Happy 80th, Elgin Baylor!


VIDEO: Relive the storied career of Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor turned 80 Tuesday, which means the NBA’s love affair with verticality unofficially is approaching its 56th birthday. The Hall of Fame forward – whom Lakers teammate Jerry West considers the most underrated player in league history – arrived in Minneapolis as the No. 1 pick in the 1958 draft. He brought with him a style Doc Naismith couldn’t have imagined back when he hung up his first peach baskets.

The lineage of acrobatic, balletic, above-the-rim basketball players can be traced back through Michael Jordan and Julius Erving and Connie Hawkins, directly to Elgin Baylor. With shoulder fakes, a rocking dribble and a head twitch that some labeled a tic, the 11-time All-Star forward baffled opponents and invented moves nightly. At 6-5, he snatched rebounds like men a half-foot taller.

“If Julius Erving . . . is a doctor, then Elgin Baylor was a brain surgeon when he played,” teammate Rod Hundley said.

That’s an excerpt from a February 1994 profile of Baylor I wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The NBA All-Star Game was headed to the Twin Cities that winter, 34 years after Baylor and the Lakers had left town for sunny California. Baylor, then 59, was the last active member of the Minneapolis Lakers when he retired in 1971 and, long before Timberwolves Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love, he remains the greatest NBA star to slip away from the league’s hinterlands.

If only Baylor had logged a couple more seasons in Minnesota, the NBA’s and the Lakers’ futures might have been dramatically different, given his game and his gate appeal:

Baylor played in the second NBA game he ever saw, and scored 25 points in the season opener. He had an uncanny ability to make adjustments in mid-air. He manipulated the ball with one hand at a time when most players still used two and, foreshadowing Moses Malone, he often grabbed his own missed shots for second and third chances. Always he was cool, never revealing his emotions on the court.

“Elgin Baylor has either got three hands or two basketballs out there,” New York’s Richie Guerin griped after a game at old Madison Square Garden. “It’s like guarding a flood.”

The Lakers began the season on financial probation, with the NBA threatening to take over the franchise if it didn’t average $6,600 in home gate receipts. It never happened; the team’s attendance soared from 2,790 the year before to 4,122 in 1958-59. The Lakers’ record improved to 33-39, and they reached the Finals for the first time since 1954. Baylor was Rookie of the Year, averaged 24.9 points and 15 rebounds, scored 55 points in one game and shared the MVP award in the All-Star Game with St. Louis’ Bob Pettit.

In that ’94 interview, Baylor talked about the concept of “hang time,” and how his horizontal might have been more impressive than his vertical:

“I think this: I’ve watched Jordan and Julius and everybody,” Baylor said. “I don’t think anyone stays up in the air longer than anyone else. When you’re driving to the basket, it’s a broad jump instead of a vertical leap. . . . And a lot of times, you get the guy to commit himself and he’s up in the air, and you’re just getting ready to go up. It’s the illusion.”

Baylor blossomed into an all-time great in Los Angeles, the league’s second black star after Bill Russell. He tooled to games in a Jaguar from his Beverly Hills home and partnered, starting with the team’s first year in L.A., with fellow HOFer West. They dead-ended in The Finals seven times against Russell’s Boston teams, but dominated otherwise.

[Baylor] averaged 34.8 points in 1960-61, second to Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain, and broke his own record by scoring 71 points against New York. The next season, he averaged 38.3, and in a playoff game at Boston he scored 61 points, a record that stood until Jordan broke it 24 years later.

Baylor and West were the most prolific pair of scorers in the league, averaging at least 50.7 points and as much as 69.1 in nine of their first 10 seasons together. Baylor never averaged fewer than 24 points or 10 rebounds in a healthy season.

“The way teams would play me, I would have to put the ball on the floor and go to the basket,” Baylor said, trying to explain his style…

“Once I got the ball, they would come up on me and double, sometimes triple. So I’d have to take the ball to the hoop and, when you do that, you try to be creative. You just improvise. The defense dictates what kind of shot, and I was blessed to have good body control and do some things when I got in the air.”

