Elgin Baylor, first of the airborne, blazed vertical trail of basketball artistry
From a sea of superstars in the 1950s and 1960s emerged a dominant talent who breathed life into the aerial brand of basketball.
He was the first to play the game in the air. That’s where his career, his legend and his influence was — elevated, hanging, floating, above all others who strained their necks to observe this unusual pioneer, and also to get a good look at the bottom of his sneakers.
Elgin Baylor, in a sense, was beyond the reach of many who made a living in basketball and even those who achieved the highest honor and made the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Actually, it’s surprising that inside that sacred shrine, nobody got the great idea to hang his plaque a few inches higher than anyone else’s.
If you see the game today (rapid pace, filled with jumpers), Baylor’s impact is everywhere, decades after he retired. The showmanship, the improvisation, the double-clutch — heck, the jump shot – was either introduced by Baylor or perfected by Baylor. He personified the essence of a trailblazer in a game that he helped shape.
The high-flying succession of atmospheric greatness was: Baylor, then Connie Hawkins, then Julius Erving, then Michael Jordan, then everyone else.
That’s why his loss today is massive. Baylor died Monday at age 86 in Los Angeles, where he starred for the Lakers, and later with the Clippers became one of the first Black men to lead a team as a general manager.
In fact, Baylor helped bring professional basketball to L.A. and saved basketball in the city. As a member of the franchise when it was located in Minneapolis, Baylor was the main attraction on a team that began to flounder after initial success during the George Mikan era before eventually moving to Los Angeles. The Lakers had to sign the acrobatic 6-foot-5 forward after drafting him. Bob Short, the team owner, told the Los Angeles Times: “If he had turned me down then, I would have been out of business. The club would have gone bankrupt.”
In the big city, basketball was somewhat of a novelty — strange, given how the Lakers are massively embraced and have come to symbolize glitz and championships — but true. The Lakers didn’t have a strong foothold during the early years, yet Baylor, helped by his Hall of Fame teammate and great friend Jerry West, changed all of that.
In an interview a few years ago, while discussing Baylor, West bemoaned that Baylor was lost on the current generation. West was fiercely protective of Baylor mainly because Baylor had an easy personality. He connected with West quickly once they became a twosome and never begrudged the league’s eventual “logo” for getting far more attention in Los Angeles.
“If you never saw him play,” West said, “it was really your loss for being born too late. He was a magnificent player and everything you could imagine as a friend and a teammate.”
West teased Baylor and nicknamed him “Tweety Bird” because his voice turned high-pitched when he yelled. The two friends shared almost everything in common except skin color. Baylor took pressure off West in games, and vice versa. They shared dinners on the road, spent time with each other’s families, and grew up as stars together, and of course remained with the same team for over a decade. Even in retirement, the two socialized often, since they both lived in L.A.
Baylor’s style was unique for the time in which he played. It was groomed on the asphalt playgrounds of Washington D.C., where Baylor excelled in a game that at that time began to gain the affections of Black kids in the city. Also, basketball in the early 1950s wasn’t too far removed from the set-shot days. Baylor changed all of that.
With many college basketball programs still segregated, especially in the South, Baylor made his way to the West Coast, with mostly white teammates and in a mainly white region and before mostly white fans. While he wasn’t the first Black player on that level, he was one of the first black superstars, along with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, centers who unlike Baylor played close to the rim. Baylor’s reputation began to soar, much like his style, not long after he entered college; the Minneapolis Lakers chose him in the 14th round in 1956, but Baylor chose to continue his college career.
He was an instant NBA sensation, earning Rookie of the Year honors after averaging 24.9 points and 15.0 rebounds, and his career took off. Baylor’s career average is 27.4 ppg and 13.5 rpg, numbers that really don’t do justice to the impact he left behind. The 6-foot-5 forward was one of a handful of players who were not only good, but highly entertaining. His signature shot was the bank shot — until then, the only time players used the glass was for layups. Baylor used his dribble to set up his shot, which was almost impossible to block. He also used the then-unknown technique of “hanging,” where he would elevate, wait until his defender would return to the ground, then release the shot.
He had plenty of iconic moments in games, but even among those a few stand out: In 1960, Baylor torched the Knicks for an NBA record 71 points … before the 3-point line. In the 1962 NBA Finals against the Celtics, Baylor scored 61 points.
During that 1961-62 season, Baylor served duty with the National Army Reserve and his practice time with the team was cut almost in half. No matter; Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg and 18.6 rpg in 48 games.
Baylor was snake-bit, though, in terms of championships. He had the misfortune of starring during the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s; he and the Lakers never could manage a breakthrough.
“If you never saw him play, it was really your loss for being born too late. He was a magnificent player and everything you could imagine as a friend and a teammate.”
— Jerry West
And then, during the 1971-72 season, Baylor’s body was beaten and his knees were worn down from years of jumping. He retired nine games into that season — and the Lakers ultimately set records for consecutive wins, total wins for a season, and won the championship a few months later.
Baylor was eventually placed in charge of the LA Clippers, who were questionably run by Donald Sterling. Baylor later sued him for employment discrimination after being dismissed. Despite those issues, Baylor earned Executive of the Year honors in 2006 after assembling a Clippers team that won its first playoff series since 1976 — when they were the Buffalo Braves.
“I always had great respect for Elgin’s basketball mind, how he handled himself and how he dealt with people,” West said.
In some ways, Baylor, despite his greatness and legend, was overlooked. Besides the untimely retirement and poor luck of having his prime during the Russell-era Celtics, Baylor was among the last to get a statue in front of Staples Center. That didn’t happen until 2018. Besides the glorification of West, there was Oscar Robertson along with Wilt and Russell to contend with in terms of respect. Baylor never seemed bothered by that at the time, at least outwardly, although later in life he did acknowledge he felt forgotten at times in terms of his accomplishments.
In a statement released by the Clippers, where West is a consultant, West said he “loved him like a brother” and added:
“I’m saddened beyond belief that he is gone. I will forever cherish my days spent with him as a teammate. He was one of the most gifted and special players this game will ever see and he has never gotten his just due for what he accomplished on the court. My first few years in the league, he cared for me like a father would a son. He nurtured me and encouraged me like no one else had during that period of my life. We shared the joy of winning and the heartbreaking losses during the Finals. He was a prince both on and off of the court. There are no words to describe how I feel at this time.”
West urged the Lakers to recognize Baylor when the organization began to turn its immortals into bronzed statues at Staples Center. But Baylor’s turn didn’t happen until after the legacies of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, West, Chick Hearn, and even Shaquille O’Neal were already cemented in stone.
During the statue ceremony for Baylor that came too late for many — but better late than never — West once again backed his friend with emotional and heartfelt words:
“There’s no greater admiration for any person that I’ve known than Elgin Baylor. I’ve laughed with him, been to the depths of the ocean with him, I’ve loved him like a brother, and I still do today. This is one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in my life. He was the most unique player in the game. He was ahead of his time. There are a lot of wonderful players who’ve played this game, but I don’t think there’s been anyone who combined his incredible play with the kind of person he was. He never changed.”
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