Dear Elgin Baylor: My letter of respect to the late great Lakers’ star

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 12: Honoree Elgin Baylor speaks onstage during the 16th Annual Harold & Carole Pump Foundation Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 12, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Tiffany Rose/Getty Images for Harold & Carole Pump Foundation )
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 12: Honoree Elgin Baylor speaks onstage during the 16th Annual Harold & Carole Pump Foundation Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 12, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Tiffany Rose/Getty Images for Harold & Carole Pump Foundation ) /

Dear Elgin Baylor,

To be extremely transparent, it is rather difficult for me to figure out how to best articulate myself. Given that I am merely a lad in his twenties, I sadly never got the golden opportunity to witness your basketball wizardry as a member of the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. Nevertheless, it is important for me to put forth just how much respect and admiration I have for you.

Before I get to that portion, though, the following is worth mentioning. Whilst growing up, watching the purple and gold every chance I got meant the world to me. For example, if I had a brutal day at school or at work, knowing I would get to tune into the Lakers at night gave me that extra dose of fuel.

On that note, it brought me indescribable amounts of joy being able to witness all-time greats like Kobe Bryant. He was essentially my rendition of Michael Jordan since I did not see the latter play until the latest stages of his career.

Amid my reminiscing, though, it brings me to the crux of what I have been struggling to communicate. Players like Bryant and Jordan may have never fully become the best versions of themselves without you leading the way. You are a bona fide pioneer in every sense of the word and that cannot be emphasized adequately enough.

Via testimony from folks like my father, you were the original aerial superstar in league history. In his eyes (and the eyes of many, better yet), you were “a player ahead of his time.” Guys such as the ones I have already mentioned to go along with others like Julius Erving looked to you to hone their craft.

It is as if Elgin Baylor was the first branch of the NBA family hierarchy.

If it was not for you and your efforts, one could argue no other branches would have blossomed.

That being said, it bothers me that you are often underappreciated in the basketball world. While I know games were not televised back then as much as they are now, it gnaws away at me that most folks tend to leave you off the list of basketball greats. For some reason, Lakers’ fans tend to make precisely the same mistake.

In furtherance of that notion, it likewise grinds my gears that it took until 2018 for you to have a bronze statue erected outside of Staples Center. Some may casually say “well, better late than never,” but that clichéd phrase does not cut it one bit.

I wish more of the Lakers’ faithful understood your deeper meaning to the franchise. The fact that you were responsible for basically saving the Lakers’ brand following George Mikan’s illustrious tenure.

Basketball in general was not nearly as popular in your heyday to begin with. Unfortunately, the same was true with regard to the Lakers. Which is so unthinkable to a millennial like myself because the purple and gold are perhaps the most widely recognized team in the world.

However, despite the championships the team won in Minnesota, it did not seem to matter much. The Lakers were surprisingly not thumbtacked onto the map yet given that the sport remained a novelty at best. That is when you stepped in, Mr. Baylor. The timing could not have been better.

The Lakers were struggling to make ends meet in the later 1950s. However, your dazzling, acrobatic playmaking style and high-octane scoring revitalized the squad more so than an ice-cold Coke on a warm summer’s day.

Albeit I never got to see you play live, it amazes me every time when I see what you did through the footage that does exist. The word “amazes” being a vast understatement.

For instance, your ability to soar through the air from one side of the hoop to the other was pure poetry. It is no wonder why you appropriately earned the nickname “Rabbit.”

Better yet, your uncanny ability to juke out defenders and zoom by them was every bit as breathtaking. Certainly, it validates why the “Tick Tock” moniker you were graced with came to be.

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Moreover, it is understandable why some folks coined you as “Mr. Inside.” Despite your 6-foot-5 frame, you cleaned up the glass with the best of them. It is otherworldly that you averaged 13.5 boards per game during your career and once nearly averaged 20 over a full season.

While we are on the topic, it is even more eye-popping to me that you still hold the record for the most rebounds in Lakers’ history. The franchise has had a ton of great big men throughout its history, yet in this department, you reign supreme.

Your 1961-62 season is hard to not marvel at as well. The fact you managed to average 38 points and over 18 boards a game while being in the Army is admirable. Let alone that, you happened to net 61 points in a Finals game that same season against the dreaded Celtics, which to this day is a mark that has yet to be broken.

Yes, while it is true that Jordan once racked up 63 in a playoff game against Boston, it was not on the championship stage. Once again, it eats away at the insides that your 61 is conveniently not discussed too frequently, Elgin Baylor.

Although 61 is most impressive, it is mind-boggling that it is not representative of your career high. Earlier in your career, you had a game where you dropped 71. That is a video game number, to say the least, and is a figure that remained a franchise record for decades.

While I could go on and on about your basketball prowess, one thing is for certain Elgin Baylor. You revolutionized the sport and put on performances that had never been seen before. You are the reason basketball is what it is today.

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, your impact goes beyond the hardwood as well. I discern that you played an instrumental role in terms of the civil rights movement, a department you deserve praise for.

I have heard tales that you were unfairly judged on various occasions simply due to the complexion of your skin. On one such occasion, a hotel unjustly refused to serve you and your black teammates.

As a result, you opted to not participate in the Lakers’ next game as a means of protest. At the time, some people questioned your decision, Elgin Baylor, but you were focused on the bigger picture at hand.

All you craved was to be treated with a sense of dignity and equality. You were not going to let someone walk all over you simply because of your ethnicity.

Your shining example caused a key message to manifest itself. Like anyone else, you were a human being at the end of the day. Every human being has the right to be treated with respect, irrespective of race. A message that holds a great deal of truth to this very day.

Following your playing career, you also coached for a few seasons and later became the Clippers’ general manager. Similar to your playing days, you were a trail blazer by virtue of being one of the first black GMs in league history.

During your tenure as GM, you continued to show the world there is more to life than wins and losses. Sadly enough, you endured racial discrimination from a man who was thankfully later banned for life from basketball. This was another case where you were not afraid to speak your mind, for you believed all people should be viewed equally.

What is all the more incredible, Elgin Baylor, is that in everything you did you remained humble in spirit. Although you were certainly famous in your lifetime, you were never boastful about it.

In your statue unveiling at Staples Center, your longtime teammate Jerry West lauded about your character. Talking about how much you welcomed him to the franchise. Most franchise talents do not give rookies a great deal of attention, but you did.

Perhaps, just perhaps this sheds some light on why you are oftentimes forgotten about in NBA history. You were a kind, quieter soul who did not want to make a fuss. That is the definition of not just a star player, but a star person as well.

In my mind, the latter is more important notwithstanding the indelible imprint you left on the hoops world. How we treat others is the measure of a person’s character, and West’s testimony about you is telling.

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Thank you for leaving behind such an immeasurable legacy, Elgin Baylor. I have the utmost respect and admiration for you sir despite never having watched you lace them up. You will be missed more than words alone can depict.