Legends profile: Elgin Baylor
Had Elgin Baylor been born 25 years later, his acrobatic moves would have been captured on video, his name emblazoned on sneakers, and his face plastered on cereal boxes. But he played before the days of widespread television exposure, so among the only records of his prowess that remain are the words of those who saw one of the greatest ever to play.
“He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known,” Baylor’s longtime teammate Jerry West told HOOP magazine in 1992. “I hear people talking about forwards today and I haven’t seen many that can compare with him.”
Bill Sharman played against Baylor and coached him in his final years with the Lakers. “I say without reservation that Elgin Baylor is the greatest cornerman who ever played pro basketball,” he told the Los Angeles Times at Baylor’s retirement in 1971.
Tommy Hawkins, Baylor’s teammate for six seasons and opponent for four (and later a basketball broadcaster) declared to the San Francisco Examiner that “pound for pound, no one was ever as great as Elgin Baylor.”
Strong and graceful at 6-5 and 225 pounds, Baylor averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds during his 14-year career with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers. In 134 playoff games, he averaged 27.0 points and 12.9 rebounds.
From 1960-61 through 1962-63 he averaged 34.8, 38.3, and 34.0 points, respectively. He led the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times, was a 10-time All-NBA First Team selection, and played in 11 NBA All-Star Games.
At one time Baylor owned records for most points in a game, in a playoff game, and in one half of a playoff game. In 1962-63, he became the first NBA player to finish in the top five in four different statistical categories — scoring, rebounding, assists, and free-throw percentage.
Because his career paralleled the succession of juggernaut Boston Celtics teams in the 1950s and 1960s, Baylor never played on a club that won an NBA Championship. His best years as a scorer coincided with Wilt Chamberlain’s peak years, and Baylor never captured a scoring title.
Moreover, while he was one of the first flashy performers in basketball, many of his best acrobatic plays were never captured on film. Many observers mention his moves in the same breath with those of Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. Baylor played the game with midair body control, employing his ability to change the position of the ball and the direction of his move while floating toward the basket.
“Elgin certainly didn’t jump as high as Michael Jordan,” Tommy Hawkins told the San Francisco Examiner. “But he had the greatest variety of shots of anyone. He would take it in and hang and shoot from all these angles. Put spin on the ball. Elgin had incredible strength. He could post up Bill Russell. He could pass like Magic [Johnson] and dribble with the best guards in the league.”
Elgin Baylor was born in 1934 in Washington, D.C., and was named for his father’s favorite watch. A high school sports star, he didn’t perform well academically and even dropped out for a while to work in a furniture store and to play basketball in the local recreational leagues.
An inadequate scholastic record kept him out of college until a friend arranged a scholarship at the College of Idaho, where he was expected to play basketball and football. After one season, the school dismissed the head basketball coach and restricted the scholarships. Seattle car dealer Ralph Monroe interested Baylor in Seattle University, and Baylor sat out a year to play for an amateur team while establishing eligibility at Seattle.
Baylor played for Seattle University in 1956-57 and 1957-58, taking the Chieftains to the 1958 NCAA Championship Game, where they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats. In his three collegiate seasons, one at Idaho and two at Seattle, Baylor averaged 31.3 points. The Minneapolis Lakers used the No. 1 overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft to select Baylor after his junior year, then convinced him to pass up his final college season and join the pro ranks.
The Lakers, several years removed from the glory days of George Mikan, were in trouble on the court and at the gate. The year prior to Baylor’s arrival the Lakers finished 19-53 with a team that was slow, bulky and aging. Baylor, whom the Lakers signed to play for $20,000 per year (a huge amount of money at the time), was the franchise’s last shot at survival.
“If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business,” Minneapolis Lakers owner Bob Short told the Los Angeles Times in 1971. “The club would have gone bankrupt.” Baylor was seen as the kind of player who could save a franchise. He was and he did.
As a rookie in 1958-59 Baylor was sensational. He finished fourth in the league in scoring (24.9 ppg), third in rebounding (15.0 rpg), and eighth in assists (4.1 apg). He registered 55 points in a single game, at the time the third-highest mark in league history behind Joe Fulks’s 63 and Mikan’s 61.
