Before Spud Webb, Dominique and “Flight” White. Before “Air Jordan”. Before it all, there was Elgin Baylor.
Baylor’s place in the game will always remain a paradox to me. Here is the godfather of flight, the, the proclaimed inventor of the above-the-rim play, the forefather to Blake Griffin, Dwight, Nate and even LeBron James and Derrick Rose. How can it be that this figure, who helped create and establish the most exciting play in the sport, can only be appreciated when you dig deep beneath the highlight reel? Blake, Dwight and Nate are loved by the casual fan for their aerial exploits and derided by many die-hards for their lack of polish. And yet here is Baylor: loved by die-hards, unknown by many casual fans.
The tell-tale signs are there. He never won a ring. He never even won an MVP. But Baylor’s story and his career are as complex as his legacy is paradoxical.
Baylor joined a struggling Minneapolis Laker team that had went 19-53 and turned them instantaneously into a Finals team where they would meet the Celtics for the first time ever. He would go onto reach the Finals seven times without ever winning. He left a sure-bet Finals victory on the table in 1972 when he retired two weeks into a season in which the Lakers would set their record 33-game win streak and Jerry West would get his first title. If you want to take it away from Baylor that he never won a title than be my guest, but the same applies to Jerry West before 1972 – nobody was beating that Bill Russell led Celtic team.
As for the MVP, Baylor did finish as the runner-up once. Not so impressive until you look further into it. Elgin managed to rack up a line of 38.3 – 18.6 – 4.8 despite being on military service, only playing on weekends and never practicing with the team. Those numbers are simply insane.
He once put up 71 points on the New York Knicks. In the same game he grabbed 25 rebounds. Nobody has ever scored more than his 61 in a Finals game (he also grabbed 22 rebounds in that game). In 1960-61 he averaged 19.8 rebounds per game – only five players have ever averaged more and all of them were over 6’9”. He would finish his career with career averages of 27.4 ppg, 13.5 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists racking up 11 All-Star appearances.
It would be a disservice if we didn’t note his social contribution to the sport and to society. Baylor was, by all accounts, a talkative, upbeat player who with a huge grin – a complete contrast to the hardened shell of Oscar Robertson. That helped. But what stands out are his actions. Baylor was key in fighting the segregation that plagued all parts of American society. He stood up for his right, as a black man, to stay in the same hotel as the rest of his teammates. Moreover, it was he and Jerry West who led the labor strike at the 1964 All-Star game.
Baylor’s influence can be seen all over the NBA. He put up impossible numbers, changed the aesthetics of the game and shaped the political discussions within the league. Baylor isn’t just one of the greatest Lakers of all time. He’s one of the greatest ever.