NBA 75th Anniversary Season
Archive 75: Elgin Baylor
Sometimes it’s best to let the footage do the talking. Before diving into the wonderful Elgin Baylor, please understand: He was everything they said he was. Perhaps more. Don’t believe it? Watch and learn.
It’s true, Elgin Baylor changed basketball. It’s not something uttered flippantly, it’s something he really did. His arrival in the late 1950s came, appropriately, as the game was leaving its own feet. The jump shot was slowly infiltrating the game. General play was becoming faster and more spontaneous, this several years into usage of the 24-second shot clock. And Bill Russell was doing something most unconventional for the time: He was protecting the basket, armed with a timely leap and sharp intellect. The time was right for the first of the modern offensive stars. And the one that arrived was powerful, graceful, inventive and innovative. He was bigger, stronger, and faster. A forward without weakness. That player was Elgin Baylor.
There’s a lineage that exists in the league’s history, one oft-repeated and easily defined. It’s the special group of players who combined athleticism with innovation, taking what had been conjured before and placing their own interpretation on the art, sometimes pushing it further. In reverse chronological order, the line goes a little something like this: LeBron James is the current resident, influenced heavily by Michael Jordan. Before him it was Julius Erving, and his predecessor Connie Hawkins. That lineage undisputedly starts with Baylor.
What type of rush does a player get when they drive to the basket? Are those inimitable moves planned or instinctive? Is it fun? Listen as Baylor describes the thrill of taking the ball to the hoop before executing something at once unplanned and spectacular.
When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962, not only was there destruction on the floor, but also in the record book. Practically every scoring mark that came before it had succumbed to Chamberlain’s gargantuan achievement. Was there life before Chamberlain? Who held the record for most points in a game before the Dipper? The answer is Baylor. In 1959, he broke the decade-old mark of another prolific forward, Joe Fulks, when he lit up the defending-champion Celtics for 64. Then, the very next season, Baylor would better it in sensational fashion. On Nov. 15, 1960, Baylor chose the old Madison Square Garden, then on Eighth Ave., as the site to create history. The result: 71 points against the Knicks, the first time a player had cleared the 70-point mark.
Famously there is no footage of Chamberlain’s truly historic performance in Hershey — at least that we know of. Logically, it would lead to the assumption that there is no surviving film of any player setting the record for most points in an NBA game, right? Wrong. This is a genuine artefact: Elgin Baylor scoring 71 points in 1960, at the time the highest total a player had ever scored in a game.
With regards to feats that carry an everlasting eminence, especially those achieved in championship play, few compare with what Baylor did in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals. The opponent was the Boston Celtics, who themselves were marching to their own immortality, chasing a fourth-straight title (of what amounted to eight consecutive). And with the series deadlocked at two games apiece, Baylor turned the pivotal fifth game into his own. Using a Laker-blue marker, he scribbled his name throughout the record book with a devastating display: Most points in a half of a Finals game (33), most field-goals in a Finals game (22) and most points in a Finals game (61).
Approaching the 60th anniversary, that number still today defies belief, not only for the occasion it was set in, but also who it was set against. And while a portion of the records Baylor set that night have since fallen, that number — 61 — remains alone atop the list of most points scored in championship competition.
When the 1962 season concluded, Elgin Baylor had set the record for points per game by a forward: 38.3. As of 2022, it’s a record that no one at that position has approached. In the interim, it withstood single-season onslaughts from names such as Rick Barry, Bernard King, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Durant, and yet found a way to endure. On quick examination, what Baylor produced in 1962 remains one of the greatest seasons by a player of any position. But below the surface … that’s where the true greatness lies, perhaps even separating it as the most unique individual campaign ever.
It was in January of that season, after appearing in Los Angeles’ first 42 games, that the best forward in the world was summoned for military duty at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a medical corpsman with the 828th Station Hospital. Granted leave on just four occasions for the rest of that regular season, Baylor appeared in only six more games. Then, after effectively being absent for three months, he returned to lead the Lakers to the aforementioned championship round against Boston.
It’s safe to presume we will never see a season like that again. And while that most unusual in-season journey has been well-documented in the years that followed, in 2013, Baylor reflected candidly on that arduous experience, doing so with new detail and incredible insight. This is an integral part of the Baylor story, and one you need to hear.
Fred Schaus took over as coach of the Lakers in 1960, when the team moved west from Minneapolis, settling in Los Angeles. When he left in 1967, the Lakers had appeared in four NBA Finals’ under his leadership, and in that time he had overseen various major developments in Baylor’s already-storied career. Baylor had formally ascended to his glorious peak by the early part of the 1960s, while forming one of the greatest tandems ever with Jerry West. He suffered what was thought to be a career-altering injury in the opening minute of the 1965 playoffs (torn patella tendon, split kneecap in his left leg) and returned, against the odds, to near-best form just two seasons later, once again taking rightful residence as a first-team All-NBA forward in 1967.
Schaus understood what made Baylor great. So what you’re
about to consume is of the ultra-cool variety. Here is a film on the Los Angeles Lakers made following the 1965 season, with Schaus providing the expert intel on what made Baylor immortal, while also looking at his All-Star combo.
We’re going to exit in the same manner with which we arrived: With a bevy of Baylor greatness. But this time it comes in the form of a panoramic look at Baylor’s career. Much more than a stylistic contributor, Baylor is among a handful of the league’s greatest forwards, indeed one of its greatest players. One for all generations.