Remembering A Laker Legend: Elgin Baylor

Darius Soriano —  August 1, 2010

Elgin Baylor is one of the greatest players ever.  Really, he is.  He was a dominant scorer and rebounder from the small forward position and revolutionized the game through his athleticism and shot making.  However, I only know this because of what I’ve read as sadly I’m a bit too young to have ever seen Elgin Baylor play in a game.  And since his games weren’t on television (at least not a lot of them) or the film of those games isn’t easily accessible by the average fan, it’s hard for fans that never saw him (or have only seen bits and pieces) to really know how innovative and ahead of his time Baylor truly was.  Plus, without a legendary season or unfathomable statistical single game performance (think Oscar’s triple double season or Wilt’s 100 point contest) or the championships to solidify a legacy (like Russell’s 11 rings or even West’s single trip to the mountain top) Baylor doesn’t live on in the collective memory of a lot of fans.  But he should.

If you’d like to read up on Baylor, you can start with this epic piece by Bill Simmons from 2008.  Or you can check out Roland Lazenby asking if Baylor should be considered the all-time playoff MVP even though he never won a championship (he was that good).  Or you can read about how the “flash” of the modern game started with Elgin and see what recent players have carried the torch of the style that originated with #22.  Actually, do yourself a favor and give them all a read and remember one of the NBA’s all timers and surely one of the best Lakers ever.  And, since this is the best I could find also check out the video below that shows just how Elgin played the game in his era.  Understand that while some of the moves you see below seem pretty routine when using today’s standards, it’s because Baylor was the first player doing them.  Enjoy.

Darius Soriano

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38 responses to Remembering A Laker Legend: Elgin Baylor

  1. OT, but i’m wondering what the consensus is here:

    if Shaq goes to Bos – and increasingly that’s looking like the most likely option – does this jeopardize his # being retired at Staples? I think the answer is ‘probably not’, but would it affect your desire for it to be retired?

    I was a huge Shaq fan – preferred him to Kobe for a loooong time – but ultimately soured on him in his final season with all the ‘company time’ BS, which of course got worse when he left and ripped the team and its fans, but playing for Boston would be the proverbial camel’s back-breaking straw for me. Does anyone agree? Disagree?

    And what if (unlikely, I know), we played Bos in the finals? What if we lost? Is there some scenario in which Shaq would forfeit his right to have #34 retired?

  2. I saw Elgin play many times. He was short by today’s
    standards, but had a big body ala Barkley and could
    easily create room to shoot. He seemed to be able
    to score at will. He had a very soft touch and if the
    ball hit the rim, it would eventually bounce in. My
    favorite memory was a playoff game against the
    Celtics. Late in a close game he got the ball on a
    breakaway down the sideline. Unfortunately Russell
    was matching him stride for stride. Baylor never
    slowed down and shot from the corner going out
    of bounds with Russell all over him. Nothing but
    net. That was my favorite shot until I saw Kobe,
    tightly guarded, do a 180 in the air from the corner
    with his left hand.

  3. Funky Chicken,

    Fast repost from end of last thread:

    I think the universal disdain for Sasha comes from his arrogance and (sadly) his accent. Luke is far more down to earth and, therefore, far more likeable. Sasha almost comes off as a Eastern Europe guard version of (note the irony) Bill Walton, but without the talent and team-spirit. Just a thought.

  4. Elgin: It is amazing to me that I’ve probably seen more athletic dudes, every day, at every rec center and gym I’ve worked out at, playing ball then what tapes I’ve seen of Baylor. If it sounds like I’m trying to take something away from him, then I’m sorry but it’s not the intention. I just marvel at how society can evolve and how this effects the human body. IT’s in how we eat, how we exercise, how we dress but also in what we imagine to be possible and how we watch movement all the day of our lives and are effected by these observations. What Baylor did back then looks mundane today. One slam dunk in the whole montage (one that showed too many happy Celtics, btw) and it barely cleared the rim. So, I’m going to pay my respects to Elgin by paying respect to how mundane his game looks and recognizing that those he played with and against think that his game was a huge factor in making the game the one we are being influenced by today.

