Remembering Elgin Baylor

J.M. Poulard —  September 27, 2011

The NBA and its fans have been lucky enough to have seen great players such as Julius Erving, Larry Bird, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Scottie Pippen and LeBron James display their talents on the hardwood for the sake of our entertainment. These forwards made their mark in the league with their ability to not only play at a high level, but for the most part dominate their match ups and affect games with their ability to exert their collective wills in multiple facets of the game.

These legends stood the test of time because they were unstoppable. And yet, one particular player came before them and paved the way for their successes; he was simply one of the best forwards the NBA has ever seen, and despite never winning an NBA title, few players can come close to approaching his greatness. His name: Elgin Baylor.

In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons had this to offer about the former Clippers general manager:

“[…] Elgin changed everything. He did things that nobody had ever seen. He defied gravity. Elgin would drive from the left side, take off with the basketball, elevate, hang in the air, hang in the air, then release the ball after everyone else was already back on the ground. You could call him the godfather of hangtime. You could call him the godfather of the “wow” play. You could point to his entrance into the league as the precise moment when basketball changed for the better.”

Prior to Baylor joining the league, the NBA was played below the rim with the exception of perhaps Bill Russell. Players took quick semi-contested shots, rebounded, raced the other way and did it all over again. But things slowly started to change prior to the end of the 1950s…

Elgin Baylor was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958 and went on to average 24.7 points and 15 rebounds per game as a rookie. It took the veterans the entire regular season to adjust to playing with the first year player, which was reflected in the team’s 33-39 regular season record. However, they went on to dispatch the Detroit Pistons in the opening round of the playoffs and eliminated the defending champion St. Louis Hawks on their way to meeting the Boston Celtics in the 1959 NBA Finals.

Bill Russell’s Celtics went on to sweep the Lakers, but the team and its fans could once again be hopeful of their team for the first time since George Mikan had retired in 1954 (his first retirement) and essentially ended the Lakers dynasty.

By Baylor’s second season in the league, there were complications with his NBA career. Indeed, the small forward could not participate in training camp because he had been inducted into the army. The second year player was in basic training at Fort Sam Houston close to San Antonio and thus the Lakers decided to hold training camp in Texas. Baylor would report to duty during the day and play the part of professional basketball player by night.

When the Lakers were not busy playing basketball, they would go down to Mexico where they played poker and shared drinks which served to enhance team chemistry.

Once the season got under way, Baylor lit up Detroit for 52 points and then dropped 64 points on the Boston Celtics a few nights later. And just in case there were still some people that were unimpressed, Elgin poured in 71 points at Madison Square Garden on November 15th and put the whole league on notice.

The problem that opponents often faced with the D.C. native was that he could drive right or left, was big enough to post up defenders and had the ability to not only hang in the air, but absorb hits and still finish at the rim.

Never before had an NBA player been able to glide so effortlessly in the air. Keep in mind though, Baylor is often credited as being the first player to ever attack the basket with such flair and creativity in the air; but the truth is that if he missed all of his shots at the rim, it would not have mattered. Thus, it’s important to note that not only was the Lakers forward a terrific leaper, but he also knew how to put the ball in the basket and that made him a potent scoring weapon.

Elgin Baylor might have been an impressive scorer but his contributions on the court went much further. His strength and leaping ability made him an incredible rebounder from the small forward position and he also possessed a decent jump shot as well as good passing instincts. This explains why the former Laker had so many outlandish scoring nights; opposing coaches were often scared to double-team him because he would routinely find the open man and render the extra attention useless.

Former Detroit guard Gene Shue shares his scouting report:

“You couldn’t defend Elgin. He had such a good outside shot. He could stare you down. He had a quick jab step. He would catch the ball at the top of the key or further out, and he’d get you going back and forth. He’d just explode by you. He had a nervous twitch. He was very, very hard to defend. Not only was he a good outside shooter, but he had a good deceptive first step. He had incredible strength and could hang in the air with the ball. When you put all those things together, you couldn’t stop him.”

Shue mentioned Baylor’s nervous twitch but failed to elaborate on it. Allow Johnny “Red” Kerr, a highly regarded center for the Syracuse Nationals—Philadelphia 76ers franchise, to explain (quote obtained by Roland Lazenby in his book Jerry West):

“If he gave you the nervous tic to the left, he was going left. If he gave it to the right, he was gonna go to his right. But when he shook both ways, that’s when you fell on your ass and he was gonna go around you.”