Baylor’s landing gear, his knees, began to give out on him by the late ’60s and he retired at age 37 just nine games into the 1971-72 schedule – the season the Lakers finally broke through for their first L.A. title. That Baylor missed out on that championship remains one of the greatest frustrations of West’s career.

Twenty years ago, Baylor was in the midst of a 22-year run as Clippers general manager, during which he was named NBA Executive of the Year in 2006 but saw the franchise produce only two winning seasons. He worked for owner Donald Sterling, whose recent disgrace and departure from the NBA didn’t mesh with Baylor’s role as one of the league’s highest-profile black players.

There was that neutral site game in Charleston, W.Va., in Baylor’s second season, when a hotel manager said he and two black teammates couldn’t stay with the other Lakers:

Even after the team moved to another hotel, [Baylor] refused to play. The Lakers lost to Cincinnati 95-91, and a few teammates called him selfish. But Baylor wouldn’t budge. “I’m a human being,” he said at the time. “I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show.”

“He was a very proud man,” said Hundley.

Minnesota was not exactly a melting pot back then, but Baylor said he had no problems in the Twin Cities. “There were other places where the attitude was pretty apparent. You’d hear them make remarks,” Baylor said. “It’s not gone.”

Uh, no, and 20 years later – given Sterling’s bigoted remarks in April and the Atlanta Hawks’ front office shame this month – it’s still not.

Baylor spoke back in ’94 about the divergent paths he and West traveled as NBA execs, after sharing their successes and struggles as players. West became “The Logo,” surrounded by trophies and rings as one of the league’s most revered basketball minds. Baylor dealt with “one setback after another” with the Clippers.

“Playing is much easier. You can control what you do on the floor,” Baylor said. “Here you put together a team, but don’t know how things are going to turn out. You don’t know what’s inside a player’s heart.”

“If you’re fortunate, you get a franchise player and build the team around him,” Baylor said. “[West] had several of those players. He had Kareem, he had Magic, Hall of Famers. And then he did a great job. We talk often. We share some things about the game. You just have to be positive.”

Baylor was positive about this much: His body of work on NBA courts speaks for itself. Anyone under 55 would be hard-pressed to recall Baylor’s game and most of what grainy video exists doesn’t do it justice. But he wasn’t about to tell folks back in ’94 how to remember him and his exploits, and he probably feels the same way today:

“Do you mean, like, after I’m dead?” Baylor said. “I never thought about that. People already know how they remember me – if they remember me. That’s not going to change. If they say, ‘I remember him this way,’ and they hear me say something different, are they going to say, ‘Oh, I’ll remember him that way?’ No.”

Remember at least this about Elgin Baylor: Yo-yoing the ball, rocking, hiding it, a head twitch, the coiling of a leg, a move. And . . . air.

7 Comments

  1. timothy2123 says:

    Happy birthday to the greatest basketball player ever Elgin Baylor.

  2. Kirby Record says:

    As for Baylor being underrated, West point is that he was the precursor of all those great players considered in the top 5 of all time. Right or not, he considers Baylor in that same league. He was a perennial all star, but I’ve never seen him mentioned in the same stratus as Jordan, Russell, Wilt, Lebron, Robertson or even Kobe. Terms like “underrated” and “best of all time” are subjective, and implicitly compare apples with pears and potatoes, but in the context West meant, Baylor fits into these categories. I don’t think he was the best of all time but I don’t anyone should be called that. That is what is absurd. The best one can do is at least compare centers to centers, power forward to power forwards etc. In this context Baylor may have been underrated as one of the elite of all time at his position.

  3. Dave says:

    With due respect to Jerry West, the idea than an 11 time all star and member of the NBA’s official top of all time could somehow be “the most underrated player in NBA history” is absurd

  4. A.J. says:

    Why do so many great NBA players end up being atrocious NBA suits?