    On Shaq… Dude was the dominant talent on 3 Lakers championships. Nothing of that can be taken away from the team or the man. That which LeBron did this offseason, Shaq has been doing his whole career. Considering how much Shaq loves to have his grill up on the TV (and how much people are interesting in looking at it), I don’t really see a big difference between the two egos. Shaq was always the showman but he was a showman that we enjoyed for his time here and who accomplished things that some of the other greats on the STAPLES wall haven’t. So, retiring #34, whether he goes to the C’s and the very unlikely event that he wins his 5th there ever occurs, seems to be an obvious choice. There have been few greater Lakers and only three of those greats (Magic, Kobe, and Kareem) have won more chips with the Lakers. I’ll clap at the ceremony.

  5. Isn’t this supposed to be about Baylor? forget Shaq for now – he isn’t done yet.

    You talk to anyone about dominant players in his era, he (Baylor) was consistently mentioned. He apparently needed more competition to push his game further. Imagine if he had a Jordan, Dr J, or Jordan around. His game might have been better… But as the writer of this piece said, “…some of the moves seem pretty routine… [But] he was the first one using them…”

    Anyway, props… to him… too bad the owner of the Clippers doesn’t care about winning, Baylor might have been a pretty good GM too.

  6. Darius, I am unfamiliar with the history, so do you have any thoughts on why such a good Laker was allowed to leave the Laker family and spend his management career with the Clippers?

    I’m not here to defend his tenure as GM with the Clips (which included a series of terrible moves, but also occurred under the dark cloud of Donald Sterling’s ownership), but I’m curious why there wasn’t more of an effort by the Laker organization to bring Elgin “home” at some point the way West, Kupchak, Magic, Kareem, and Rambis were.

  7. oops meant to say, “Imagine if he had a Dr J, Jordan, or Kobe around”

  8. I saw Elgin score 40+ against the Phoenix Suns espansion team (68-69). I was a ball boy for the Suns. His knees were shot at that point, his game was all wits and guile and creating space.

    It was one of the greatest performances by an athlete I had ever seen.

  9. If Shaq goes to the Celtics, his number should absolutely NOT be retired.

  10. Elgin was one of the true innovative pioneers of the game and I will elect to not stain my comment with Shaq related references and his desire to play for whatever team has a shot at winning a title.

    I have far too much respect for Mr. Baylor.

  11. I just saw Game 3 on NBA TV again and I find it ironic that while I am one of Fisher’s biggest critics I also am one of the few who think his 4th quarter performance is probably the greatest 4th quarter NBA Finals performance by a non star of all time. This wasn’t a role player standing wide open inn the corner and making open big time jumpers… this was Derek Fisher creating and making 4 big time plays the last 5 minutes of the game. BTW… I also have to give Phil Jackson credit. I watched the Lakers regular season game in Boston and they ran that Fisher/Kobe pick and roll and it worked because they were afraid to leave Kobe even for a second. Phil kept that in his back pocket for just the right time and Derek came through like no role player has ever come through. I want somebody to find a role player that has ever had a 4th quarter like that before.

  12. For those who were fortunate to watch Elgin play, how would he have stacked up to today’s athletic players? What would you estimate his PPG/RPG/APG in his prime had he played today, and who is the closest Elgin clone today?

  13. DY,
    Any comparisons are always difficult because the first to do something always has the harder job and others can better, or at least improve on, what the first did. Perhaps the best example of this is Bill Russell. He was 6’9″ and developed a game that simply changed how defense was played. He never really stopped Wilt, but he stopped Wilt’s teams. Since his time there is Kareem, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, and Yao. He would have serious problems with any of these centers, but the game is not played 1-on-1 and it would also depend on the other players on his team. How do you evaluate all that – I don’t think you can.

    Elgin began what Dr J. improved upon, what Michael Jordan stretched, and even what Charles Barkley developed. Even Worthy took things from Elgin. Was he greater than any or all of these players? Possibly, because he was the first and he actually had to break the ground for others to follow.

