Los Angeles Lakers: Remembering the late Elgin Baylor

(Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) - Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) - Los Angeles Lakers /

Few fans, sportswriters, or anyone else under the age of 60 ever saw Elgin Baylor play for the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. They don’t realize how unlucky they were to miss out on watching in action one of the all-time greats, who died this week at age 86.

Baylor was a 6-foot-5 basketball pioneer who almost literally moved the game off the ground and into the air. He did things nobody had ever done before and was a master of the mid-air.

Elgin Baylor was a pioneer for those that came after him.

A direct line can be drawn from Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan and to Kobe Bryant. Dr J acknowledged that he modelled his game after Baylor’s and Kobe admitted that he “stole” as many of Elgin’s moves as he could.

Baylor’s moves were quirky, and he seemed to decide once he was in flight just what kind of a shot he would create. Dunks, jumpers, bank shots, hooks, shots released on his way down to earth, and anything else that worked were part of his repertoire. He was too quick for taller players to guard and too strong for shorter ones to stop.

Elgin was the top pick of the NBA draft way back in 1958 by the Minneapolis Lakers after he led his under-manned Seattle University team to the NCAA Finals. Although Kentucky won the title game, Baylor was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, scoring 25 points and nabbing 19 rebounds in that final game.

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He played his entire 14-year career with the Lakers, although that is misleading because a knee injury limited him to a total of only 9 games in his final two seasons. He became the team’s all-time leader in points per game.

Unfortunately, his collegiate Finals loss was a prelude to his professional career. Elgin was a major catalyst in getting the team to 8 Finals in his first 12 seasons, but they lost there every time, 7 times to the Boston Celtics.

But despite the lack of championships, Elgin shined in the postseason. In 134 games he averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds. In his prime he averaged over 30 points for four consecutive years, including back-to-back averages of 38.1 and 38.6 points in the 1961 and 1962 playoffs. He still holds the Finals record of 62 points in a single game, which he scored against Boston.

Celtics players were unanimous in their praise of Baylor. Two Hall-of-Famers, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, raved about how unstoppable a force Elgin was. Cousy marveled at his hang time as Baylor seemed to stay off the ground longer than anyone else could.

Elgin’s good friend Bill Russell, who seldom gave credit to non-Celtics, conceded that Baylor was the greatest opponent he ever faced.

Indeed, during the early ‘60s, before Baylor suffered that knee injury, it was nearly universally agreed that he was the most talented player in the game. He started 11 All-Star games in his first 12 seasons, averaging just under 20 points, and was named to 10 All-NBA first teams.

Elgin’s regular-season statistics are glowing. He averaged 27.4 points per game, which remains the highest in Lakers history, and passed for 4.3 assists. He also grabbed 13.5 rebounds a game, which is second to Wilt Chamberlain. Yes, at 6-5, Baylor was a better rebounder than the Lakers’ trio of Hall-of-Fame centers, George Mikan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal, and every other player.

Baylor moved with the team to Los Angeles, where he became the first superstar. But in those days, basketball took a back seat to many other sports such as baseball, football and boxing. Still, without him, the Lakers owner at the time, Bob Short, said the team might not have survived.

At the start of his third year, the Lakers drafted Jerry West. Elgin welcomed him to the team without a trace of jealousy. The two formed one of the most dynamic duos the league has ever seen. In the 1961-62 season, they each averaged over 30 points per game, combining to score 65.6 points.

After his playing career ended, Baylor worked for the Clippers for 20 years and seemed to be largely forgotten by Laker fans and ownership. But fortunately he lived long enough to receive the recognition he so richly deserved. Three years ago, in April 2018, the Lakers unveiled a spectacular statue honoring Elgin outside Staples Center.

Many former Lakers and even some old foes spoke at that ceremony and all praised Baylor for his accomplishments. But his old teammate Jerry West gave him the ultimate tribute when he said that as great a player as Elgin Baylor was, he was even a greater man.

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Lakers fans should all be thankful that Elgin Baylor graced the team with his presence in their early days in Los Angeles.

All statistics courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com