The Lakers finished second in the Western Division at 33-39, 14 victories better than the previous season. They surprised everyone by making it to the NBA Finals after playoff victories over the Detroit Pistons and the defending NBA-champion St. Louis Hawks. However, Boston’s young dynasty swept the Lakers in four games.
That same season, Baylor appeared in the NBA All-Star Game and shared the game’s Most Valuable Player honors with the Hawks’ Bob Pettit. At season’s end, he was an easy choice for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
In 1959-60 Baylor’s scoring and rebounding improved. He averaged 29.6 points, good for third place in the league, and 16.4 rebounds, which ranked him fourth. The Lakers finished the regular season at 25-50 but still made the playoffs as the third-place finisher in the four-team Western Division. They upset the Pistons in the division semifinals, then lost to the Hawks in a seven-game division finals. Baylor averaged 33.4 points during the postseason.
Then came the move west. Following teams in other professional sports that moved to the Pacific rim, the Lakers opened up NBA basketball to the other half of the country when they shifted to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season. Baylor was essential to the club’s early success with West Coast fans. He averaged 34.8 points in that first California season, second in the league behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 38.4. On November 15, 1960, Baylor scored 71 points against the Knicks in New York, setting a new record for the most points scored in a single contest. He also snared 25 rebounds that night.
“Elgin did nothing unusual in that game,” former Knicks player Johnny Green told Hoop magazine. “It was just a typical Baylor performance. He just came down the floor, his teammates would clear out an area, and he’d shoot — a jump shot or a driving layup, followed up by a rebound if he missed. Each particular shot had nothing amazing about it. It was just that Elgin was such an amazing player.”
The Lakers lost to St. Louis in seven games in the Western Division Finals that season, dropping Game 6 in overtime, 114-113, and Game 7, 105-103.
In 1961-62, Baylor hit his stride along with hotshot second-year guard Jerry West. Unfortunately, Baylor was playing at a time when eligible males were required to perform military service, and his season was curtailed. He spent half of the year stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, playing only when he could obtain a weekend pass. He appeared in 48 games that season.
Still, with Baylor (38.3 ppg) and West (30.8 ppg) combining for almost 70 points per game, the Lakers won the Western Division by 11 games and advanced to the NBA Finals. In what would become a familiar matchup, the Lakers played the Celtics for the championship — and lost. Boston won Game 7 in overtime, 110-107, to claim a fourth consecutive title. Baylor was phenomenal in the playoffs. He scored 61 points in Game 5 of the title series, setting a single-game playoff record that would stand for 24 years until Jordan with the Chicago Bulls scored 63 against the Celtics in a first-round contest in 1986.
In 1962-63, Baylor was no longer spending half his time marching with a rifle and he improved his overall game. He finished second in the league in scoring (34.0 ppg), fifth in rebounding (14.3 rpg), third in free-throw percentage (.837) and sixth in assists (4.8 apg). The first player to finish in the NBA’s top five in four major categories, Baylor helped the Lakers win the Western Division that year, but they fell to the Celtics again in the NBA Finals.
Knee troubles began plaguing Baylor during the 1963-64 season, and many said he was never quite the same player afterward. Although he would never again average more than 30 points after 1962-63, he had five more All-Star seasons ahead and was a major scoring force for six of the next seven years, averaging at least 24 points in every season except 1965-66, when his output fell to 16.6 points per contest.
The Lakers remained a winning team throughout those years, although they were constantly overshadowed by the Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 seasons from 1956-57 through 1968-69.
After a disappointing 1963-64 campaign, the Lakers won the Western Division and made it back to the NBA Finals the following season. Baylor averaged 27.1 points during the regular season, second on the team to West’s 31.0, and made his seventh consecutive appearance on the All-NBA First Team. True to form, the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals, four games to one.