Everyone was in awe of Elgin and rightfully so. By his fourth NBA season, he was a perennial All-NBA 1st teamer (he made the first team every year in his first seven seasons) and quite possibly the best player in the league. However, Baylor was called into reserve duty with the army near Fort Lewis, Washington that season and consequently could only suit up for the Lakers on weekends and whenever he got an occasional pass.

Elgin Baylor went on to play 48 regular season games during the 1961-62 season and put up averages of 38.3 points, 18.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Despite his limited amount of appearances, the Los Angeles Lakers (moved to Los Angeles in 1960) finished with a 54-26 record, tops in the Western Division.

In the postseason, the Lakers handled the Pistons in six games in the Western Division Finals and then eventually lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games in the NBA Finals, but not before Elgin dazzled the basketball world with a performance for the ages in a Game 5 win: 61 points and 22 rebounds before fouling out.

In his book The Show, Roland Lazenby obtained this quote from Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn:

“Elgin Baylor as a forward beats out Bird, Julius Erving, and everybody else. A lot of people don’t remember him, but he had the total game—defense, offense, everything, rebounding, passing the ball.”

Just so we’re clear, Tommy Heinsohn is the same famous homer basketball analyst that does the Celtics games broadcasts; thus for him to pick Elgin over Bird should speak volumes about the forward’s greatness.

Unfortunately, prosperity would not last. In the first game of the 1965 playoffs, the main ligament in Baylor’s knee was damaged and his kneecap was split almost in half. Some wondered if he would ever walk again. But the Lakers forward worked hard to make it back to the team and was able to participate in training camp in the fall of 1965.

Elgin had lost some of his explosiveness, he could no longer run the same nor could he rebound the way he once had. He had to rely more on perimeter shooting and occasional post ups to get his points.

During the 1965-66 season, Baylor appeared in 65 games and put up modest averages of 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. After a season of adjustment, Elgin Baylor would come back the following season and play like the star he was; making three straight All-NBA 1st teams. His game had shifted, but he was still an effective and efficient player.

By the 1968-69 season (the last time Baylor would be named to the All-NBA team), Elgin Baylor’s game would change to accommodate the arrival of Wilt Chamberlain. Driving lanes were no longer available like once before because the Stilt was now setting up shop in the low post. Consequently, the Lakers legend had to rely more on his perimeter game and also had less scoring opportunities available to him with Chamberlain on the squad.

The Lakers figured out a way to make it work with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain during the regular season but saw Bill Russell’s Celtics celebrate a title on their home floor in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals.

The two following seasons were a nightmare for the Lakers legend as he played in a combined 56 games, struggling with knee troubles. He would retire early in the 1971-72 season, and watch the ’72 Lakers take off and never look back as they captured the NBA title.

Some might say that Elgin Baylor needed a ring to validate his career but such logic would diminish his accomplishments as well as those of his Lakers teams. Elgin Baylor is arguably one of the 20 greatest players the league has ever seen, was selected to 10 All-NBA 1st teams and directed the Lakers franchise to seven NBA Finals appearances.

The Logo had this to say on his former teammate:

“It was an honor to play with him. I never considered Elgin Baylor as someone I competed against. He is without a doubt one of the truly great players to play this game. I hear people talking about great players today, and I don’t see many that compare to him, I’ll tell you that. He had that wonderful, magical instinct for making plays, for doing things that you just had to watch. I learned from him, from watching him. I was young, wanting to learn. I had an incredible appreciation for other people’s talents. It was incredible to watch Elgin play.”

Just remember, before there were movies like Above the Rim, before there were highflyers such as Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter, before there were And 1 Mixtapes and before there were vicious “I own you” dunks; there was Elgin Baylor, and he started it all. Sounds like a winner to me….

J.M. Poulard

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20 responses to Remembering Elgin Baylor

  1. I’ve always wondered why I knew more then half the GMs in the league. And now I know it’s because I can use a computer

    http://espn.go.com/blog/truehoop/post/_/id/32105/is-todays-nba-like-moneyball

  2. He was a great player in his day. And considering all he had to deal with the racism and discrimination at the time makes it even more impressive. Too bad it did not carry on to his post basketball career, especially in the front office:p

  3. J.M., it’s a real pleasure reading your threads on FBG. You’re a great addition to the staff here. This and your expose on Kobe and Shaq’s first meet are excellent reminders of the quality we’ve come to appreciate on the site. Thanks to you and Darius and the crew.