    Yes, there were greater figures than Rosa Parks, but she was the first to stay seated on the bus.

  14. 11

    Robert Horry had a game like that for the Spurs vs Detroit in the 2005 Finals (Game 5). Everybody remembers Sheed leaving him open for that last-minute 3, but he actually had like 20 points in the fourth and OT combined.

  15. The only fair comparison is to compare someone to their peers, and then look at who stood out the most relative to their peers. Baylor is pretty clearly the top SF of all time.

  16. 15- I agree with that. Compare players to their own era. Baylor can’t be compared to today’s players because the players and the nature of the game itself has changed too much. I often feel like Elgin is the forgotten Laker great. Even younger Laker fans know a lot about Jerry West due to his long tenure as a team executive. But Baylor is a mystery to many. He is the prototype that Dr. J, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant are modeled from.

    The man is great simply because he is the original.

  17. I completely understand the whole “uniqueness” argument re: players like Baylor. But, how do you converse with fans of different generations and convey the marvelousness of the Greats if you speak different basketball dialects, and merely tell this generation of fans, “you just don’t understand”?

    I particularly enjoyed that halftime show when Kobe sat with Jackie M. through a film session and Kobe said “that move I stole from X,” and that “post-up move I learned from Y.” That is truly a better way to pass on the legacy of the Greats to other generations. Otherwise, truly wonderful players like Elgin are lumped (by ignorance, but more by a lack of communication by generations of fans) by younger kids as simply “old school” players who couldn’t hang with the chumps of today (which I totally disagree). That is why someone like Kobe is fluent in bridging the old with the new. That is why Elgin’s game assuredly has progeny through players today and that is why I asked if people could help identify some players whose game is part of Elgin’s “family” tree. That is truly one way to appreciate Elgin’s untold contribution to the game.

  18. I never saw Elgin play so I’ll leave my two cents out of that one. But the guys who did always raved about how ahead of the times his game was. Chick Hearn said he was one of the best ever, and if he said that, it’s got a lot of weight.

    As for the Shaq jersey retirement, I’ve got no issues with what he does at this point. His book as a Laker closed six years ago, and what he’s done since then has no bearing on whether his star belongs high or low in the Lakers’ sky.

    Three championships and four Finals appearances, one MVP award and countless headlines during his eight seasons in L.A. — not to mention his certain election into the Basketball Hall of Fame — seem to warrant that he get his jersey retired someday. The best years of Shaquille O’Neal’s standout career came in Los Angeles.

    We had that rivalry thread a few days ago, and my point then and again here is that to the players and owners and team employees, it’s a business first and foremore.

    If you were out of work and felt you could still do your job, wouldn’t you go somewhere that they’re willing to employ you — not to mention if that employer offered an outside shot to take home the most-coveted prize in your field? To suggest Shaq should say no to Boston out of some fans’ concept of “loyalty” to a team he left in 2004 is just crazy. Put yourself in his shoes.

    I can’t see anyone reasonably suggesting he should be punished by the Lakers if he chooses to play for Boston. And this is coming from someone who despises Boston as much as anyone.

  19. “First and foremost” I meant to type.

    Does anyone else ever have issues with the edir feature? My computer always has the words rolling, in constant motion, for reasons I can’t understand. It makes it pretty much impossible to go in and edit anything on this site.

    Makes me wonder if its an issue with my browser settings.

  20. I remember Elgin in an interview stating how baskeball back then was not a full time job, like it is now days. He had a “day” job that paid the bills, and also discrimination was very bad at that time also, it affected the NBA palyers as much or more as anybody back then. He was a class act for sure, great video, by the way.

  21. #6, Funky Chicken

    When Dr. Busse bought the Lakers West was their GM and clearly a brilliant b’ball guy. He brought Kareem over from the Bucks in maybe the bravura trade of the era where the Lakers traded most of their key players (starting center Elmore Smith; starting guard Brian Winters–an extraordinary shooter,; starting forward Dave Meyers , a competent player in the Luke Walton tradition–but better; and Junior Bridgeman a very athletic small forward) He was strongly associated w/ the organization and was a huge help in the transition to the “Busse Era.” He had coached them (w/ mediocre results) a couple years earlier.