In 1965-66 Baylor’s knee problems limited him to 65 games and a 16.6 scoring average. But West (31.3 ppg), Rudy LaRusso (15.4), and Walt Hazzard (13.7) picked up the slack as the Lakers won the Western Division and advanced to the NBA Finals for the third time in four seasons. Once again they ran into the Celtics who were poised for a rout after taking a 3-1series lead. In Game 5, Baylor ripped the net for 41 points and led the Lakers to a 121-117 win in Boston. After taking Game 6, the Lakers ran out of steam as the Celtics escaped with a 95-93 Game 7 win and another title.
The 1966-67 Lakers finished in third place in the Western Division and lost in the playoffs to the San Francisco Warriors and Rick Barry, who led the league with 35.6 points per game. Baylor ranked fourth with a 26.6 scoring average and returned to both the All-Star Game and the All-NBA First Team after a one-year absence.
With Baylor, West, Gail Goodrich and Archie Clark, the Lakers finished second in the Western Division in 1967-68, then blitzed through the playoffs all the way to the NBA Finals. However, Los Angeles lost to Boston in six games. Baylor came as close as he ever would to a scoring title that season, averaging 26.0 points, second to Dave Bing’s 27.1.
The 1968-69 season, Baylor’s last full campaign, brought another seven-game Lakers-Celtics Finals, but still no title for Los Angeles. The Lakers had picked up Wilt Chamberlain during the offseason, who with Baylor and West — all future Hall of Famers — scored more than 20 points per game. Baylor averaged 24.8 points, helping Los Angeles to a 55-27 record and the Western Division title. The Lakers actually held a three-games-to-two lead in the Finals before the Celtics pulled out Games 6 and 7, clinching the series with a 108-106 victory in Los Angeles.
The next season, the Lakers finished second in the Western Division, then advanced to the 1970 NBA Finals against New York. The Knicks featured a lineup of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. The Lakers countered with Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Happy Hairston, and Mel Counts.
Games 3 and 4 went into overtime, and then a hobbling Reed, who had missed Game 6 with a leg injury, emerged dramatically from the locker room just prior to Game 7, inspiring the Knicks to a lopsided win. During the regular season Baylor’s knee problems had limited him to 54 games, although he made his 11th All-Star appearance and contributed 24.0 points per game.
Two games into the 1970-71 season Baylor went down with a knee injury that all but ended his career. He missed the rest of the campaign and then returned for only nine games in 1971-72 before retiring at age 37. Ironically, later that season the Lakers won their first championship since moving to Los Angeles. Baylor had ended an illustrious 14-year career without a championship ring.
Shortly after his playing career came to a close, Baylor tried his hand at coaching. He was hired by the expansion New Orleans Jazz as an assistant coach for the team’s inaugural 1974-75 season. He served two full years in that capacity before replacing Butch van Breda Kolff as head coach early in the 1976-77 campaign. Baylor guided the young Jazz for the rest of that season and for the next two seasons, compiling an 86-135 record. His teams failed to reach the playoffs and finished no better than fifth in the Central Division. Baylor stepped down after the 1978-79 season.
During his coaching stint with the Jazz, Baylor was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1980 he was named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team, and in 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In April 1986, the Los Angeles Clippers hired Baylor to serve as the team’s vice president of basketball operations, a position he would hold until 2008. After a disastrous 12-70 season in 1986-87, Baylor slowly molded his squad into a playoff contender. Los Angeles improved slightly in each of the next five seasons, peaking at 45-37 in 1991-92 and earning a playoff berth for the first time since the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves in 1975-76. The Clippers reached the postseason again in 1993 but have continued to experience down years with hopes of greater expectations.
Baylor won named NBA Executive of the Year in 2006, when the Clippers would win their first playoff series since 1976.
He resigned from his post in L.A. in October of 2008 and filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the team in February 2009, claiming he was “discriminated against and unceremoniously released from his position with the team on account of his age and his race.”
In 2011, a jury rejected his claim of age discrimination and harassment and declined to award him any damages. The racism allegations and all allegations against the league were dropped by his attorneys before that trial. Baylor was made a permanent fixture outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles in April of 2018 when the Lakers unveiled a statue of him outside the arena.
Baylor’s statue was, at the time, the sixth that decorates the front of Staples Center, joining Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jerry West and Chick Hearn.