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.”