    By this time, I think Elgin wasn’t part of the Laker organization.

    Not to rant, but the NBA does a shitty job celebrating a lot of the studly players who were the foundation of the league (apart from trotting out old, hoary Bill f#$%’ing Russel to give Kobe the MVP when we won the finals) . Elgin, of course. But Oscar Robinson was a fiend. Being a homer, I’m sad that Gail Goodrich doesn’t even get a nod, though he’s not in those folks class.

    When we compare players from differing eras (especially w/ a 40 year spread) it’s a difficult and quixotic task. You can’t compare World War II fighters w/ today’s jets…but the best pilots of yesteryear if given training and the new planes would still shine.

    If they played at their 1960’s level, Oscar and Elgin would still make noise today. If they trained as the modern NBA folks do, I dunno…they’d all be signing w/ Miami….

  22. What is Russel doing at 2:24 in the video? Was there no such thing as charges in the NBA back then or something? For being known as one of the greatest frontcourt defenders of all time, he just let Baylor have the easy dunk.

    Honestly, Baylor’s game reminds me more of a Bird type of player than anyone else. (without him having one of the greatest stokes of all time of course) it seems like he had a knack for getting the ball into the basket no matter what. I thought he would have been a Lebron type (a man amongst children) but on the contrary, he wasn’t really a freak of nature at all. He just relied on a knowledge and feel for the game that was apparently well ahead of his time.

    Glad to have legends on our team like Mr. Baylor to look back and reflect upon. Nice one, Darius.

  23. I don’t really have a problem with Shaq’s jersey being retired, even if he does sign with the Celtics.

    Actually, I would be ecstatic if he joins the Celtics and help them beat the Heat, then helps the Celtics lose to us so we can have the 17th :)

    If he, however, is part of a Celtics team that beats us in the Finals, I’m not sure if I can stomach his jersey being retired, regardless of his contributions.

    Other than that though, I’m game.

  24. Chris J,
    I think it may be either your operating system or your browser settings, because I have no problems whatsoever using the edit function here. I am using Windows XP Pro.

  25. sT,
    Elgin and Jerry were part of a number of players who forced the owners to recognize them as a group – quite an accomplishment, and the start of today’s players union.

    I don’t think today’s fans can understand how different the environment was in the late 50’s and 60’s in the U.S. If you played professional sports, it was because you craved either the sport or the headlines, not because you made a lot of money – and the travel was difficult. All players worked another job in the off season.

  26. Jack Nicholson III August 2, 2010 at 6:56 am

    What do you think would happen if a star like Chauncy Billups took less money to go play for the Lakers next year? I can see it getting a lot more negative attention than the Heat this year.

  27. 1) Lil Pau,
    “I was a huge Shaq fan ”

    I was a bigger fan of the pre-huge Shaq.

  28. the caption is all wrong “remembering a legend” the first thought came to my mind when i read this was: when did he die.

  29. Here’s my question:

    If Shaq does join the Celtics and his jersey is retired by the Lakers, how will the 19,000 fans in attendance at the Staple Center respond at the retirement ceremony?

    Personally, I’d be gracious and thankful if I were in attendance, but as we all know the forum blue and gold runs so deep in other Lakers fans that a tinge of green is unacceptable.

  30. Joel (14)
    I could be wrong but I remember Horry just spotting up for open jumpers/playing off the stars (Duncan/Parker/Manu)… while Fisher was the one creating shots for himself.

  31. 30: I would boo. As grateful as I am for Shaq’s role in the 3Peat, I blame him for creating a situation that precluded the Lakers from becoming a truly dominant team. No reason Kobe/Shaq couldn’t have won 6 rings together, but Shaq’s work ethic galvanized the meltdown. (Lazenby’s book is fascinating on this issue.)

