Remembering Elgin Baylor

By Joshua Schnitman

There are few NBA players that have revolutionized basketball the way Elgin Baylor did. While displaying many of the most avant-garde, acrobatic moves that any fan, opponent, or teammate had ever witnessed during the late 1950s and 1960s, Baylor ultimately transcended the game — setting a standard for future generations of all-time greats to follow. 

As Julius Erving, who considered Baylor his idol growing up, once explained, “Nobody inspired me more than Elgin Baylor… Elgin Baylor was my favorite guy to watch — I mean, he just brought me out of my seat — made me want to run outside and try and do something that I saw him do. And that’s pretty special. And you’re special as a player if you could make a kid do that.”

 Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed to Baylor at his 2018 Laker statue unveiling, “Brother, you did some things that Dr. J. [Julius Erving], Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant], myself — we couldn’t do. And I tried to do it — I just couldn’t hang that long in the air.” 

Kobe Bryant also expressed the following gratitude to Baylor: “Personally, I’d like to thank you because I have stolen so many of your moves — it’s not even funny — that rocker-step, the changing-to-the-left-rocker-step, the hesitation, the elevating-to-the-basket, putting-your-shoulder-onto-the-big-and-finishing-with-contact — I got all of that from you my brother.” 

Baylor, a college standout at the University of Seattle and the 1958 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, was selected no. 1 overall in the 1958 NBA Draft by the near-bankrupt Minneapolis Lakers. In Baylor’s rookie season, he single-handedly revamped the Lakers, who had finished in last place the prior season. Baylor left the entire NBA in awe — as the still-developing league had never witnessed anyone with Baylor’s high-flying artistry and shot-creating prowess. 

As Bill Russell later said, the catalyst of the then-developing Boston Celtics dynasty, “he [Baylor] had what we called ‘hang time’ — it looked like he would stay in the air forever.” Fittingly, “Hang Time: My Life in Basketball” wound up being the title of Baylor’s 2018 autobiography. Baylor, the instant groundbreaking rookie, averaged a phenomenal 24.9 points per game and 15 rebounds per game during the 1958-59 NBA regular season. 

As one of the first black NBA players in history, he also set an example socially, by becoming the first NBA player ever to boycott a game in protest against racism. Baylor carried his team to the 1959 NBA Finals. In spite of his valiant effort, they were no match for the loaded fast-breaking Celtics. Nonetheless, Baylor’s excellence in 1958-59 earned him Rookie of the Year honors, in addition to becoming the first rookie ever to be named to the All-NBA First Team. 

The Baylor-led Lakers moved to Los Angeles prior to the 1960-61 season, which was Jerry West’s rookie year. Baylor immediately began to take West under his wing and the two would begin to form a life-long friendship, in addition to, eventually, one of the most statistically impressive tandems in NBA history. As West said of Baylor; “My first few years in the league, he cared for me like a father would a son.”

Baylor, early on in the 1960-61 season, became the first player in NBA history to score over 70 points in a game. Only four other players have since broken the 70-point single-game barrier. Baylor averaged 34.8 points per game and 19.8 rebounds per game during his extraordinary 1960-61 regular season. Chick Hearn, the young play-by-play Lakers radio announcer, found himself having to be creative in illustrating to radio listeners Baylor’s wizardry. As Hearn later said of Baylor: “He just might be the best player I ever saw. He was doing things that Dr. Julius Erving made famous 20 years later, the hang time and so forth. But Elgin didn’t have the TV exposure. Nobody did in those days.”

