, kind of where athletics has come.” 

Illustrator Frank Morrison paints in a studio.
Illustrator Frank Morrison paints in a studio.
Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers

But it was Baylor’s refusal to play that one away game that changed the NBA forever. After that night and the attention it gained, the NBA commissioner decided no team would stay in any establishment that discriminated. 

The storybook shows this progression of the NBA through Baylor’s activism, not to mention his incredible abilities with a ball.

The NBA named Baylor the 1959 rookie of the year, and all-star game MVP the following year.

But Morrison assures young readers, you don’t have to be a ball player or even a fan to enjoy this read. 

“I want them to be inspired. You don't have to know how to play basketball to be inspired by this book. You don't have to be great at sports to be inspired by this book. It's to show you where greatness comes from,” said Morrison. 

A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim."
A page with an illustration in the book "Above the Rim," by author Jen Bryant and illustrator Frank Morrison.
Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers

The book highlights Baylor’s skills on the court using a painting technique known as mannerism.  But, Morrison has added his own style to the mix, calling it urban mannerism.

It elongates the images in a way that Morrison hopes will pull children in.

Rich colors fill the pages, with images of Baylor suspended midair, arms and legs stretched long like a rubber band. 

I want to make sure the books are something, like, kids would have to buy two of them, because they would want to rip the pages out and hang them on their wall,” he said. 

“We're just trying to celebrate his life and present the details of his story as clearly as we can and let them lead young readers to a place of knowledge in enlightenment,” added Bryant.

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