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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….