    The fact that he subsequently ripped the team and the fans is just icing on the cake, not to mention his lovely anti-Kobe rapping… he’s one of the great Lakers ever, I agree, but he’s already alienated me as fan and if he ever suits up in puke green, that would be the end for me.

  32. 31.

    Let’s say you had a child that became an internal med doctor. But you knew from an early age they were destined for greatness and knew they had the skill set and talent to be a neurosurgeon.

    Was your child a failure? No they had success along the way. There’s nothing to scoff at an internal med doctor. We all try to live up to our potential but end up producing results that we can live with.

    You applaud results not potential. Could Shaq and Kobe have won more titles, one would think so, but hypotheticals accomplish nothing.

    Like John Wooden said, “The smallest deed done is greater than the best of intentions.”

    Let’s applaud them for what they did, because hardly anyone 3-peats.

  33. I really don’t understand the disdain for Shaq. During his tenure with the Lakers he was superb. Yes, he had his ups and downs. But the ups were some of the best moments in franchise history. I would hope that reaching those levels would cushion the blow of those lows. And while it’s easy to look back and say “it could have been different”, why not focus on the positives? I mean, he was directly responsible for 3 of those 16 banners that hang in Staples Center.

  34. Baylor was before my time …but the reverence the players I admired (Magic and West) or respect (Jordan) let’s me know that Baylor was special.

    As for the Shaq thing he helped us ring and deserves it someday. But shaq began hurting the team way before he left.

    “if the big dog don’t get fed …”

    “Im reporting for my guys: Fisher, Fox … etc (no Kobe)

    “i will have surgery on company time”

    I could go on …but the point is shaq despite all the good he did on and off the court for the Lakers was an a$$.

    That is why some feel the way they do about him. I would clap but not like I did when i went to Magic’s ceremony. Whther he signs with the Celts or not.

  35. Chick Hearn loved West and Magic, but his admiration for Baylor had no equal. Chick considered Baylor to be better than Erving and he said this while Erving was still in the league.

    Back in the day, guys would steal Baylor’s double pump, his first step, his reverse layups, spinning the ball off the backboard. Even his famous tic, when he brought the ball up court, was copied by kids.

    Too bad a lot of people today have never witnessed Baylor and some of the incredible things he could do. Maybe there is a fan shelflife after all…

  36. I did get to see Baylor on television a bit, being old enough. It’s not like now, when there are games everywhere. I saw him play maybe 5 times. The first two were before his injuries. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was like the first time seeing Kareem (actually, Lew at the time) or Magic – somebody doing things that you thought just weren’t supposed to be done. He made fools of the best. If they came out, he drove around, and shot that classic wide-angle bank lay-up. If they didn’t, effortless high jumper. Keep in kind, nobody else shot a high jumper back then. People thought that was the wrong way to shoot – and not many had the hops for it anyway.

    Then his knees got destroyed. It was heart-breaking, really. He wasn’t even close to the same guy. If you only saw that Elgin, you don’t know what the fuss was about. Thing is, he was still one of the most effective players in the league. He had every angle, every spin. But it wasn’t electric any more. It was like the change from young Shaq, the hoop-destroying basketball demon from hell, and old Shaq, a giant body who passes pretty well.

    Much as Elgin was one of my favorite players ever, I still can’t call him one of the very best of all time. He just didn’t have it long enough. At his best, he was the best player in the league, as far above his peers as Jordan, and really nobody else has ever been at that level (Len Bias having died before he had a chance to make that a threesome). But that didn’t last long enough. It’s not his fault – read up on his life, and how that all came to be. But it’s what happened.

  37. It is truly sad that so many know so little about the man I still consider to be the greatest forward that ever played the game. At 6’5″ Baylor was the smallest forward in the NBA but until his knees gave out, he was always amongst the top rebounders in the league. He revolutionized the game by doing things with a basketball that were not allowed by most coaches at that time. But because of what he brought to the game he open the door for future players and completely changed the way basketball would be played. He took a rather boring game and gave it flare and excitement and helped evolve the game into what it has become today.