Growing up in Washington, D.C., Elgin Baylor’s family couldn’t afford a basketball. The first time he played hoops was with a tennis ball.
Who would have thought that he would go to become one of the greatest players in the history of the sport?
That young man went on have a place in the Hall of Fame, his jersey retired by the Lakers and, on Friday, a statue of his likeness unveiled outside of STAPLES Center.
“I can remember that tennis ball in my hand,” Baylor said. “Jump shot, it went through the hoop. It was the beginning of love and appreciation for the game that’s still with me today.”
The 16-foot-9, 1,500-pound statue depicts Baylor mid-drive during his 14 years with the Lakers.
He is the 10th person to be awarded a STAPLES Center sculpture, joining Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Chick Hearn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Bob Miller and Oscar De La Hoya.
In his NBA career from 1958-72, Baylor was named to 11 All-Star teams, played in eight NBA Finals and grabbed more rebounds than any player in franchise history.
An athlete ahead of his time, he dominated the competition with his size and speed, and was best known for his ability to soar through the air and hang longer than any of his peers.
“You did some things that Dr. J (Julius Erving), Michael Jordan, Kobe (Bryant) and myself couldn’t do,” Magic Johnson said. “And I tried to do it. I just couldn’t hang that long in the air.”
Johnson was one of five speakers for the ceremony, joining Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and musician Bill Withers.
West — who was teammates with Baylor in the 1960s — toasted the play of the man who averaged 27.4 points and 13.5 rebounds in his career.
But what mattered most to West was the way that Baylor, already a superstar, immediately embraced him during his rookie season.
“You would’ve never known that he was different than most players that played the game,” West said. “But you would’ve known that he was different as a human being.
“I’ve laughed with him. I’ve been to the depths of the ocean with him as a player. I’ve loved him like a brother, and I still do today. This is one of the greatest men that I’ve ever met in my life.”