42 games into Baylor’s unbelievable 1961-62 regular season, he, a United States Army Reserve, was called to duty. He was only able to play in six more of the regular season games — on weekend passes. During his 48-game regular season, Baylor averaged a staggering 38.3 points per game and 18.6 rebounds per game. West, emerging into one of the NBA’s most pronounced superstars, averaged 30.8 points per game. Baylor and West, still to this day, stand as the only pair of teammates to both average 30+ points per game in an NBA regular season. As Baylor was able to fully return to the Lakers in time for the 1962 NBA playoffs, he and West led the Lakers to the NBA Finals. The 1962 NBA Finals would prove to be one of the most epic championship series in NBA history. In Game 5, Baylor put on one of the most memorable performances in NBA history — he scored a still-standing NBA Finals record 61 points — putting the Lakers up 3-2 in the series. In spite of Baylor and West’s excellence in the following two games, they were unable to close out the series. Baylor’s 41-point and 22-rebound performance was overshadowed by Russell’s 30-point and 40-rebound performance in a dramatic overtime Game 7 victory. 

The Baylor and West-led Lakers again reached the Finals in 1963, only to be defeated by their arch-rival Celtics again. In the first round of the 1965 playoffs, Baylor sustained a serious knee injury, keeping him out of action for the remainder of the 1965 playoffs and for much of the 1965-66 season. In both 1965 and 1966, the Lakers got their hearts crushed yet again in the Finals by Russell and the Celtics. 

Prior to the 1967-68 season, the Lakers moved from the Sports Arena to the Forum and changed their uniform colors from blue and white to purple and gold. After Baylor, West, and the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 1968 NBA Finals, the team was able to add Wilt Chamberlain to their roster, one of the most legendary athletes of all-time, who holds countless individual NBA records. With now three of the biggest household names in NBA history on one roster, the Lakers seemed primed to finally overthrow the aging Celtics in the 1969 NBA Finals. But, like every one of their NBA Finals meetings throughout the decade, they lost to Boston, in what many consider the most heartbreaking Game 7 loss of them all. 

Even after Russell retired, and the door seemed wide open for the Lakers to finally bring Los Angeles its first NBA championship, they found themselves disappointed once more, the result of another seven-game Finals series, this time to the New York Knicks. Two games into Baylor’s 1970-71 season, he suffered what is known to be one of the worst on-court injuries that a basketball player could suffer, a torn Achilles tendon. This forced him to miss the remainder of the season. In the summer of 1971, Bill Sharman, a former Celtic legend who had played against Baylor in the 1959 NBA Finals, was hired to coach the Lakers. Nine games into the 1971-72 season, Baylor opted to retire from playing, as he could no longer meet his own personal standards. The first game following Baylor’s retirement, the Lakers began what was to become a still-standing professional sports record 33-game winning-streak in route to their first championship in Los Angeles. Baylor, certainly still part of the team in spirit, received a 1971-72 Lakers championship ring. Sharman, one of the most preeminent basketball minds in history, would later write to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame selection committee, “Elgin Baylor is the greatest forward that ever played the game. Any further comments would be superfluous.” Baylor was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977.

Baylor briefly coached the New Orleans Jazz in the late 1970s and was the decision-making executive of the Los Angeles Clippers for over two decades. But Baylor is most remembered as a Laker and is often credited with saving the franchise from having gone bankrupt back in 1958. His jersey No. 22 was retired by the Lakers in 1983, and, in 2018, he was honored with a statue outside of the Staples Center where the Lakers currently play. 

To this day, Baylor holds the third greatest career regular season point per game average in NBA history, 27.4, as well as the eighth greatest career playoff point per game average, 27.

In addition to being one of the most majestic scorers in NBA history, he was also one the finest rebounders ever at only 6’5 inches, with a career 13.5 per game regular season average and 12.9 per game playoff average. 

Baylor’s impact on the game was beyond cosmic. As longtime Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan would postulate years later, “Modern basketball began with Elgin Baylor. When I say modern basketball — every single reverse layup, every single between-the-legs dribble, every single spinning-move that you see in a routine manner in every single NBA game — owes its existence to the mind of one man: Elgin Baylor.” 

Aside from being one of the most sensational athletes of all-time, countless of his contemporaries have used terms like “gentleman” or “class act” to describe the legendary Elgin Baylor. The basketball world will always remember Baylor’s revolutionary greatness as a player and his attendant dignity as a man.

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