  4. the other Stephen September 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    great post, j.m.! your first official one. :)

    i’m amazed that tommy heinsohn had that sort of praise reserved for elgin.

  5. Off topic, I know, but I find it interesting that Jerry Buss (although fabulously wealthy) doesn’t even crack the top twelve in net worth among NBA owners (according to Forbes magazine). He still manages to outspend them all, out win them all, and controls the second most valuable franchise in the league. Impressive, although I’m not sure exactly what it means.

    Hmmmm, on reflection, I guess one take away would be that some folks do know how to make the NBA work as a business, regardless of what M Gladwell would have us believe.

  6. #5. Considering his only “business” is the Lakers, while other owners made their loot in other ventures it’s not so off base. He is the best owner in sports, though.

  7. One request — could the site please stop titling these pieces as “Remembering (Whomever)”?

    Every time I see one of these my first reaction is, “Oh, man… hadn’t heard he died.”

  8. Yeah, I happily agree Buss is the best.

  9. the other Stephen September 28, 2011 at 1:26 am

    i hear that wilson chandler’s new coach in zhejiang, china is our own jim cleamons, which makes me wonder what’s happened to the rest of phil’s old coaching crew?

  10. Great read J.M!
    I’m too young to ever have witnessed Elgin play, I only knew of him thanks to videogames and their allstar teams from the past.
    Thanks!

  11. Great read, as always. I’d never heard that Heinsohn quote but it’s pretty damn amazing. He’s as biased a homer as they come, and him taking Baylor over Bird? That’s mind-boggling. Heinsohn would take Ainge over Magic, that’s how big of a homer he was.

    R brings up an interesting point. So many of these tight-fisted owners actually make much more than a spender like Buss, because of their companies that made them their primary wealth. Their NBA team is just a side business. It’s interesting that despite their net gains (when you look at all their assets) they still can’t handle losing money in even a small portion of their overall income. Not that I have billions of dollars, but it makes me kind of question their passion for owning a team. For me, if I could own a team while losing $100 million a year on the team and yet pulling in $700 million from my other companies, I’d be happy spending as much as necessary to win. These guys aren’t in any financial jeopardy, no matter what the state of their teams. I guess it reflects the fact that these guys are businessmen and it isn’t in their DNA to lose money, no matter how little in the overall scheme of things. Not that I’m bitter…

  12. @11) LOL, Ainge over Magic! Heinsohn was so much of a homer, I could not listen to him!

  13. Thanks for posting. I want to point out though that saying Elgin is arguably one of the top 20 players ever is like saying Magic Johnson is arguably the best point guard of all time. There is no argument. Elgin Baylor is unquestionably one of the 20 greatest players in basketball history.

  14. I’m with Chris J on “remembering…”

    My first thought was “Oh no!” again

  15. #14. We’ll come up with a better title for these types of posts.

  16. Nice piece. Apparently I’m in the minority here. I actually did have the opportunity to see Elgin Baylor play. I became a basketball fan at the age of 13 in 1965. The Lakers quickly became my favorite team because: they played in L.A., wore brilliant gold uniforms at home when the rest of the league wore tired white ones. More importantly they were exciting to watch and one of the few teams good enough to offer the hated Celtics competition.

    They also featured two superstars, Elgin Baylor & Jerry West, one black & one white. That may not be a big deal now, but in 1965 to an impressionable & imaginative 13 year old boy growing up in Harlem, NY, it was magical. At the time they went by the nicknames “Mr Inside & Mr Outside”. Corny by today’s standards but very descriptive of their awesome talents.

    I felt sorry for Baylor that he never won a ring, even worst for him because the Lakers took off on a 33 game win streak and on to win their 6th title (1st in L.A.) when he retired very early in that unforgettable 71-72 season. Thanks for writing about one of the best 3’s to ever play the game. Easily mentioned in the same breath as Dr J, Larry Bird, & LeBron James.

  17. I started following the Lakers in 1961. Yes, Elgin was fantastic. It’s sort of like not including Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson in with the all-time great baseball players. The memory only goes as far back as ESPN.

  18. J.M. Poulard, what great article on Baylor that you wrote, with interesting quotes throughout. You are another great addition to the site, for sure. I am too young for the 60’s and most of the 70’s basketball, but there were some great players back then.

  19. Everyone go see Moneyball asap